April 15, 2004

We are all Big Brother

According to Ray Girvan, the credulous New Scientist story on "chatnannies" (follow the links here for a summary) has been pulled and replaced by a page saying "Serious doubts have been brought to our attention about this story. Consequently, we have removed it while we investigate its veracity. -- Jeremy Webb, Editor". Good for them. The BBC story has been pulled with no explanation. Shame on the beeb for being unwilling to admit error.

Ray also links to an excellent article by Charles Arthur in the Independent, who explains in a very clear way exactly what Ken Layne's expression "we can fact-check your ass" meant in this case. Arthur's conclusion:

While everyone is worrying about Google acting like Big Brother, they're ignoring the fact that it has democratised Big Brother and made it available to anyone. Imagine the telescreens in 1984 being able to see what anyone else was doing: the mendacious society depicted by Orwell couldn't have continued.

What Google and the other search engines do is like the Victorian concept of the panopticon, the prison in which every prisoner can be seen from a single place. But our existence now differs from both those concepts because we can use Google to watch each other. We are all Big Brother. The only secrets that remain are those that aren't yet on the web - and that's a pool of knowledge that is shrinking daily.

It's a bad time to be a member of a "shame culture".

And speaking of shame, the 404 from the BBC is not just because of some page relocation: searching the BBC News and BBCi sites yields a message that 'There are no websites that match "chatnannies".' Imagine their reaction if some politician tried this: endorsing an apparently nonsensical proposal, saying nothing for a three weeks in response to serious doubts from credible sources, and then silently removing the proposal document and trying to pretend that the whole thing never happened. You'd think that a week after they pulled their story, they might have gotten it together to publish something about the whole sequence.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 15, 2004 11:47 AM