As we move forward, history’s solidity will become increasingly squishy.
As digital books become increasingly popular, so does awareness that a medium we once considered immutable, no longer is.
Nicholas Carr penned an article for the Wall Street Journal, “Books That Are Never Done Being Written.” He highlighted how, having published his own book on Amazon, he decided a tweak was needed, and how easily he did it. No one but Amazon’s database and he knew that the book had changed.
The article points out, “Digital text is ushering in an era of perpetual revision and updating, for better and for worse.”
I agree, for better and for worse. My personal, primary concern with after-the-fact book updates is the potential for revisionist history. The potential has always existed but remained largely muted because its hard to overcome a million hardcopy books once in circulation.
Now, with the flick of the wrist, or tap of a button, entire paragraphs can be deleted, replaced, or flavorized. And you might not know it. The ability falls right into the hands of people like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What about your government?
There are certainly cases where book (i.e. ‘content’) updates are not only reasonable, they’re desired. Encyclopedias, research studies, technical journals, and other reference sources are simple examples. Course textbooks are a popular example.
However, updates to ‘history,’ revisionist history if you will, are cases demanding special consideration. We will fight this battle interminably. What we consider yesterday’s editorial piece, or today’s research study, is tomorrow’s history.
My strong view is that revision updates should be an opt-in scenario for the content’s purchaser. Update notifications should be mandatory, with an option to override. Fortunately we need not reinvent the wheel. Updating user-side content (e.g. something you downloaded) is no different than software. The software industry already has well-established best practices.
Clearly different types of content warrant updating over time. It may even be eagerly sought after. However in some cases, it is important that we reserve the ability to just say No to updates, enabling us to preserve original flavor, intent, and focus. Otherwise, we need to learn to live with squishy history.
Share your own thoughts. How do you feel about this? Is it a valid concern or no, or do you care?