Monday, August 11, 2003

To delete or not to delete, that is the question... 

Once again, Shelley Powers provides much food for thought. The issue here is the deletion, or not, of blog archives. Here’s a few of my struggling thoughts which attempt to get a handle on some of the philosophy.

One of the unique features of the Web, and indeed of electronic communication in general, is that it allows timeshifting – dialogue can take place over an extended period, to suit the lifestyle, time zone and even speed of thought processes of the participants. Extended, but only up to a point, depending on the situation and application. The dialogue inevitably moves on.

It’s a bit like the frozen edge of a lake in winter. The ice already formed is the past – the ideas, thoughts (and even permalinks) that have been expressed, debated, written down, codified, related to other ideas. The free water in the middle of the lake is the made up of the embryonic ideas yet to be born and develop relationships with the other ideas milling around out there. The really interesting place is the boundary between ice and water, where the semi-random, semi-chaotic processes of interaction, both predicatable and chance, result in new ideas, new structures crystallising out of the fluidity of our thought processes.

I’m usually wary about taking analogies too far, but in some ways this analogy may be quite precise. Just as a free water molecule at the edge of the ice stops being chaotic and develops bonds with the molecules in the ice crystal lattice, so ideas being formed latch on to ideas already expressed and so themselves become part of the lattice. (If you want, you could develop it still further: editing posts becomes melting and re-freezing; broken links are holes in the ice – I’m sure the imaginative could think of more but I become less sure of the usefulness of the analogy the further it gets stretched. Analogies are useful in that they provide a bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar, but only remain useful if the land at the end of the bridge is terra firma and not a mirage).

Ideas rarely develop in isolation; instead they grow through a process of dialogue, even if that is internal dialogue within one person. In normal conversation that development process is usually never recorded, but developing ideas on the web through the medium of a blog is perhaps unique in the way it allows the process – or as much of the process as the participants are willing to expose - to be captured and recorded. So there might just be an opportunity there to begin to find an answer to the question “Where does knowledge come from?”

We write in order to have influence – even if only influence on ourselves, giving order to a chaotic mass of semi-structured thoughts. If the writing is successful, in that it has influence, it is no longer an isolated object but becomes part of a wider web (in the most general sense of the word) of cause and effect. I think Maria is spot on when she says:

“Just think, by the fact that this piece of writing existed, by the virtue that it was read, it has helped shape some of the currents and it has made some tides rise, where there would be no currents, or where the sea would be calm as a lake. In this sense, the Web is never broken, and this sense, there is no taking away that which was once cast out there on the open waters of the Internet.”

So deleting an archive will only delete the record of the words. The idea lives on in the influence it has had.

Mind you, deletion might prevent the words having further influence. The world is a strange and chaotic place, and isolated lumps of history have a habit of surfacing when you least expect them…

Back to current posts