02 July 2021

"Retroactive malleability"

Readers of TYWKIWDBI sometimes write an email to gently reprimand me (or simply advise me) that a link in a post I wrote ten years ago is broken, or that a YouTube video has been taken down.  Sometimes I find new replacement links or videos, but often I have to explain that because the internet is a continually morphing medium, it is inevitable that some older material will become unavailable (especially since this blog has 17,000 entries).  The process is typically referred to as "link rot" (fortunately I think all the photos have remained intact because I have always copy-pasted them into TYWKIWDBI rather than hotlinking to the source).

This week The Atlantic reports that The Internet is Rotting, and introduces a term that is new (to me): "retroactive malleability."
Now, I just quoted from Google’s corporate website, and I used a hyperlink so you can see my source. Sourcing is the glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together. It’s what allows you to learn more about what’s only briefly mentioned in an article like this one, and for others to double-check the facts as I represent them to be... Suppose Google were to change what’s on that page, or reorganize its website anytime between when I’m writing this article and when you’re reading it, eliminating it entirely. Changing what’s there would be an example of content drift; eliminating it entirely is known as link rot...

With John Bowers and Clare Stanton, and the kind cooperation of The New York Times, I was able to analyze approximately 2 million externally facing links found in articles at nytimes.com since its inception in 1996. We found that 25 percent of deep links have rotted. (Deep links are links to specific content—think theatlantic.com/article, as opposed to just theatlantic.com.) The older the article, the less likely it is that the links work. If you go back to 1998, 72 percent of the links are dead. Overall, more than half of all articles in The New York Times that contain deep links have at least one rotted link.

Deletion isn’t the only issue. Not only can information be removed, but it also can be changed... Consider the experience of Philip Howard, who sat down to read a printed edition of War and Peace in 2010. Halfway through reading the brick-size tome, he purchased a 99-cent electronic edition for his Nook e-reader:
As I was reading, I came across this sentence: “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern …” Thinking this was simply a glitch in the software, I ignored the intrusive word and continued reading. Some pages later I encountered the rogue word again. With my third encounter I decided to retrieve my hard cover book and find the original (well, the translated) text.

For the sentence above I discovered this genuine translation: “It was as if a light had been kindled in a carved and painted lantern …”
A search of this Nook version of the book confirmed it: Every instance of the word kindle had been replaced by nook, in perhaps an attempt to alter a previously made Kindle version of the book for Nook use...

It is only a matter of time before the retroactive malleability of these forms of publishing becomes a new area of pressure and regulation for content censorship. 
"Retroactive malleability" sounds much sexier than "content drift."  And it allows me to sometimes have fun with the blog - as for example predicting the outcome of a sporting event like the NCAA basketball tournament.  If I'm wildly wrong, I can either eliminate the original post, or I can go back to it and change my prediction.

But it also means that one has to be increasing skeptical about the validity of anything one reads on the internet.  And we can no longer trust that images have not been altered, that audio has not been faked, or even that an entire video is not "real."  It's an interesting and rather unsettling world that the next generation is going to have to live in.


  1. It's an interesting and rather unsettling world that the next generation is going to have to live in.

    But this has always been true for all media. Every teacher knows that new editions of school books are different from the previous one. Almost all new editions of any book are. And the same is true for music albums. Think of all the 25th anniversary albums that are coming out at the moment. They contain extra tracks and digitally improved versions of the original.

    Taylor Swift is rerecording all her music. Think of how confusing that's gonna be in 150 years. Finally: how many versions of Star Wars has George Lucas put out?

    Think of the bible - Plato's writing, or Buddha's writing, something really old. Do you really think we are reading the same as people 25 years ago? 100 years ago? 250 years ago? 1000 years ago?

    Everybody who's ever held a really old book in their hands knows that even if the text remained the same, old fonts are just hard to read.

    The only thing that's constant is change. It's very hard to keep things the same. Especially in a world where formats constantly change.

  2. The academic world has been attacking this problem through the DOI (digital object identifier) system.

  3. why not link to the obsolete site through that sites wayback.com record?


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