Monday, January 21, 2008

STARE DECISIS in the Blogosphere

Those who read the entirety of Rush to Judgment, Internet Style, including the chain of comments amounting to an exchange with Brad Friedman (editor of The BRAD BLOG), know that I found myself caught on one of those unfortunate consequences of blog practice, which is the ability of edit or discard material after it has been posted (and therefore presumably been read, possibly by a crawler for a search engine). My reaction (as is all too often the case) was to grouse about this state of affairs:

In the old days of print journalism, one could only add to the historical record (some of those additions being retractions and apologies). In the blogosphere we can rewrite history pretty much the way Orwell imagined we would eventually do.

I never received any sympathy for (or even acknowledgement of) this position, which I suppose may have been perceived by some as goring one of the sacred cows of Web 2.0 evangelism. Today I discovered that I have at least one supporter, even though he is no longer alive to raise his voice on my behalf.

When Clifford Geertz began to collect the essays that would eventually be published under the title The Interpretation of Cultures, he found himself tempted to update some of his material. As he put it, this would be an opportunity to use the published collection to assert, "this is what I meant to say." He used his Preface to discuss his reaction to this temptation:

In general, I hold to a stare decisis view of published pieces, if only because if they need very much revision they probably ought not to be reprinted at all, but should be replaced with a wholly new article getting the damn thing right. Further, correcting one’s misjudgments by writing changed views back into earlier works seems to me not wholly cricket, and it obscures the development of ideas that one is supposedly trying to demonstrate in collecting the essays in the first place.

Many of us are probably familiar with the phrase stare decisis, given the abundance of television programming now occupied with the legal profession. The literal translation is "stand by things decided;" but this often gets abbreviated by snappy scriptwriters down to "let it stand." Where I agree with Geertz is that, once a text has been completed and distributed for others to read (even in the blogosphere), it is, as I previously put it, part of the historical record and is therefore one of many "things decided." If I decided that I can no long "stand by" it, then the only thing I can do is write another piece of text, hopefully, as Geertz put it so well, "getting the damn thing right." Both of those texts are then in the historical record, each with a time stamp that informs the reader of which was the forethought and which the afterthought.

Of course, as I have previously discussed, if we were even to try to open a discussion on the topic of such stylistic practices in blogging, then it would not be the blogosphere any more. Look at what happened to attempts to address questions of conduct and governance when Kathy Sierra was attacked with death threats through the blogosphere. The blogosphere is what it is. If it changes, the change will probably be evolutionary, resulting from the blogosphere being what it is. It is a microcosmic illustration of the Zen proverb that one who tries to change the world can only make matters worse. Hence the need to live by the rule of caveat lector, rather in the tradition of Voltaire's injunction that each of us should look after his/her own garden.

I do not take this to be fatalistic, because change does happen. After all, Jimmy Wales now seems to have come around to affirm that editing would be good for Wikipedia, even if I still do not subscribe to the effectiveness of his new editing and checking procedures. If enough of us end up writing about how we live by the caveat lector rule, what we write may then reflect back on those who write the stuff we have been reading so warily; and the great battleship of blogging writing practices may begin to change its course. Do I really believe that? Well, I certainly do not reject its possibility; but I suspect it is more likely that, before such a course-change happens, the current fascination with blogging will just go the way of so many other Internet fads, getting replaced by some new fad for "self-expression" which will require its own set of caveat lector principles!

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