Publishing, permanence, and transparency

A palimpsest is a manuscript on which an earlier text has been effaced and the vellum or parchment reused for another.
Under heavy surveillance (which has now ceased), Dave Winer reacted:

Now that people have set up a system to record everything on Scripting that I post within five minute intervals, I don't think I'll be writing any more of that stuff here. I guess it's time for weblogs to become like television. Polished and politically correct. Impersonal. Commercial. [Scripting News]

I understand and sympathize, but I think a bigger story is unfolding around us. Last year, I wrote an item entitled Walking the fault lines about my experiences with SOAP and WSDL. Scripting News picked up on it. (This was the same posting that began my serendipitous association with an Indian programmer named Nishant S. [1, 2].) Later that day, using the Meerkat aggregator, I noticed there were two versions of Dave's commentary, and I wrote:

Meerkat captured two versions. I like them both. When the Wayback Machine really gets cranking, we'll have to accept that all our revisions can be seen. This seems like it should be scary. But it doesn't seem to bother me much. Palimpsests are intriguing to read, and fun to write. [Jon's Radio]

two versions Still later on the same day, Dave was riffing on the theme of "Internet 3.0" and wrote:

Jon discovers an important feature of Internet 3.0. Real-time edits preserved for perpetuity. [Scripting News]

I think it probably is a feature, but one that will have profound effects that we're all just beginning to come to terms with. Remember when, as a kid, you imagined that if you jumped in and out of the pool really quick you wouldn't get wet? Throughout most of the short life of Web publishing, we've been able to sort of pull that trick off. No more. Increasingly the Web sees and remembers everything.

When Tim Bray pointed the other day to Jim Gray's musings on the future of storage -- practically infinite capacity, sequential vs. random-access devices, log-structured filesystems, unconstrained archiving and versioning -- it reminded me of Ted Nelson's vision of Xanadu as the all-seeing, all-remembering, write-once, versioned memory of our species.

The current debate about depublishing (1, 2) also reminds me, yet again, of David Brin's seminal book The Transparent Society. Brin argues that we'll be unable to prevent what happens in public spaces -- physical or virtual -- from being recorded, and that the best we can do is to assure equality of access to that data.

Maybe Brin's wrong. Maybe we will find a technological substitute for the veil of practical obscurity that historically protected us from undue scrutiny. But while that may be possible in some cases, I suspect that in general Brin is right. We can still enjoy realms of privacy -- both physical and virtual -- but public acts will become part of an increasingly detailed and indelible public record. That will cause problems that have no technological solutions, only human ones. I can think of two. First, as with email, we're going to have to accept that what goes to the Web tends to stay there. Second, since we are all going to make mistakes, say things we wish we hadn't, and suffer the effects of software glitches, we're all going to have to learn to cut one another a lot more slack.

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