Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 3 March 2023

Not any more, Omar!

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit 
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, 
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (FitzGerald translation)

Ah, simpler times! To compare the past - the domain of the ‘perfect’ tense in the sense of something finished and complete - to a piece of writing was once to acknowledge the permanence of the act of committing words or images to a surface.

It’s a pertinent reminder of the stability that our forebears experienced; to know that the past was  unalterable, even if recollections might vary. This was the security which Orwell showed being violated by the revisions conducted within the Ministry of Truth - a horrifying but distant dystopian vision for his 1940s readers which, 75 years later, is in danger of becoming an everyday occurrence.

We’ve long been accustomed to believing the evidence of our own eyes and, subsequently, the use of filmed or still images as proof. In the era of deepfake and AI generated imagery, we need to revise this urgently, but at least we have been abundantly warned of the possibilities.

Far more insidious is the alteration of texts stored on our own hardware. Nanny Knows Best has a chilling account of kindle owners finding that copies of Roald Dahl works they already owned have been subject to the recent much-publicised revisions without their knowledge or consent. It’s chilling to think that a kindle library - bought and paid for - could, at any time, be censored for violating today’s standards, regardless of the political or social climate in which it was written (and what, I wonder, would amazon do if asked at a future date to hand over details of customers with a liking for Rider Haggard, H P Lovecraft or John Buchan?).

It extends well beyond kindle, of course; the Tavern’s wise woman - 84, sharp as a tack and equipped with an eidetic memory - reports that BBC news stories which she has read in the early hours of the morning are often substantially altered by breakfast time, presumably as the day-shift editors arrive and contribute the correct spin. This being so, can we be sure that any past report has not been subsequently altered without trace?

How long do we have, I wonder, before this kind of thing spreads to society as a whole - or has it already done so? Having seen how medical records can be altered or disappear, I am willing to believe the same thing could happen with police, judicial and employment documents - to say nothing of Government records - leaving no trace except a history accessible only to technicians inside the organisation.

We’ve seen a lot of this quote from George Orwell recently, but, under the circumstances, I think it bears repeating as often as possible:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

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