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Correcting the Past

I will never delete anything I publish. Even if it becomes socially unacceptable in the coming years. Even if my perspective or opinions change. Even if I am proven wholly wrong and am publicly shamed for it whatever I publish will remain. Why? Because I believe in the permanence, immutability, and preservation of history. History is an constant line of events that cannot be changed by those in the present year as we are. Or at least, are not directly mutable. In the most recent decade the active goals of rewriting history have been on display for all. Efforts at doing so have not only been accepted by society but also praised. Lauded by all those who support a bright future by burning the sins of the past. If any of these idiots (look up what that word meant in its Greek roots) had ever taken the time to read one of the books they so proudly burn they would know that history is cyclical. When it doesn’t rhyme it repeats itself outright. Unfortunately I believe we are about to see the former.

Humanity has never lived in such a time of historical mutability. Back in ancient times books, tablets, and any form of archival method was reserved solely for the archives of nations (and specifically empires). Capital cities would be the nexus for information and research as they alone possessed the ability to finance the creation and maintenance of vast records and indexes. Each culture that had a written history there were certain things they favored recording over others. Like recording of conquests for one empire and genealogy for others. While the records that portrayed conquest were most likely biased towards the recording victor they still were largely based in fact which is how so much information can be gathered by historians looking at them. Not to say that all knowledge of the ancients made it to the era I write this in. Far from it! With every nation and empire came a wealth of discoveries in all fields of civilization, and when then fell most of that information was taken to the grave with them.

I can think of no better an example of this than the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The Library had stood for over three hundred years and the burning of it and the many thousands of papyrus records within it has been speculated to have set back civilization by up to five hundred years (though this is speculation since it is impossible to entirely know what was burned). Of course empires falling is not the only way information is lost. Destruction, loss of language, technology disappearing, and more. My favorite example of this is what is now referred to as the Digital Dark Age. This fascinating period is where the original technology used to read/write information has been lost, rendering the data recorded with it useless.

The current era of information is unlike any other. It is unlike the capital libraries of empires long gone. It is unlike the period where books were expensive but purchasable by many people. It is even unlike the Digital Dark Age where we have lost the means to retrieve data that was immutably recorded to tapes and grooved disks. The era we live in is one of mutable data. Data is constantly being recorded, deleted, and updated for any of the many thousands of operable functions it may serve. While of course in some cases mutable data is acceptable, in many cases including historical preservation it is not.

There is a popular micro blogging platform with a certain aviary logo (of which I refuse to name) that exemplifies, among many other things, the danger of being able to delete your own history. On this unnamed platform people and androids can post short thoughts or basically small media as long as it abides by a 280 character limit. What is most fascinating about this platform is that while you cannot edit a message that has been published, you can delete the message altogether. While I laud the inability to edit it is the latter functionality that is concerning. It is becoming increasingly common for accounts on said platform to post something, and then subsequently remove it in response to backlash either immediately after publication or years afterward.

While the internet never fully forgets information that resides on it, such information becomes harder and harder to access and verify the older it is. This problem of informational integrity is what allows both for misinformation to flourish as well as the ability to find evidence for basically any claim one could possibly make. Advancements in AI and deepfakes will only exacerbate this problem as they will make available to all what had previously only been available to governments. While I have speculated on the prospects of using things such as blockchain to ensure information integrity it is a subject best saved for another time.

The true danger of a mutable history is not one of mere political implication however. The danger is that of history being rewritten dynamically based on the societal and political acceptability of any given form of media, and that is a danger that cannot be overstated. Examples of it are beginning to become more common as well. For instance the singer BeyoncĂ© recently created a song that received quite a bit of backlash for containing the word “spaz”. While I personally find it humorous people were upset about that as opposed to any of the other questionable at best lyrics, the point nonetheless remains that this particular song sparked quite some controversy. What is important to us is not the song nor the promise to change the lyrics however. Instead what matters is the “how” behind the change. After the controversy the song was edited on every cloud music streaming provider, not removed. One moment someone could have been listening to the original song, and the next they will be listening to the edited one as though it was the original. Another smaller example of this is the retroactive editing of the television show Stranger Things to remove plot holes as they appear. Much like the previous example there is no evidence on these platforms that the edit even took place and therein lies the danger.

Consider the implications of such practices. The practice of editing or deleting material in the public sphere has begun to be used to rewrite any information that does not suit the liking’s of people in the present be that deleting personal posts to the outright editing of definitions and standards to fit your political regime. We rest on the precipice of something that has the potential to ruin truth in it’s most basic sense. While the war on the definition of truth itself is a discussion for another time the dangers of this rewriting of the past cannot be overstated.

To close and at the present my intent is not to present a solution I don’t have. While I can and in all likelihood will explore some potential solutions to this problem, it is one that impacts everything from the highest seats of power to the lowest of creators online just trying to make a non controversial living. It is not a problem that can solely be solved with technology. It is a problem that originates and is perpetuated by people and the level of acceptability it carries with them. In the present people are blind to the implications and instead focus on if they are or are not winning in what has evidently become a war of culture. If information is altered to the glory of the political ideology they agree with they ignore the it and its implications. Countless times this has happened before in history. Countless more times it will happen. I leave you with a proverb created in the aftermath of World War II called First They Came:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me