New Orleans The much maligned Julian Assange of Wikileaks on his forced sabbatical in England where he is “to the manor” adopted while awaiting extradition to Sweden to confront the errors of his ways with women, revealed an important insight in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist that was excerpted in the recent issue of Harpers’ Magazine. Assange was expressing concern, as he rightly might, over how information (knowledge?) can be “disappeared” over the internet. He was raising various issues both corporate and conspiratorial about bits of unpleasantness on the Guardian website and elsewhere that had been removed based on pressure from the rich and powerful. He likened it to the Russian rewrites of history, though power, as we know, routinely rewrites history to suit its purposes, his point was that the information on the web disappears without a trace, making any future retrieval or recovery in different times impossible.
I can remember during the election in 2008 getting pushed to delete a story from Social Policy magazine that was already widely distributed on the internet, but that some people within the presidential campaign apparatus wanted removed despite the fact that it accurately demonstrated a relationship between ACORN and the candidate, Barack Obama. As publisher of Social Policy, my webmaster and I kept putting the piece back up every time someone tried to take it down. Weird times!
Assange’s point is actually broader and more archival. He argues that to the degree archives are attached to URLs, when a company or URL owner folds, the information can be made inaccessible and lost. His proposal is that the information be linked to a mathematical number and preserved regardless, which makes sense.
When we published Battle of the Ninth Ward: ACORN, The Rebuilding of New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster some of the citations went to information that was linked to www.acorn.org. Unfortunately, given the fact that ACORN went under a bit over a year ago, none of the information exists on that URL any longer. The references are permanently (temporarily?) lost in space.
This is a common problem and some of the archival projects by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others will be stuck in this situation from what I can see. How will future historians and others get accurate views of the past, if the past disappears like so many grains of sand in the desert?
Assange is right. We need something different and better. It’s hard to imagine that he will be the best person to fix this problem or raise the money to get it done for quite a while anyway. Hopefully someone is ready to pick up the challenge. Maybe these big buckers in Silicon Valley will hear the call? I hope so.