In the course of the Times Magazine‘s LGF-vs-Atlas Shrugged piece comes this excellent observation:

Regardless of whether Johnson’s view of Vlaams Belang is correct, it is notable that the party is defined for him entirely by the trail it has left on the Internet. This isn’t necessarily unfair — a speech, say, given by Dewinter isn’t any more or less valuable as evidence of his political positions depending on whether you read it (or watch it) on a screen or listen to it in a crowd — but it does have a certain flattening effect in terms of time: that hypothetical speech exists on the Internet in exactly the same way whether it was delivered in 2007 or 1997. The speaker will never put it behind him. (Just as Johnson, despite his very reasonable contention that he later changed his mind, will never be allowed to consign to the past a blog post he wrote in 2004 criticizing that judicial condemnation of Vlaams Belang as “a victory for European Islamic supremacist groups.”) It may be difficult to travel to Belgium and build the case that Filip Dewinter is not just a hateful character but an actual Nazi (and thus that those who can be linked to him are Nazi sympathizers), but sitting at your keyboard, there is no trick to it at all. Not only can the past never really be erased; it co-exists, in cyberspace, with the present, and an important type of context is destroyed. This is one reason that intellectual inflexibility has become such a hallmark of modern political discourse, and why, so often, no distinction is recognized between hypocrisy and changing your mind.

I neither know nor care about the specific dispute being discussed, but that’s really insightful. And it derives from such a positive contribution to discourse and history: an accessible, (fairly) comprehensive preservation of the record. None of us can ever absorb, process and remember the sheer volume of information that even the worst search engine algorithm can acquire in instants.

That’s why those of us who write on the internet have to be hyper-aware of what we’ve said in the past, an ever-pressing challenge as we age. (I have a really terrible memory and always have.) Tagging helps. But if we change our minds or evolve our perspective about certain things, we need to acknowledge it as it happens. Otherwise it looks to a reader — fairly! — like the sort of hypocrisy Times writer Jonathan Dee describes.

In fact, let’s raise the stakes. If you read Post X, a reasonable reaction is, “Hmm, I wonder what else this writer has produced about the subject.” And then, googling backward from the date of the post (or even forward, I suppose), a reader can rather naturally inspect associated posts through the prism of both the tone and substance of the first one s/he encountered, recontextualizing the actual historical record from the point of encounter of Post X. That method of reading privileges consistency over evolution of thought, particularly if a reader disagrees with what s/he encounters.

I remember telling someone years ago that anyone who read my old blog Iraq’d consistently could see my perspective on Iraq changing in real time during the 16 months I wrote the blog. But that was a dumb thing to think! Not even my mother could have read that blog consistently. I should have thought about how the blog looked to an occasional reader. That’s what I try to do now.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

2 Comments