Scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Safire?

William Safire

October 25, 1991|By William Safire

Washington -- A YOUNG English bureaucrat named Samuel Pepys, pronounced "peeps," kept a detailed, chatty diary for the decade of the 1660s; historians came to treat it as the most invaluable window on that world of plagues and fires.

By employing the old and rewarding device of keeping a journal, and by mixing it with the new world of CD-ROM, people today have the chance to become the Pepyses of the future. Not only that, the amazing combo of human brain and technical brainchild makes it possible to build a personal life story to enrich and enliven an extended old age.

Writing a daily letter to yourself -- an investment of only 20 minutes a day -- not only teaches you how to write and think, but is a therapeutic outlet for pent-up resentments and secret desires.

Trouble is, it requires self-discipline, and -- after you stick in the relevant letters, memos, recipes, pictures and clippings -- the accumulation over years fills up all the drawers and closets, attracting prying eyes and nesting rodents.

But here comes the CD-ROM, tomorrow's computer technology of text, graphics and sound, to revolutionize the diary. Its developers boast of putting great libraries on tiny discs, but they have little idea how the technology can be applied by those less interested in the treasures of civilization than in their own lives.

We all know what a compact disc is (an expensive little Madonna album with no hissing). A CD-ROM plays not just music but information, including pictures. With its $600 player hooked up to a computer, one disc -- I tried "Library of the Future" -- can bring to the screen over 900 books, including the Bible and all of Shakespeare. (I ran a search for an obscure phrase -- "I only am escaped alone to tell thee" -- and it turned up in the Book of Job and "Moby Dick.")

At a Microsoft conference, I saw what Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia can do: You type in "Mozart," and up comes not only a print entry on his life and work, but it plays the music and shows the score, or, if you prefer, a picture of Mozart in short pants. You create your own course of study.

This Christmas, CD-ROM will begin to come into its own, though prices for hardware and software are too high. Lexicographers will want the Oxford English Dictionary; journalists the Time Almanac. Some software entrepreneur has a street map for every street in the United States for all of us who get lost.

For creative types, one problem with "ROM" -- read-only memory -- is that it is "read only"; you cannot change or add to its memory. But in a few years it will be possible to send out your hard disc and create your own optical disc; in storing vast amounts of tailored information on discs reduced to the size of quarters lies the life-reviewing future of the personal journal.

You're getting ready for bed. Your computer beeps hello, automatically creates a file for that day, and -- to provide a world context for your personal diary -- dumps in your newspaper's news summary and the top of the TV news, along with all your electronic mail and recorded phone calls and expenses.

With your handy scanner, you transmit into the computer file any printed articles of interest, or hard-copy letters or valentines you sent or received, and any pictures you took.

Then you add the personalizer: write what you think about any of this, or recount some amusing or poignant episode that would otherwise be forgotten, or put down some good idea that nobody asked you about.

You can put away a million bytes a day, encrypted for privacy, and after a lifetime will not have filled up one filing cabinet. But oh, will you have a resource: memories to review, experience to interpret, a whole life to relive.

And you'll be able to get at it. Type in "Laura," and a menu appears with all the Lauras you passed on a train; hit "search" and the electronic fingers will flip back through every day of your life to offer you that one memory, and in the context of all that was happening in the known universe as well as in your private journal's world.

Your ability to create an unprecedented autobiography is almost here. Get ready for it; start a diary now. And so to bed.

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