Tag Archives: history

The Pepys Now project: How to write a blog people will read in 100 years

pepyssmall[This piece was originally posted in 2005.  It got displaced in a transition to TypePad and this meant it lost its connection to the Samuel Pepy’s Home Page, a connection for which I was grateful.  This reposting will generate a new link and I’m hoping Duncan Grey, keeper of the Samuel Pepy’s Home Page, will post the link.]

Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) kept a diary for ten years, 1660-1669 (http://www.pepys.info/index.html ). He helps us understand the great fire of London, some of the plague years, the aftermath of the English civil war, and the English navy.

Equally important, he helps us see what life was like. We hear him kicking himself for “carrying my watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times.” A man fretting.

For recording the great and little events of the day, Pepys has been given immortality. We read him still.

There is no shortage of diarists these days, not with billions of blogs on line. But will bloggers find immortality? No. This is not just because there are so many of us. The trouble is we assume the things readers will want to know in 100 years.

There are, for instance, countless blog entries from people experiencing the flu.   But what history will care about are all the details that struck us as too obvious or banal to mention.

What the “flu” was like, what we took as “medicine.” The “pharmacy” we got the medicine in. The conversation we had with that man in the lab coat. The advice we got from friends. What we wore while recuperating. What we watched on TV. What was illuminated by that faint light in the “refrigerator.”   The idea, for instance, of “comfort food.” (What was it?  What comfort did it give?) What we talked about on the “phone.” What “emails” we wrote. What happened to personhood?   What was it like to be us, as we lost momentum, as our affairs went into suspension, as our life began slowing to come undone. Where did the mind turn in this rare inactive moment. What fretting did we do?

In 100 years, the flu will be an exotic experience.   (We read Pepys for his accounts of the plague; we know longer know what this was like.)   Historians will hold conferences on the experience of sickness and curing.   And they will consult our blogs mostly with unhappiness.

A conference paper in the year 2103:

We have 3.74 million references to “flu” in the blogs of the early 21 st century.   We have the medical accounts of what it was and what curing was.   But we do not know what it was like as an experience.  

These bloggers were talking to one another.   They were not talking to us.   

But I am happy to report that I have discovered one web log that offers a meticulous record, one might even say Pepysian account, of one flu in one life.   

Using the weblog entries of one Sarah Zupko , I intend to show how the “flu” worked as a social, cultural, emotional, physiological and medical event in the life. 

With this as my platform, I will seek, then, to illuminate key aspects of everyday life.   Sarah Zupko ’s account of the flu she suffered in the 14 th week of their year 2003, in conjunction with other records we have at our disposal, help us to see how the “self” was constructed, maintained and, in a word, lived.

In an odd way, we owe this now vanished virus a debt of thanks.   Under its duress, Zupko was moved, meticulously and with rare sensitivity, to reveal not just what it was to be “sick” but what it was like to be a creature of this historical and cultural moment.   

Blogs for their time

There are two strategies here.

The first is simply to document everything we can and let history do the sorting.   In the case of “blanket documentation,” we don’t need to choose because we seek to capture everything.

1. The blanket documentation: a week’s regime

(do this once a year)


Recording place:

Photo documentation:

Home, work, neighborhood, local store(s), other places we go,

Do 5 level of documentation from broad to the individual object

(e.g., our neighbourhood, house/apt., rooms, objects, contents)


Recording time:

Prose documentation

Structure of the last week

Things that were scheduled

Things that were spontaneous

Who, what, where, when, and why of each event


Recording things:

(Clothing, furniture, art, fridge magnets & other possessions)

Photo documentation

Prose documentation

Link the two, prop a photograph of your favorite sweater in front of the computer and describe where it comes from, where you found it, things that happened as you wore it, what it means to you know, how it interacts with other articles of clothing, the last time you wore it and anything else it brings to mind


Recording media:

Music, movies, television, websites

The regulars

The occasionals

The discoveries

Prose documentation of and for each.


Recording people:

Diary entries:

Video documentation

Do interviews with everyone who will put up with one.   Set up your video camera (if you have one) and leave it standing in the living room (if you have one).   When someone comes over, sit them down and ask them these questions… and anything else that occurs to you, and capture anything else that occurs to them.


Review, reflect, spot holes, capture the things we’ve missed


Review, voice over commentary on each of your bodies of evidence.   There are two imperatives here:1) capturing the assumptions that did not get onto film and that do not normally get into blogs; 2) showing the interrelationships of all the pieces we have know documents. What are the wholes that organized the parts? What was the lived experience of this world

There will be moments when you’ll think to yourself, “Oh, what’s the point, this is so obvious.” But think about what you would give to have account like this from your life, say, 20 years ago.  If would be a dear possession.  Think about what you would give to have this account of your father’s life when he was the age you are now.   Think about what you give for an account of your great, great grandfather’s life.   By this time, you have materials that historians would be pestering you to have a look at.

The “as if from a glass bottom boat” documentation

This is the second strategy. This is the documentation of a single thing, person, place, object, event. It could, for instance, be the flu. Now the trick is to tear ourselves away from the familiarity that, blessedly, makes so much of our experience intelligible and manageable. Only thus can we deliver what historians want (and what we will be pleased to have in 20 years).

There are a couple of aids here. One is surprise. Surprise occurs when assumptions are violated and it represents an opportunity to capture what these assumptions are. I was standing in Grand Central Station last week and a man passed me wearing a burgundy red fedora. It was too stylish to be a prank, too odd to be a simple act of style.   It forced me to think about hats and to see the conventions that govern them.

Another is humor. This too depends on violated assumptions. Victorian jokes now strike us as not very funny. And this is because we no longer share the cultural assumptions they assumed and on which they operated. Take a moment of humor and supply the archeology on which they rested.

A third is what the Russians called deformalization. The banal example here is repeating a word over and over until it becomes strange to the ear. (Try saying, “saying” thirty times and see if it continues to deliver meaning as it once did.).   The trick here seems to be just concentrating on something for long enough that its “taken-for-grantedness” begins to fall away. Think long enough about a kitchen and this begins to happen with surprising ease. (CxC assumes no responsibility for the dislocation that will follow.)

A fourth might be called the Goffman effect. Erving Goffman sought out the company of people who had forgotten or misremembered the rules of everyday life. They stood too close to him.(Ah, so there is a rule that says we must remain 12 to 16 inches from a conversational partner.) They gave too little eye contact or too much. (Ah, so there’s a rule…) They shouted or whispered. And so on. The trick here is to treat social error as an indicator of social convention.

(A fifth is the alienating effects of drugs and alcohol, but CxC is forbidden from recommending this path to illumination.)

What we really need here are pen pals in mainland China , correspondents who read our accounts and say, “sorry, I still don’t see how this person, place, event, or thing made sense to you.”


Once you have performed your Pepys scrutiny, burn it on a CD or DVD and send one copy to the youngest responsible member of your family, with careful instructions that they are to do the same in 20 years. Send the other to the Smithsonian. Congratulations, you are now immortal.

Local history as a potluck potlatch

Thousands of communities in the US nurture a community within the community. This is all the people who care about local history.  

And there is the community within this community.  That’s all the things the community knows, or thinks it knows, about itself.

Most of these local history societies stage a speaker’s series.  They invite someone who is, say, expert in the civil war to come share their knowledge in a 40 minute talk, with drinks afterward.  It’s convivial and interesting.  If the gods are kind, the speaker knows her stuff and how to communicate it.  

There is another possibility.  Call it Potluck or Potlatch.  In this event we canvas and compile the historical knowledge of locals in a real time event.  Everyone brings what they know and shares.  

The way to run this is in the manner of a Harvard Business School classroom, drawing people into the discussion and organizing information as we go.

Naturally, we would want to begin with the declaration that we have the utmost respect for formal history and professional historians, and that we won’t ever want to challenge or diminish this kind of history.

But we also want to say that we want to see how much history we have in our community that qualities as “living history” and “informal knowledge.”

There is after all a larger trend that says our culture is moving from passive recipients of knowledge to active participants in the assembly of knowledge.

And in any case, the local historical society has always had an extra-academic purpose: a chance to meet and engage with your neighbors in shared enthusiasms.  

Community-assembled history would give me a much more vivid sense of my neighbors than the sometimes dreary process of watching them as they listen to an expert.  

There are several potential problems with this scheme.  One is that local blow hards will try to commandeer the proceedings, grasping it as an opportunity to show how very knowledgable they are. But it is up to the person is leading things to step in and gently encourage them to give way that others might participate!

The far graver problem is that the community would encourage and perpetuate local falsehoods and misconceptions.  All part of the fun.  Everyone wants to be credulous and scrupulous in equal proportions.  (This too is a trend.)  No one should come to a local history potluck / potlatch with the idea that the history will be definitive.  No one should leave with the conviction that they have certain knowledge.  

The idea is to share and to celebrate what the community believes to be true about itself. Everyone is free, indeed they are encouraged, to repair to their studies, consult the masters, and determine just how much false currency circulates in their home town.  

I propose the HBS model but of course there are lots of ways of solving the problem.  The idea is to have a facilitator who is good at drawing people out, getting historical assertions up on the board, leading the discussion as a discussion, gentling stick handling the puck away from the blow hards, making everyone feel welcome, and otherwise making this bonfire of knowledge burst into flame.  

If someone says, “Sir, how dare you trivial with something so sacred as our history,” you may reply, “History is much too important to be left to the historians.  This is a living trust, richer when shared, aerated and given voice.”

Will time travelers please announce themselves at the front desk

It’s time to start training time travelers.

Picture the scene at the NATTA (National Aeronautics and Time Travel Administration).  There is the time traveler (NATTATT) in period costume, and surrounded by his or her advisors who give advice on language, usage, accent, on local history, on the anthropology and sociology of life in the time period, on politics, family life, food, clothing styles, on built form, material culture, and popular culture.

Our NATTATT must “pass.”  He or she must escape detection.  For the consequences of detection are cataclysmic.  The NATTATT would be quizzed, perhaps tortured.  Secrets of the future would be revealed.  People would begin betting on imagined scenarios.  The past would go ass over tea kettle and so would the present.  Imagine leaving in a present that had new turbulence in its past.  We think we live in a turbulent world now.

My assumptions:

1) time travel will someday be possible. We will move through time as we move through space.

2) even if time travel is not possible, we should prepare for it anyhow.  Why?  It is, I believe, the single best way to teach history at high school and college.

NATTA colleges will be a lot of fun.  Deeply grumpy historians will begin each term with a new cohort of recruits.  Kids with more daring than brains or skill.  The instructors will take them through the exact details of life in, say, 19th century London or 18th century New York.  The students will be smart alecks who believe themselves invincible.  Our grumpy instructors will have to persuade them otherwise.  They will have to soak these kids in knowledge.  And unlike some history courses, this will be knowledge with an edge, a purpose, an urgency.

Training a NATTATT will be like training an actor, spy, historian and improv artist.  They will want deep resources of knowledge.  It will take ‘just in time’ recall and, when necessary, daring and imagination.  They must work with what they know and fake what they do not. They will have to swim like fish through conversations that are barbed as anything.  We can craft our time traps to elicit breathtaking acts of improv (or failure).  "Sorry, kid.  You are not ready.  One more failure and you must ring the bell."   

Look at it this way.  That person sitting beside you.  She could be a time traveler. She is doing a wonderful job of passing.  You would never guess.  But what if she is, a time traveler?  Certainly, it would explain why she choose to combine that scarf with that sweater. And that’s the thing, even tiny errors can be telling.  (I have a friend who speaks English perfectly but he speaks it as a second language.  He was "found out" when he said he was putting a billiard ball in the "middle" of the table instead of the "center" of the table.  I know.  This is a distinction too subtle for me.  Still, he claimed it gave him away.)

After a term of exhaustive instruction, we will send the NATTATT into a “time trap” to see if they are ready.  The time trap will be furnished with every kind of puzzle and temptation.  The NATTATT will need to be able to spot the anomaly.  The NATTATT will have to manage conversations at the bar, hotel, shop, and opera house.  Is this person dressed in a way that signifies mourning, status, eccentricity, or fashion?  The NATTATT will have to know how to respond.  He or she will have to perform flawlessly, finding their way through conversations as if their lives depend upon it. 

Of course we may never invent a time machine.  But we can fund our preparedness out of an educational program that will achieve great things even if our students never get out of the 21st century.