Can we let technology reshape our past?

Some years ago, the newspaper industry came together to digitalise archives of printed newspapers. Millions of pages, tens of millions of stories, reaching back to 1738, all adding up to the first draft of Irish history, were centralised in a way that secures the data and assures public access.

Can we let technology reshape our past?

Some years ago, the newspaper industry came together to digitalise archives of printed newspapers. Millions of pages, tens of millions of stories, reaching back to 1738, all adding up to the first draft of Irish history, were centralised in a way that secures the data and assures public access.

This is an invaluable resource for those who wish to try to reach an unfiltered understanding of how Ireland came to be Ireland. In our post-truth age, it is an exemplary model of truth-preserving and one, sadly and very dangerously, impossible to repeat today.

The great value of these archives is that they are unalterable. They cannot be pasteurised by those whose misadventures were recorded truthfully in a public document.

A retired terrorist, say, cannot, have a digitised newspaper amended or even purged so his grandchildren might be convinced he was a freedom fighter rather than a bomber.

An organisation with, say, a barbarous record of facilitating child abuse, cannot have these records altered to hide their — and our — shame.

There is a completeness about these records that gives them the authenticity and power of fact.

Preserving newspapers’ faithful record of events is no longer a guaranteed public good. If someone objects to how they or an event involving them is portrayed in a story accessed via a search engine, they can now apply to have it

removed — or as an older, more accurate description might have it — censored.

Je Suis Silenced, as it were. Individuals, no matter what their motive, can seek to have data related to them removed by various search engine providers.

Whether the ‘right to be forgotten’ option is a right or an attack on cherished principles supporting democracy remains to be seen.

You would not have to be Richard Nixon or Cardinal Bernard Law to see how the clean-sheet option might be helpful.

This purging is in addition to the practice honoured by traditional publishers, of removing false or libelous reports as soon as their inaccuracy is proven.

At a moment when science warns that fake news reaches users up to 20 times faster than factual content, this seems another step into the dark, unknown and increasingly untrustworthy world of virtual accuracy.

As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” From May, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will assume the full force of law, so anyone with a skeleton in a wardrobe will have a chance to mask their past.

To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty: When I describe the past it is just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Even before the GDPR moves the goalposts, Irish people have shown an enthusiasm for rewriting the minutes.

Irish people are almost twice as likely as other nationalities to initiate the “right to be forgotten” process, so our understanding of their past is, at best unreliable.

Everyone understands that technology will change our future, but it seems unwise that it might be allowed change our past, often to our disadvantage, too.

GDPR may, in some instances, intervene to protect individuals but how it is policed will define how it might protect or damage society.

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