The Diary

The word diary comes from the latin word “darium” meaning “daily allowance.” Characteristically a diary is handwritten and organized by date, making it ideal for monitoring any type of data over a long period of time. Though today the diary is generally recognized for private and personal use, its original purpose was much broader. In their early existence, diaries were kept to log government records, business ledgers and military records. The oldest personal use of a diary as we refer to it today are the daily notes of medieval mystics. One example being the wax tablets of Elisabeth of Schönau, a twelfth-century Benedictine nun, who wrote down all of her visions, frustrations and fears in what is known as the “visionary diaries.” During the Renaissance, the importance of the diary grew and served a particular importance to modern historians. Journal d’un bourgeon de Paris, Memorials of the English Affairs and the diary of French Marquis de Dangeau are texts which provide incredible description and detail of historical events in France and England.

Fig. 6 An excerpt from the diary of Anne Frank.
Fig. 7 The second paragraph of Samuel Pepys‘ diary written in short hand.

Events that we otherwise would have no narratives for. Another example famously known both for its richness to historians and well as its candour of personal matters is the diary of Samuel Pepys, kept between 1660 and 1669 and published in 1818. Its contents recount his daily life, his own weaknesses, and personal observations over a ten year period. More universally known is the published diary of Anne Frank. It is an example of emotion expression through writing and the relief and release occurring after disclosure. Frank confided and confessed in her diary as a friend. The most obvious evidence of Anne’s personal connection to her writing, and the diary itself, is that she gave it a name, Kitty, and each entry is addressed to it personally. Not only was Frank‘s diary important for its account of World War II, but also for its relate-ability. Frank experiences prejudice, pain and love. She writes about all of those experiences transparently. When we read the entries, many of us can connect to her feelings through our shared human experience.

Finding Identity In Disclosure

Frank‘s diary is a written coming-of-age and through her writing we watch her find herself. In the 20th century, writing in diaries became more common as an act of self-exploration and awareness. But labeling aspects of experience is a central feature of historical accounts of mindfulness, and may represent one mechanism for the salutary effects of mindfulness practice. This practice refers to the state of active attention, internally and externally, to the present moment. From 161 to 180 AD, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote a series of personal reflections to himself during his stays while planning military campaigns. This collection of notes is known as Meditations and divided into twelve books. Similar to Pepys, Aurelius also contemplated his struggles. His other written thoughts span the topics of emotions, spiritual reflections, Stoic philosophy and moral virtue. Aurelius used the practice of writing as a means to analyze his judgements, evaluate his reactions and find his place in the universe. In one passage, he reminds himself:

Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren‘t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human — however imperfectly — and fully embrace the pursuit you‘ve embarked on.

A couple hundred years later, St. Augustine began writing his book Confessions. Augustine too wrote about his thoughts, struggles and spiritual meditations. However, the book is in the context of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity and serves as a public declaration of his sins and prayers of forgiveness. In these two books, we see the most early forms of using written recording keeping as a method of finding one‘s identity. Like Frank‘s diary, both Meditations and Confessions are written in a voice that allows any reader to easily extrapolate the journeys of these to men to their own.

Fig. 8 First ever edition of Meditations in 1558 from a now lost manuscript.

The quest for spiritual enlightenment and pursuit of knowledge in these two books are examples of an organism’s master motive: self-actualization. In his book, Human Nature in the Light of Psychopathology, Goldstein concludes that “only when the world is adequate to man’s nature do we find what we call security.” Through self-actualization we realize our full potential and we acknowledge our “true self.” Pepys, Frank, Aurelius and St. Augustine are historical illustrations of what Dr. James Pennebaker is expanding upon today: relief, both psychological and physical, comes from writing things down. “Once the disclosure is made, the person becomes an internally consistent creature, wherein all features of mind and body become synchronous.” There are several theories that try to explain why expressive writing leads to self-realization and better the ability to cope and adapt to traumatic events. One in particular states that the act of converting emotions and images into words changes the way a person cognitively organizes and thinks about an emotion experience. Through the collection of emotions (and all the emotion experience entails) one is able to create a coherent narrative of that experience. Creating a coherent narrative, as we discussed earlier, is very important in therapeutic settings. We‘ll point out again later how image helps us identify patterns in our narratives.

When one pursues self-realization through writing, they feel both more secure and aware of who they are and could be. From there, we can deduce that when we are aware of ourselves, we can communicate who we are and our needs better. Preliminary findings in expressive writing experiments reflect significant increases in social interaction and use of emotion words when participants were habitually writing. Labeling emotions, as we saw in the last chapter, is the first step in gaining both emotion awareness and a better awareness of self.

Digital Journal Revolution

Like our language, the emergence of new technologies also affected the practice of writing. Early diaries were not always written with the intention of publication, but wide access to the internet has provided a channel to easily chronicle to an audience for free. As in Anne Frank’s diary, the addition of a listening party, even if imaginary, can not only shift the way an author communicates their thoughts, but also how they reflect on them all together. In the chapter on emotion, we saw some of the challenges of conversationally communicating emotion. Publishing our feelings to a silent, perceived audience is for many an attractive alternative.

The invention of the computer and mobile phone have changed the form of what we write and the medium by which we deliver it. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s web-based services like Open Diary and LiveJournal gave way to the beginning of online publishing and shortly thereafter: blogs. Less than ten years passed before the term “microblogging” was coined. This quick-and-dirty style stream of consciousness lends itself perfectly to emergence of the smartphone and social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter. Today there is a handful of journaling apps for mobile devices, one of the most popular being Day One. Day One is available on multiple platforms and does some of the tedious work of journaling for its users, like automatically adding weather and location data to entries. One of the most obvious advantages for digital journaling with applications like Day One is that we take our phones everywhere and we use them for everything. We collect data actively and often unknowingly. When amassed, we create daily, weekly, monthly and life long stories of our lives. Web-based service If This Then That (which has a Day One channel) allows users to create conditional statements to streamline the collection process. For example a statement could read, If I post an image on Instagram, Then upload it and its caption into Day One. Now we’ve created an automated visual diary of our experiences.

Thanks to the Cloud, our bookcases no longer bend under the weight of years of leather bound journals. Thanks to tagging and filtering systems, we no longer have to leaf through journals to find the events of our pasts. Thanks to services like If This Then That, we no longer have to get our photos printed to glue into our diaries or staple receipts, train tickets and postcards into our already bulging travel journals. The speed of typing and mobile portability encourage consistent recording in the form of short, in-the-moment writing. Digital journaling is itself reflective of life in that this format is a continuum.

Though written records are now regarded as a medium for self-discovery and personal data-keeping, this was not the true impetus for the development of written language. The earliest human societies recognized the necessity to communicate first the quantities in our experiences before the quality of them, as will be shown in the next section.

Expression of Quantitative & Qualitative

There is much discussion on what a true writing system is, however writing systems are generally distinguished by whether or not the reader can understand the text without knowing the associated spoken language. What is not debated is that writing is instrumental in keeping history, transferring culture, and dissemination of knowledge. To quote H.G. Wells, “[writing] made a continuous historical conscious possible.” Though it could be argued that history includes all that has happened since the first star formed, historians mark the “historicity” of a culture by the presence of coherent texts in the culture‘s writing system(s).

Fig. 9 The Lebombo bone made of a baboon fibula with 29 carved notches.
Fig. 10 Clay bullae (hollow envelop) for clay tokens, together used for commercial and legal documentation.

The necessity for writing developed as societies developed. Our prehistoric counterparts needed first to communicate numeric quantities. Expanding economies needed writing for maintaining financial accounts and codifying laws — jobs too complex for the power of memory. One of the earliest pieces of evidence of quantification is the Lebombo bone (Figure 9). Found in Swaziland and over 42,200 years old, the Lebombo bone has 29 distinct notches carved into it. These are a tally mark system. Numbers themselves are abstract representations for quantities, counting, and measuring. Tallies were the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic way for translating an amount. They are seen to be the first separation of “knowledge” from the “knower.” The knowledge being the data and the knower, being the living, breathing medium that expresses the information orally. There are dozens of tally systems, which developed independently of one another but were likely all used for measuring quantities. What the tally system lacked is the quality of the item being counted. Whether five gazelles or five members of a hostile tribe were being counted was unknown once the data was not longer orally translated.

Quantitative and qualitative information have been regarded as two distinct and independent modes of analysis. Much like the two lenses, subjectivity and objectivity, that we discussed in the previous chapter. When it became clear that the quality of an object played a role in communication, clay tokens were the solution to the tally mark’s incompleteness. Clay tokens (Figure 10) were developed through the need to keep track of agricultural assets like crops and herds as well as the trading of commodities. The quantity of tokens represented the number of units and the shape represented the type of good. Each shape was bestowed a unique meaning. Like tallies, tokens further translated the concrete information into abstract markings. They achieved the expression of an object’s nature, which communicated the experience of a recorded exchange or observation. They provided the experiential middle ground.

A Return to Visual Information

As we already saw with the diary, the less logistic demands met by writing were simply the means of expression and storytelling. We also addressed that because of new technologies and online interaction, digital writing is one of the main forms of our communication. As a result of this we are seeing a return of imagery as a means for communication. In “The Origins of Writing,“ Andrew Robinson points out that iconography is all around us: in airports, on maps, in weather forecasts and our phone and computer screens. Diagrams keep us from shrinking our t-shirts and help us to assemble everything from rolling carts to lofted beds (Figure 11).

Fig. 11 Excerpts from IKEA catalog for the assembly of the RÅSKOG Utility Cart.

Notational systems like mathematics and music already achieve clear and complete communication through a method independent of any spoken language. The popular use of emoticons and gifs in email and text messaging starts to replace linguistic communication of thoughts, feelings and reactions. “Some people, beginning with the philosopher and mathematician Leibniz in the seventeenth century, even like to imagine that we can invent an entire written language for universal communication.” Undoubtedly, this language will thrive in our digital user interfaces. Communicating an idea or an action as a graphic is as old as humanity is, but we seeing a re-emergence because of its ability to give clarity to the complicated. The increasing necessity of digital devices affords infinite opportunities to test a graphic language that bridges cultures and geography. Fluency will be intuitive and inevitable.

Next, we’ll see how visualization — like tally marks and clay tokens — arose from a need to express large quantities or complicated ideas. Just as the digital age transformed what and how we write and record, it also brought significant advancements in the recording and collection of data.

Continue to Visualization.

An overview of this project and a link to the log book of my process can be found online here.