Re-reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) recently, I couldn't help but wonder how much easier Winston Smith's job might be if his employer, the Ministry of Truth, had computers. I doubt that many people would want Smith's job to be any easier, since it involves re-writing historical documents to reflect the current official view. But my engineering brain nonetheless realised that doing this would be so much cheaper and easier if the Ministry of Truth had only to change entries in a central database rather than destroy all of the existing physical copies of a document, then re-print new ones reflecting the new view.
I have no plans to build a system for the Ministry of Truth. In fact one might argue that I don't need to, because we already have tools that could be made to meet the Ministry's needs: Wikipedia and Google. Might Orwell's novel have uses other than as the go-to reference for fantasies of surveillance and totalitarianism?
There are important differences between the real Wikipedia and real Google and anything that the Ministry of Truth might like. For one, however well-known and influential they are, there are alternatives and there are people willing and able to point out their flaws. For another, Wikipedia's pages aren't controlled by a central authority, and there's a "view history" link on every page. So I'm not particularly worried by either.
Perhaps a better question to ask is: how often do people read the alternatives, or view the history of a page? How many people might instead be building filter bubbles ready for abuse by a twenty-first century Ministry of Truth?
Doing some research for an article this weekend, I was reminded of how frustrating searching the web for information can be. Not only are web pages frequently superficial and poorly maintained — Wikipedia included — but searching for information about a particular event or non-web document turns up a mountain of umpteenth-generation re-posts of information for which the original source is lost in time, or maybe just ranked very lowly by search engines. I can see the attractions of a Ministry of Truth.
Thanks to the efforts of teachers, librarians and others, perhaps people are more aware of the weaknesses of relying solely on Wikipedia and Google than they might have been a few years ago. Still, it takes a lot of effort to thoroughly research a topic — and, for casual purposes, you can get away with whatever Wikipedia and Google serve up. Let's just not get complacent.