Controlling the Past

"Who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."

-George Orwell, 1984

1984 is on my list of favorite books. It's possibly my all-time favorite. If you've not read it, it's hard for a summary to do it justice. I'm not sure of the original source of this, but I've heard many times online people state that North Korea is a country that could be described as someone reading 1984 and deciding that's the perfect model for their country.

Every year or so I read 1984 again. And every reading I appreciate it again, in different ways. Sometimes I take notice of how well constructed the novel is. Sometimes I notice how astute some political observation is. Sometimes I'm amazed how well he imagined the future.

One of the ideas behind the novel is the control of the past. Big Brother, the near-mythical leader of Oceania, is never wrong. If some news story in the past shows him to have been in error, it is the story that is in error. An error that is rectified. Winston Smith, the novel's protagonist, is employed at the Ministry of Truth, where such "corrections" are made. The Party is never wrong either - after all, Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party. In one chapter, Winston Smith makes corrections to previous news stories - changing figures and predictions for the most part, but also totally rewriting a story where Big Brother praised an unperson to be a story praising someone Winston created as a total fabrication.

After corrections are made, all old copies are destroyed and replaced with the new versions, without ever an indication that anything was ever changed.

What occurred to me is how easy this is to do today. How, for example, do you know the truth of any news story? Consider the following meme...

My 14-year old daughter quoted this very story to me yesterday. The problem with it, as can be ascertained by fact-checking sites, is that it is simply not true. 

However, consider what could be done by a diligent retroactive editor. Take a more recent magazine, one that is online only. What if its publishers were willing to retroactively edit its past issues to better fit a current agenda? How could you ptove what is true and untrue? If only one or two online publications were to do that, fact-checking is reasonable. But what if redefining the past becomes a type of arms' race? Thousands of publications all adjusting their archives to fit their current agendas? Or worse, what if they were all united in preserving the same agenda? How could you prove anything happened or anyone existed? How could you prove something as straight-forward as the identity of the first president of the United States or the first emperor of Rome? If every record indicated Mark Antony defeated Octavian, could you prove otherwise? How do we even know Octavian triumphed?

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