The Memory Hole – God of the Machine
Aug 302002

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages; to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes…

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… All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed as often as was necessary.

I never found this passage from 1984 very convincing. Way too much clean-up involved. First you expunge the files, which is the easy part; but then you have to find everyone who might have a copy and confiscate those as well. This sounds like too much work for even “the largest section of the Records Department,” to which Orwell assigns this job, to handle.

But suppose documents were electronic, and that there were just one copy of every document, sitting on a server somewhere, that many people could access simultaneously from all over the world. Suppose Orwell had dreamt of The Internet, in other words. It certainly would have made life a whole lot easier for the Records Department. Change whatever you like, and no trace remains of what you had written before.

Richard Goldstein and Andrew Sullivan had a little dust-up about this a while back. Goldstein accused Sullivan of calling him a Marxist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Goldstein is a Marxist.) Sullivan denied it and challenged Goldstein to search the archives. Goldstein countered that Sullivan deleted it from the archives to exculpate himself. In this case I’m quite sure Sullivan is telling the truth because Goldstein is a habitual liar, and Sullivan isn’t. But if you really do want to twiddle your archives and remove some inconvenient accusation, with decent blogging software, like, say, Greymatter, which I use, it’s trivial. You change the entry, rebuild and voila! the previous versions vanish down the memory hole. Web pages are mighty flexible, and flexibility, for obvious reasons, relates inversely to historical “stickiness.”

I’m willing to edit my archives, up to a point. If I find a grammatical error or infelicity in an old post I silently correct it. On the other hand, if I’m adding content or correcting a substantial error, I’ll add it to the bottom as an “update” so it’s clear what I posted originally. Of course I am also reasonably confident that the Rankes and Burckhardts of the coming century will not be counting on me for source material. (I’d be curious how other bloggers treat their archives.) I trust this explains why, if I were editing the Oxford English Dictionary, I’d insist on print citations too, even for a word like “blog.” Not that you asked.

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