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