A Plumbline in the Wind

The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark

A Plumbline in the Wind Near Lauder, Scotland: Sheep on a hillside

The digital Ministry of Truth

13 June 2008 · No Comments

This might seem a strange place to discuss the dangers of the digital age. After all, this is on line; what is written here has no existence other than digital. But that is just the point; it is therefore evanescent by nature, and that is the problem. It’s not the impermanence of what I write that is at issue, but the impermanence of so many other things.

I first saw this issue raised over twenty years ago, when there was no internet. The article I read (it may have been in Scientific American) dealt with the difficulty of preserving certain kinds of historical sources. Even then, the data from the 1960 census, which had been assembled by computer and was stored in digital form, had become nearly inaccessible. It was preserved on magnetic tapes, and the kind of tape drives that could read these tapes were no longer manufactured. Once the devices wore out, there would be no way to read the tapes, and even if one could read the tape, in time the digital codes needed to decipher them would be unintelligible. The records of the twentieth century would be harder to read than those of the seventeeth.

Then there are library catalogues. Every library now has its records in digital form, and card catalogues are no longer produced. Free browsing, the kind of searching that allows serendipity in discovering the obscure volume with the stray bit of knowledge a scholar might need, is far harder. The next step, so earnestly pursued, is the digitization of the collections themselves. As today’s technology becomes obsolete, what has been carefully preserved might as well have been destroyed. The danger is even greater with records that have never existed except in digital form.

One hears the Internet hailed as a great force for freedom, access to information, and ease of communication. So it is–until the power goes off, or someone closes the digital pipeline. This freedom is dependent upon a large and complex infrastructure that is only freely accessible by the forbearance of those who could control it or shut it down. Similarly, the transmission of digital collections of literature or historical records is dependent upon the gatekeepers who must be trusted to translate one technology into another. In short, knowledge about the past is, even more than it ever was, under the control of those who rule the present. As George Orwell tells us in 1984, “Whoever controls the present controls the past” and more significant– “whoever controls the past controls the future.”

Orwell’s description of the control of language is true more now than ever. With remarkable foresight, he describes the closure of the view of history by the use of Newspeak:

In practice this meant that no book written before approximately 1960 could be translated as a whole. Prerevolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation–that is, alteration in sense as well as language. (Appendix, “The Principles of Newspeak”)

Even without the violent repression of his imagined world, we live with the same kind of mental translation, and 1960 is a pretty good boundary. Just try to use the word “gay” in its prerevolutionary sense.

As communcations, and even knowledge, are transformed from the relative permanence and transparency of print into eminently perishable digital form, the power of those who control the medium will become all the more perfect. The screen through which they present the past will become impermeable. Not only can digital records be easily cut off–they can be changed. I post something one day; someone else hacks in and changes what I said to the opposite meaning. Where is the proof of what I said, especially if I am not around to deny it? In the digital age, political correctness is easy to enforce. The only reason it appears otherwise is that those who could impose it have not tried hard enough. There is too much residual belief in freedom of speech.

But all over the world, we can see the tides turning. In Europe, in Canada, even in this country, measures against “hate speech” are leading to suppression of freedom by its ostensible defenders. When the agencies who control the Internet come under the control of those who would censor us for our own good, then the full power of the digital age will be revealed.

You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean out of the stream of history. We shall turn you into gas and pour you into the stratosphere. Nothing will remain of you: not a name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as the future. You will never have existed. –1984, ch 3, pt II

Tags: Literature · Politics and society

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