June 29, 2005
Thinking of the future II
In George Orwell's "1984," the main character works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting the past to conform to the present. Facts, statements, references to people who no longer existed are altered, the original copy destroyed and the corrected copy the new official, and only record.
The process was continuous. Something could be altered over and over. The fixing applied to newspapers, books, films, cartoons, in fact, any kind of literature or documentation. I asked here Tuesday if such a process could happen today. The answer, of course, is yes because of the proliferation of computers and the Internet.
Consider newspapers. It is possible to create the news of the day only in an electronic form. The writing process, the design process and the preparation of photos can be prepare on a computer and posted on the Internet. Not a sheet of paper need be wasted. Even newspaper archives can be kept in electronic form. Anywhere along the process, a story or a photograph can be altered.
The same goes for governmental agencies. Reports, press releases and speeches by politicians and high governmental officials are all posted on the Internet.
In both cases, the Web site and content are controlled by people whose sole function is to post and maintain content. (At The Star, the department hand the Web site goes by the decidedly Orwellian-sounding name, New Media.) An error of fact can be corrected and the story, speech, report, etc., can be reposted.
Would you know if something had been altered? Most likely not because few people can remember verbatim what they read and hear and see. Even fewer would take the time to download an original posting and checking it periodically to see if anything changed.
As Orwell wrote in "1984, "If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?"
How about the "wiki" phenomenon?
According to Java.net, "wiki" is short for "What I know is." According to Wikipedia.org, "wiki" is based on the Hawaiian term "wiki wiki," meaning "quick" or "informal." When used on the Internet, wiki is an application that allows people not only to add content to a Web site, but to also edit content already posted there.
Wikipedia.org, for example, is creating an online encyclopedia by allowing users to write the content and to edit the content. There is no overall editor in chief who can pluck the chaff from the wheat; Wikipedia developers believe uses can do that by themselves. Wikipedia also sponsors a place for uses to create a dictionary (Wikinary) and to list the days news events (Wikinews). "Nonsense and vandalism are removed quickly," the Wikipedia Web site notes.
I don't particularly like the idea of a consensus-created encyclopedia; it leaves entries too open to misinformation. And I certainly don't believe the day's news events should be put together by consensus. And most definitely, the recently failed attempt by the Los Angeles Times to launch a "wikitorial," where readers could rewrite the paper's editorials, was a step that never should have been taken. A newspaper's opinion is just that the newspaper's opinion. Can you imagine the uproar if a newspaper decided to create a "wikimentary" that allowed readers to rewrite columns by George Will, Tom Teepan, Thomas Friedman or Cliff May?
All this is tied into the possibility that the past could be easily rewritten and most people would never know. A fact changed here and there, a photo altered now and then. But will it?
I don't know about decidedly partisan Web sites, but I can say that, for the most part, the integrity of those work in the mainstream media and their devotion to credibility are powerful incentives to make sure what you read is accurate, historically correct and never altered. I hope also the same sense of integrity and credibility would be applied to governmental Web sites.
But the ease with which the record might be changed should come as a warning. It should make all more viglilant about what they read online. And it should harden the resolve of those whose lives are dedicated to recording, keeping and protecting information vital not merely to our understanding off the world, but out ability to reach into the future