Thursday, January 22, 2009

So much for history

There's an awful lot of silly[1] talked about blogging. There's people who hate it, on the well-founded but rather illogical basis that bloggers talk way too much trivial claptrap, without pausing to wonder if anyone else might find it worth reading. But really that's just a retread of the same argument we, as a culture, had when writing was first invented; and again with paper, and the printing press, and television, and computers.

[1] Brought to you by the Campaign for Intuitive Nouns

So a lot of bollocks gets written. So what? "Ninety percent of everything is crap" said a wise man, years before the Internet was even conceived.

Then there's the even sillier opposite extreme, which holds that bloggers have made journalists obsolete. Yeah, like the light bulb made the sun obsolete. Of course there are functions sometimes performed by journalists that can, in principle be done better by bloggers. And occasionally, it's true, a blogger does succeed in upstaging Old Media. But in general, bloggers quote a lot more from Old Media than vice versa.

Which kind of brings me to today's whine.

With President St Barack's ascension to the thr... sorry, I mean "accession to the White House" -- his very first act in office, before the cheers from his inaugural speech had died down, was to redesign the White House website.

But more has happened here than a redesign. Hundreds of thousands of pages of history have vanished. And millions of blog pages have been altered, in ways their authors will probably never even notice.

For instance, suppose you referred to President Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech from May 2003. You can find lots of accounts of that speech, mostly written and edited by unsympathetic commentators, all over the net; but the obvious authoritative source to link to is Bush's own press office.

But if you did that, tough luck. It's not there any more. If you click on the Google link that points to it, you find yourself in Obama's "Briefing Room".

I'm sure the text of this speech, and the other bazillions of press releases put out by the Bush White House, still exists in thousands of places. White House archives, Bush's personal files, more libraries than I can readily imagine. But none of those are as easily and simply accessible as the White House website.

Would it hurt to leave it there? After all, the date is built into the URL -- there's no danger of it getting in the way of Obama's speeches. It might pollute search results -- but it would be a trivial matter to set up the site search engine to prevent that.

What bothers me is that by sweeping Bush's own account under the electronic rug, Obama's people have cleared the way to rewrite the history of the Bush years in their own words.

Of course, this Orwellian process is not new. Bush did the same to all of Clinton's releases, when he first moved in. Good luck finding out, now, what Clinton originally told the nation about (for instance) the bombing of Krajina. But the Internet was younger then; blogging was in its infancy, and the practice of linking to sources was not nearly so established. Bush could, reasonably -- indeed, convincingly -- plead ignorance of what he did.

Obama, on the other hand, has already shown that he understands the importance of history-as-written. He's the first president, I believe, to have published two autobiographies before he even got the top job, thus retroactively turning his entire life into a presidential campaign. Consider this line from his new-look website: "President Obama swiftly responded to Hurricane Katrina."

What the... how the... ?

Okay -- from today's perspective, we are at no risk of understanding that to mean what it appears to say. But in twenty, thirty years' time, when both Katrina and Obama are fading memories, who knows how it will be parsed?

See, I remember another leader who surfed into power on the crest of the wave of hope and the promise of change, who began his term by clearing out the dead wood of the (thoroughly discredited) preceding administration. A leader who made it his first priority to reform the sickly organs of government, to lance the ideologically contaminated pustules of his devastatingly unpopular predecessors -- and above all, to rewrite recent history in his own terms.

And for all the parallels with Kennedy, I can't help but think that the name that flickers in my mind, as most closely resembling Obama in political style, is Tony Blair.


Anonymous said...

good analysis. thanks.

Eric Lester said...

Your complaint about the website reminds me of what repeatedly happens at my workplace. Broken links. There's something young and unfinished about the whole computer network thing. A lot of users and people-who-ought-to-be-smarter-than-users-but-aren't just don't get the whole "link" concept.

Electronic information is dynamic, liquid, volatile. Here today, gone tomorrow.

In the good old days, you'd cite a book, by its title, author, publisher, year, etc., and know that that reference was about as solid as possible. A hyperlink, on the other hand, is just a hyperlink. Poof. It's gone.

Not that you don't have a good point. But I have little hope that this type of thing will be fixed. I don't see a lot of respect in this world for the kind of archiving that a paper-based scholar like my old self is used to.

War is peace.

vet said...

Sure you could cite a book. But if you want to check one of those citations, next thing you have to find a copy of the book. An actual physical bound copy. It could take weeks to do that, and cost a non-trivial amount of money, even if your local library could locate a copy. And sometimes it was literally impossible -- I remember, from 1985 to 1999, reminding my father to look out for a particular book ('cuz he loves to haunt second-hand book shops).

I get what you're saying. In principle it should be possible to make it slightly more reliable. I'd say some sites -- all government-funded sites, for a start -- should have an obligation not to break links. If they think it's necessary to take information off the net entirely, they should replace it with a little note saying what it was and where it's moved to, even if that is in a basement somewhere in Greenland...