Can History Survive The Internet?

The Internet is a wondrous place indeed. Besides all the practical benefits that are too numerous (and obvious) to mention here, there are few limits to where your imagination combined with Web technology can take you.
The Internet is a wondrous place indeed. Besides all the practical benefits that are too numerous (and obvious) to mention here, there are few limits to where your imagination combined with Web technology can take you.For example, don't like your current life? Didn't turn out to be the person you thought you would? Or perhaps, who you'd rather be? No problem, the holodeck is open for business. In case you've missed our extensive coverage of Second Life and its competitors, a wide range of fantasy worlds awaits you online. There's the preprogrammed option, where incredibly realistic games of all genres either require participants to take on predetermined roles or enable them to direct the "action." On the other end of the spectrum are the virtual worlds where you can re-create yourself from the ground up -- completely unencumbered by any tethers to reality. You might say it's your passport to a second chance at getting it right, even if it's not real.

But why limit your fantasies to the virtual world? Why not change the past to reflect the present, or simply to hide the facts? The real world is decidedly very uncooperative on this issue (unless we're talking about the Congressional Record). You cannot go back and change what has been published in hard copy. The best you can hope for is some combination of the following: an agreement or a court order to run a correction, a halt to further publication of the content at issue, and that contradictory or updated content gets published.

But then there's the Internet. Oh the possibilities online. You can not only look up more information at one time from one place, but you also stand a much greater chance of both retaining and rewriting history. Never mind that old saw about how those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana). Going forward, that truism could easily evolve into this: Those who rewrite the past control history. Or, if you like, those who rewrite history are guaranteed a brighter future.

None of this has been lost on some fans of Wikipedia. We've all read stories about, for example, how various political staffers had either engaged in rewriting or embellishing their candidate's profile on the online encyclopedia, or added or altered material under a rival's entry. The opportunity to bias your viewpoint, and perhaps to hide (or highlight) unpopular previous stances or votes by politicians, proved to be too irresistible.

Some efforts to rewrite or alter previously published material online are much more benign. Maybe you just want to swap in a more flattering photo or add more relevant information to an article or make a minor tweak.

Online publications can do all that, and if it doesn't affect the accuracy of the content and will enhance the reader's experience, well, why not, you might ask. Most publications do update fresh stories with new information -- and when we do -- we add a note letting readers know. But there is a time limit to such changes, typically ranging from a day to week, depending on the site. After that, new information means a new story, while the previous article gets sent to the archival showers.

Some seemingly innocuous requests, however, can open a Pandora's box if publishers aren't careful. For example, we were recently asked to add the word "former" to identifying information about the writer of an article published several years ago.

This person did indeed hold that post when the article was written. I've no reason to doubt he no longer does today. And the change involved is minor. But does it make sense to go back into our archives to change what amounts to an accurate snapshot at that point in time to reflect changes that have take place since?

I don't think so. For one thing, why stop at that change in just that article? Even articles written a week ago can include interviews with sources that have since left the company or changed job titles, or even changed their minds. Extrapolate that back a year or more. The potential for constant updating is staggering. You'd need an entire staff just to fact check and make every single change. Notice I say "change" and not "correction."

In publishing, you make corrections for accuracy (or at least you should). But changes for whimsy, personal preferences, or gain -- or even the pursuit of perfection -- should not be made. At best, content providers would find themselves in constant pursuit of the never-ending "perfect" piece of content a million times over. And anyone who builds software knows where that'll take you!

Even if a requested change is deemed worthy of going back into the archives, there also remains the unalterable fact that copies of the original content have already been read, shared, copied, and stored, digitally and on paper. These experiences and copies cannot be retrieved and sent to "rewrite." As Carol Burnett put it, "Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own."

I think readers who open up content with an older dateline -- particularly one stretching back several years -- can be trusted to automatically make a mental note of when the content was created, and to read or view the material knowing that since it was posted the subject or players may have changed, better technology may have arrived, the analysis may have missed the mark, the situation may have been resolved, and, indeed, the company may not even exist anymore. There are also readers who deliberately seek out an older article (or photo or film or audio file) for its historical perspective, for background, research, or comparative reasons.

What do you think? Where should content providers and news organizations draw the line on making changes or additions to already published material? How far back should we be willing to go? What about the slippery slope, where we may start with inconsequential changes but open the door to more nefarious efforts to rewrite history? (And who's to say this doesn't go on regularly right now, I know.) I think the answers to these questions -- and some standard guidelines for dealing with the issue -- are important in a digital society. I say the old saw still holds true, though with a slight tweak for the modern age: Those who are not exposed to history are doomed to repeat it.