Blogs and 1984: anything in common?

February 13th, 2003 Comments Off on Blogs and 1984: anything in common?

Randomly browsing the Web yesterday, I found this post in a blog:

A cool thing about blogs is that every blogger kind of assumes the same job of the central character of 1984, who works as a “manipulator of the past”, creating and undoing events that happened.

You go to a blog today and read something. In two days, that thing is not there anymore, almost as it never had been.

That’s an interesting idea: facts that only exist for moments, sentences easily undone.

(Translated from the Portuguese original.)

In my opinion, this is a false analogy. It betrays a lack of understanding about both 1984 and the blog phenomenon as it happens today. Even if the last sentence is considered to be referring to personal facts — as opposed to facts shared in a wider scale, whether socially or geographically — the idea expressed by the aforementioned text is still invalid.

George Orwell’s 1984 is a widely known book. I will risk saying that it’s the most known science-fiction book of all times, and certainly the most popularized Dystopia. One of its “characters”, the Big Brother, has found its home in the mankind’s collective imagination. The central character the aforementioned text refers too is Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party employed in the Ministry of Truth where he spends all his days rewriting the past under the orders of the IngSoc (the Party as a whole). One example of this rewriting is seen when the Party announces that the weekly ration of chocolate will increase to 20g and Winston must erase all previous references to a 30g quota.

In the light of this example, it’s easy to see why the idea shown in the text — that blogs are instances of manipulation of facts — doesn’t hold water. The very nature of blogs and related services tends to create stronger ties between reported events preserving not only the reality of those events, but also the personal reactions to those events and the chains of analysis, comments, and discussions around them.

A recent example was Trent Lott‘s resignation because of his thoughtless declarations. When the organized media was already starting to ignore the issue and deal with it as old news, some of the most influent bloggers in the blogosphere started to make a lot of noise around the topic and unearth more pertinent information about Lott’s words. Later, after Lott had resigned, many considered that the discussion that ensued because those bloggers didn’t let the subject die had played a huge part in the Senator’s downfall.

A blog, as a form of personal expression, denies the very goal of the Party imagined by Orwell in 1984, which is total population control. That was easily seen in the censorship imposed on Blogspot by the Chinese government a few time ago. As many people commented at the time, the undeclared intention of the censorship was deny access to the Western ideas about free thought to the Chinese people. To the Chinese government — which is a dictatorial government striving to follow in the steps of 1984’s IngSoc Party — the ideas blog bring represent a danger to its status quo. Also, at the time many people around the Internet offered to mirror Chinese blogs to preserve what they had to say, that is, those people wanted to do the exact opposite of what the author of the text mentioned says about blogs. If a sovereign State today reached the point of population control depicted in 1984, blogs would some of the first forms that would no longer exists by then.

Even personal bits of the sort “Where were you when [insert some fact here] happened” contribute to the aggregate of information that can be preserved for future retrieval. Also, the gradual spreading of information in the Web represents a safeguard against its destruction or corruption. From every angle you look, blogs are in direct opposition to the kind of manipulation Orwell described.

It’s noteworthy that the very existence of the concept of permalinks denies the volatility suggested in the text aforementioned. Permalinks ensure facts mentioned somewhere else survive in a universe where information is in constant movement.

A last point to consider is information retrieval. Blog archives, a default practice, represent another barrier to manipulation of information. They allow past events to be understood and validated long after they happened. Of course, there are occasions when archives will be unreliable or even disappear, but the very distributed nature of the Web serves to create new associations and new links that can preserve most of what really happened. The missing pieces can usually be found in other places. Obviously, manipulation can still happen, but those mechanisms just described will almost always contribute to avoid or correct it completely.

In short, contrary to the affirmations made in the text mentioned, blogs are in truth a relatively efficient system to preserve the report of facts that happened. Obviously, it’s not a perfect system as humans are behind it. Nonetheless, it’s pretty impossible to construe them as serving to the same manipulative practices depicted in 1984.

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