One of the benefits of Wikipedia’s massed army of editors, we are told, is to keep the encyclopedia up-to-date. This is a good use of the Internet since no-one likes their information even slightly old. But there is another thing that bothers me about Wikipedia’s fetish for modernity – it allows nearly unlimited access for propagandists to rewrite the past.
Winston Smith was part of a larger collective of people (although he never talked to them, he only knew them by sight) whose job it was to rewrite history.
What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail, but he did know in general terms. As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of The Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead.
This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs — to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.
In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place.
The largest section of the Records Department, far larger than the one on which Winston worked, consisted simply of persons whose duty it was to track down and collect all copies of books, newspapers, and other documents which had been superseded and were due for destruction. A number of The Times which might, because of changes in political alignment, or mistaken prophecies uttered by Big Brother, have been rewritten a dozen times still stood on the files bearing its original date, and no other copy existed to contradict it. Books, also, were recalled and rewritten again and again, and were invariably reissued without any admission that any alteration had been made.
Even the written instructions which Winston received, and which he invariably got rid of as soon as he had dealt with them, never stated or implied that an act of forgery was to be committed: always the reference was to slips, errors, misprints, or misquotations which it was necessary to put right in the interests of accuracy.
This is what happens with Wikipedia – that facts yesterday are not facts today, because facts can be altered moment by moment.
But surely, you say, there are edit histories showing who added what and who deleted what?
That’s true, but only if you go to the source document at Wikipedia.org and only if an administrator isn’t the one doing the editing because administrators can also remove the records that the addition was ever made!
Most people are using Wikipedia and don’t even know it. According to Daniel Brandt, as a result of his inquiry into plagiarism on Wikipedia, he discovered that there were 965 domains that simply scraped information from Wikipedia and served it up with adverts (usually Google AdSense). None of those scrapers had the edit histories, because the edit histories made the whole encyclopedia perhaps 20-30 times larger, and these scrapers don’t need them anyway.
When I looked at the possibility of having a personal copy of Wikipedia, I found the storage proposition rather daunting. To store just the articles and their full edit histories (assuming no admin interference in them) and without the images would be around 500-600 GB.
So people get their information from answers.com or whatever and don’t realise that their source is Wikipedia, a collection of facts, truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, myths and outright falsehoods written by complete amateurs. Of course those people, we are told, are idiots to believe everything that Wikipedia serves them – but they don’t know that what they’re reading comes from Wikipedia, any more than someone reading a book in 1984‘s Marxist state would see Winston Smith’s amendments.
And like the print media in 1984, Wikipedia doesn’t have mistakes, falsehoods or even plagiarism. It has something that Winston Smith would immediately recognize – the modern electronic equivalent of memory holes.