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Background

I grew up in the USSR. I read the book 1984 in the year 1984 (it was a set of photographs, page by page, of a book printed in the West and smuggled into the USSR). My only source of information were Soviet newspapers, and, occasionally, western radio (only when I was outside of Moscow, where the western radio was jammed).

I had to learn to infer what was going on in the world by "correcting" Soviet propaganda. I thought I was good at that.

Later, when the Iron Curtain fell, I was shocked to find out how under-correcting I was.

1984 in 2009

After the 1984 Kindle debacle, I decided that I will never get a Kindle because this capability to delete what the user thinks she owns is unacceptable to me.

Today

The link in the previous paragraph works today, but I have no reason to believe that it will still work tomorrow, or, worse yet, that it will say tomorrow the same thing is did today or 12 years ago.

Given that The BBC Quietly Censors Its Own Archives, how reliable are the texts we routinely rely upon on the internet?

Yes, normally, when publishers modify old stories, they explain what they changed (e.g., "corrected the spelling of the names"), but we have no reason to trust them.

Yes, we can refer to each link along with a timestamp ("downloaded on such and such date"), and then use the internet archive, but even they can be hacked (or worse, organizationally corrupted).

The Problem

Unlike the paper sources of the previous millennia, the current digital sources are not tamper resistant. Their "owners" have just as many incentives to censor them as before, but now the 1984-style "corrections of the past" are technologically feasible for the fist time.

Solutions?

  1. One way to deal with this "long term" is blockchain-style version control of the internet archive.

  2. However, until this is somehow implemented, we have to rely on the internet archive as is...

Meanwhile

User A asks a question and user B replies, citing a Wikipedia article. Wikipedia page is very clear on the topic, but the relevant sentence is marked with source missing for 1234 days. Oops.

Or A is lucky and Wiki does have a source. It's a dead link. Not in the internet archive. Oops.

Or the source is a book by a well-known author. But the page number is missing - will A get and read the whole book to check?

Ultimately

Despite all my whining above, we are in a much better epistemological position than ever before.

However, we are grossly overestimating how good our situation is, and we are at risk of losing our advantages, unless we make sure that history cannot be modified 1984-style.

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    My personal solution is to regard Wikipedia and other online sources as the 1st/2nd approximation and continue to dig deeper (frequently, I find that a W. article completely misrepresents the source it is quoting). How deep do I dig? It depends. Even with printed books written by professional historians, I sometimes find an infuriating pattern of a chain of references with unclear source ([1] says "see [2]," while [2] says "see [3]", etc., then I get to the beginning, [n], which simply states something without any evidence). Feb 4, 2022 at 14:27
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    Agreed. Additionally, Wikipedia (history) can be wildly divergent from one language to another. Feb 19, 2022 at 17:53

2 Answers 2

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Perhaps I don't understand the question, but the idea that only now are people capable of retroactively altering the available historical record seems quite wrong.

Prior to the printing press, everything had to be hand-copied. Of course nothing done manually is going to be error-free, and in fact inevitably there were changes, insertions, and deletions from copy to copy. Most such changes would be minor, but some were major. Some changes were innocent, some not so much. Even innocent errors would have a inherent vector in the direction of being less surprising and more socially-acceptable (to the copyist). And of course stuff people liked reading would be more likely to get saved and copied, and thus continue to exist as manuscripts aged.

Analysis of this kind of thing, and making inductions about what the originals might have looked like, is what we call Textual Criticism, and its an important part of the study of history.

Perhaps for the last few hundred years (since Gutenberg), some people may have gotten the idea of eternally perfect original copies of a popular work could be an attainable thing. But that's an ahistorical idea. If you're worried now that the concept might be slipping away, console yourself that Humanity managed to get along without it through most of recorded history.

At least that's what the books say. ;-)

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    The book you hold in your hands and read cannot be modified while you are reading it. This is not the case with the internet content.
    – sds
    Feb 4, 2022 at 1:18
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    However, a couple of my favorites are falling apart, so I bought the second edition for. Of course that 2nd edition is different. Some of my favorite passages are gone now.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Feb 4, 2022 at 14:14
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    This is a deeply fascinating question because it questions how we validate deep history and how we manufacture and control tomorrow's history. For many reasons, physical books are becoming increasingly rare, driving ever growing numbers of users to e-sources which can easily be manipulated. Certainly far easier than re-carving texts chiseled into monuments, as was commonly done. I like the idea of "blockchained facts"! Feb 19, 2022 at 17:47
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None of this is about the interpretation of the archival records of the past.

An interesting note: the archives of the Soviet Union, for private consumption, accurately reflect the state of things in the Soviet Union, with perhaps slightly less penetration into anti-Soviet, revolutionary, or dissident circles.

The Soviet elite cared itself to know what was true: and it kept archives to that end.

Public information is nothing like private knowledge. Go read some archives, and compare to the library.

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