After 20 years, we're starting to come to terms with the immediacy of the web: what it means for business, its implications for information-gathering. But we're only just starting to figure out what its permanence means, the possibility of an eternal history, and how that shapes our news and politics.
For example. Sarah Palin went on Facebook Friday afternoon to proclaim her foresight in having said, during a 2008 speech, that Russia might invade Ukraine if Barack Obama were elected president. There are a lot of caveats about the claim, but few were more pertinent than the fact that geopolitics was substantially different in 2008 than it is today. As The Wire noted on Friday, in the intervening six years, Putin left and reassumed power. Ukraine switched presidents, electing Viktor Yanukovych, whose close ties to Russia prompted the crisis that unfolded last year. But if you looked at the Foreign Policy blog post describing Palin's campaign-trail statements, it looks like any other post at the site. And in that way, it's timeless. Unlike a newspaper from 2008, it doesn't yellow at the edges, meaning that it's much easier to read it without the context in which it was written.
In that way, the web is unique. Old television broadcasts look dated, in the same way that you can tell television shows from various countries based on their lighting choices. Radio broadcasts have similarly evolved over time, and it's generally uncommon to extract one snippet from a lengthy segment. Books and newspapers and magazines age, and even when they don't, you know what a current New York Times looks like compared to one from the 1940s, even if only instinctually. News on the web is discrete and timeless.
Last month, a year-old post on Gawker previewing a possible upcoming snow storm suddenly began being passed around as new. The year appears on the post, in tiny, light-colored type, trivial to miss. And it was missed. People thought another major storm was on its way. Some sites — though not Gawker — purposely downplay the datelines on their posts in order to take advantage of the ingrained predilection on social media to always share the newest and most interesting content. As was the case with this snow post, there was no reason to think this was an old thing in a web that consumes new things like coal.
In effect, time collapses on the web. The snowstorm and Sarah Palin's comments happened today as far as anyone knew. And that means that Gawker and Palin, for better or worse, were responsible for the information being passed around.
Five years ago, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote a piece for The New Republic that looked at the downside of calling for more government transparency, in effect dumping tons of raw data into public view. His concern in brief: unfiltered data will offer false impressions of what the data are describing or, worse, it'd be intentionally cherry-picked to make an argument.
I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement — if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness — will inspire not reform, but disgust.
Writer Quinn Norton wrote a post last month (February 17 you'll see if you dig around a bit) discussing her concerns about how relationships have evolved in the social media era. This line in particular stuck out to me: "The net doesn't understand that people change, and doesn't tolerate it — all growth is seen as hypocrisy." What you posted in 2009 isn't understood as reflecting that moment; instead, it's intertwined with who you are and who you will always be. Time is flat. And having all that information at hand allows those with whom you disagree to cherry-pick examples of when you've been hypocritical or vulgar or wrong.
There's a benefit to that permanence, too, of course. First and foremost is that humanity is emerging — technology willing — from its only real Dark Age into a time when everything is documented and photographed and indexed and stored. (A transition, it's important to note, that will become even more amazing once more objects come online, fleshing out what's known as the Internet of Things.)
And that permanence allows news organizations an perhaps unexpected asset. When he announced that he was leaving The Washington Post to start a new news product at Vox Media, Ezra Klein described his goal:
New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic. The overriding focus on the new made sense when the dominant technology was newsprint: limited space forces hard choices. You can't print a newspaper telling readers everything they need to know about the world, day after day. But you can print a newspaper telling them what they need to know about what happened on Monday. The constraint of newness was crucial. …
The web has no such limits. There's space to tell people both what happened today and what happened that led to today.
Every tiny bit of news since the dawn of the blog era is only a link away. The permanence of our available record will let Klein's news team add context by dipping into that well. It's sort of like Wikipedia in one sense, that combination of past and present. But in another, it's like having the ability to describe something as it is by easily and quickly leveraging that timeless information into the service of the updates. (How they'll do this, we shall see.)
One of the first indices of content on the web was the Virtual Library, a site that extended the metaphor of information-filled books to guide people through the information-filled pages of the young web. Over time, that metaphor has been confused and abandoned. But it's apt. Every day, we publish massive amounts of the entire library again, all of it instantly within reach. We don't really know what to do with that.