Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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January 18, 2007
messages → bottles

Why was writing invented?

So that people wouldn't have to talk to each other.

In a New Yorker cartoon version of how the invention might have happened, a family of cavemen sits in their "Flintstones"-style home, at the dinner table, eating sabertooth tiger "drumsticks" off of stone plates. Mom and Dad Caveman sit at opposite ends of the table, glowering. Dad hands Junior Caveman, who sits in the middle, a newly carved, cuneiform tablet and growls, "Hand this to your mother." The "note" reads:

                                             Please pass the salt.

Put another way, writing was invented so that humans could communicate with people with whom they were no longer on speaking terms.

[Or put less pessimistically and upside down, we write to communicate with people we haven't met yet.]
Thus, it is fascinating to look at the development of communications technology over time as the history of apology mechanisms.

How do we explain ourselves to people to whom we're not speaking? How do we justify ourselves? How does our presentation of the self, and our apologetics of the self, change as the technology changes and offers new possibilities and strategies for how to do all that?

This story is too big and goes too far back to tackle in any systematic way here.

For example, we have the graffiti of Pompeii, which included:

Luci Istacidi, at quem non ceno, barbarus ille mihi est.

("Someone at whose table I do not dine, Lucius Istacidius, is a barbarian to me.")

The graffiti writer and Lucius Istacidius at some point pretty clearly were not on speaking terms. But I guess that L.I. in theory was a member of the potential audience for the communication; you know the graffiti writer had to have tagged that wall in the belief that L.I. would see or hear about it. How would s/he know? I don't imagine that any "search engine" existed to find and view all "Lucius Istacidius"-related scrawlings on the city walls. The audience was restricted I suppose to literate neighbors and locals, and by the physical limit of needing proximity to the wall to view the graffiti.

It would seem that with the advent of printing and electronic technology, the potential scope of distribution of the communication grew ever wider, though still in a unidirectional way. The result remained hit or miss as to whether the parties who were the "real" intended target audience would ever learn of the communication and read it.

The story continues: through the polemical treatises of William of Ockham; Elizabethan pamphlet wars; Nietzsche Contra Wagner; and John Lennon's "How Do You Sleep?" Among many other examples.

We see the special case study of the evolution of personal ads technology, from newsprint (David Rose's compilation of ads from the London Review of Books is guaranteed to be hilarious and fantastic) to broadcast (e.g., Donna Summer's "On the Radio"), and beyond (.pdf).

However, apology mechanisms are perhaps the most fascinating species to consider.

During the 1980s and early '90s, we had the haunting and riveting Apology Line project of Allan Bridge. The texts of sample calls are here. The Apology Line's technology was relatively primitive; how many fewer are alive every day who remember freestanding telephone "answering machines"? But the forum was such a gripping one, and spoke I think to a need for disclosure and confession that operates on such an irresistible, gut level within humans, that no wonder the Apology Line's spirit has been revived or lives on today in various telephonic or internet zones of individual apology or confession.

Apology blog posts are the most fascinating contemporary phenomenon of all, within this story. I think of such posts as the, "If you ever read this, I'm sorry" posts.

TiR won't link to the actual journals or blogs, but a simple web search reveals that such posts appear anew in a continual stream, in numbers every day. A few that we found within minutes from a few days last week went like this:

N_____ if you ever read this... I am SO sorry for what I did. I would do anything in the world to take it back. thats means nothing to you anymore, but it's the best I can do. I'm sorry baby. I will always love you.

To B______: if you ever read this... i'm sorry for the mean things i've said and done.

If you ever read this, I'm sorry for everything that I did to f--k us up. I will regret it til the day i die. You will always be the best man, if not person, who came into my life and I let you slip away.

I just wanted to say i love you so much and if you ever read this i want you to know my heart is with you always. And i will leave you alone and never bother you again if that's what you want. . . . Just remember if you need me you can call and i will be there for you at anytime.

I messed it up. Again, I'm sorry. And, D_____, if you ever read this, I know you hate me more than possible, but I'm sorry.

I find these moving, heartbreaking (because they suggest countless failures to communicate playing themselves out across the planet) and inspiring (because they suggest that at least one party has the willingness and more than one party has the technology or tools to work through the failure).

They are all the more so because we cannot think of any previous technology in history that enabled communication with just this combined set of attributes: impersonal but intensely confessional; broadcast to the universe but to an ideal target audience of one; transmitted in a medium that has a presumed archival permanence; searchable and findable from anywhere on the globe.

[If TiR were in a more devious/smartass mood and less lazy, we would attempt to think through and sketch out the possible dynamics by which the increasingly pervasive electronic communication of our moment causes the very same informational disconnect/paranoia/surveillance mentality/interpersonal awkardness/diminished capacity for human contact or intimacy/fear/confusion/distance that end up making the apologies necessary in the first place, in a kind of hellish vicious cycle.]

These Google Age Apologies presuppose a generally available search machine that the Lucius Istacidiuses of the world can use to find them. The messages are lobbed out along multiple trajectories, or broadcast on multiple channels of transmission at once.

They are written with built-in ambiguity, because they are meant to be intelligible on some level to the world at large but are also intended for L.I. and L.I. alone to be fully able to read between the lines and understand the writer's deeper, embedded meaning or context.

Add into the mix the blog, "profile" or webpage's general function for so many as a tool for the creation or crafting of a plastic self or new identity before an audience of unknown or hypothetical others. Thus the apology can be strengthened and positioned within a more general stance, a newly emerging persona, or an explanatory context.

We wonder how many blog/journal posts exist out there in the world, that were posted with the secret thought, "I hope that [So-and-so] reads this someday and then understands me better."

Correction for the drollery impaired: Yes, TiR knows that writing was not really invented by "cavemen" eating sabertooth tiger meat. Some info on how, why, when and where writing was invented appears here (.pdf) and here.