The History of Today

In 2008, this essay was my answer to “What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?” I pulled it up today and marveled at how much it still means to me. My vision has shifted, but the undercurrents are still there.

July 1, 2008

I am a diary thief.  Writing history means plundering the secrets of long-ago teenagers and authors and convicts, piecing together a picture of the extraordinary everyday.  Historians treasure private thoughts—the ones scrawled in blue ballpoint, never meant for the outside world.  They feel more authentic, less studied.  As a student of history, I love to study them.  But these thoughts, those ancient diaries, are so hard to find.  Survival hinges on happenstance; fame helps, but is no guarantee.  Thievery requires patience.

Diaries today are different.  They occupy a disoriented cyberspace where private thoughts and public broadcast collide.  When I sit at my computer—struggling to piece together the story of amateur magicians at the turn of the twentieth century, or Soviet department stores in the 1950s—I am always floored by the flood of information that rushes forward when I flip to my tiny browser window. The private is already public; thievery is unnecessary.  The instant gratification is intoxicating. Here, today, I could piece together a thousand stories of what happened yesterday, across the globe—secret motivations, passionate reactions, quiet musings—all with a simple keyword search.  Historians of the future would kill for what we can access this very moment.  I know I would.

But what if I could become a historian of the future, today?  People all over the world publish volumes about themselves, every second—on blogs, and Twitter, and forums, and Facebook. I don’t want to wait to write those stories.  Moreover, I think those stories have a great deal to tell us about what people want, what they need; what they care about.  The advantage of writing the history of today is that it’s not too late to do something about it.  Whether that means developing products or entertainment or experiences that line up with the lives that people are already broadcasting, the profusion of opportunities is undeniable.  I want to be at the vanguard of a new kind of market research: one that respects the stories people tell about themselves, responding to their needs and anticipating their desires.  As a diary thief, I may be out of work.  I don’t mind.  Thievery was only ever a means to an end.  Here, at the end, I want to build something new.