ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Why We Correct —

In Sandman #20, “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”, a performance of the Shakespeare play of that name is performed in front of the characters it was based on. Afterwards, the King of Fairie comments “..this diversion, although pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus.” The Sandman, who has comissioned the creation of the play, responds “Oh, but it is true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

Gaiman’s prose is beautiful to read, but we part ways on this. I am a very big proponent of facts, of having evidence and artifacts that tell a story, or betray a confidence, far into the future. I am not a fan of changing history to suit today’s needs, or, even worse, forgetting history to suit same. As a result, I find myself in the position of stepping into the recounting of facts and history, and issuing corrections where I can. Sometimes I am mean about it. Sometimes I am just neutrally resigned. It depends on the hour of the day.

Years of working on the BBS Documentary and the website made me, for better or worse, an expert in BBS History.  I say “better or worse” because it’s an interesting blend of useful and useless information to have. I know a lot about the transitions the BBS world went through, sometimes down to the month. But I also know way too much about internal fighting at BBS software firms, on message boards, and over controversies that persist in some way to today. I have some amazing triumphs down in the archives, and a good bit of shame and hubris as well. It depends on what you’re looking for.

This article I just stepped in on is an example. Utilizing “various sources” (which usually means Wikipedia and other Wired articles), the author takes one data point (Neilsen Net Ratings says half of households have internet access in 2000) and then bloats out his word count (to hit the minimum) with some randomly thrown-together factoids from earlier days. I doubt a fact-checker was employed; I question how many other people besides the author read the article before it appeared online. I found several errors. I’m sure others would find more.

But this is meant to be an article of record, or at least it should. Others will cite this article as being accurate. Others will use this article in writing more Wired articles. There’s a hysterical bias in Wired articles going back to the beginning – the Well (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) invents online communication, and then everybody else follows up on it. Decades of online communication predate the Well, trust me.

I could let it go, hope that people will find the information they need elsewhere and have it accurate. But something in me just won’t let it sit. What I see in there, intentionally or not, is a diminishing of accomplishments, a dialing down of influence, a quiet nudge of some very smart and bright people closer to a garbage chute. Believe me, I have sat through more than my share of old guys yammering about the good old days and how they did it all first, but in quite a few cases those guys are totally entitled to do so. As one of my interviewees said, “one of [us three being interviewed] has software we wrote on every desktop computer”. He’s probably very, very right. He gets the victory lap. When I see someone else coming along and trying to trip them up during this victory lap without doing research behind it, all I see is red. And this, bear in mind, is when I encounter incompetence. Wait’ll you see what I write when I encounter malefeasance.

Randall’s comic might be quoted by the more cutty-pasty of the reading audience, but I like to think this “stand down, internet warrior” motto is applicable to boards where opinion reigns, where discussing what car or movie or item is “better” than another could go until doomsday. This isn’t the case when someone implies a company invented the Blorp in 1992 when Blorp technology had been swirling around quite a bit in the early 1980s. When you have the messages, the printouts, the files with the date, it’s even easier. And I feel, truly, that it’s a duty to make it known that the facts being presented are in error.

So I correct.

And sure, the time will come when it won’t matter, when the fact may or may not be that this set of four people invented Blorp or this other set of four people invented Blorp, or that two of them stole Blorp from the other two. But that time is nowhere near here, not when all the parties involved in Blorp still walk above the ground and the influence of Blorp is felt on a daily basis. There’s a webcomic for that idea, too.

Until then, I’ll be there, doing the nips and tucks one needs to keep us from steering too far away from the facts I can show are true.

By the way, it wasn’t Sandman #20. It was Sandman #19.

Trust nothing.

Categorised as: housecleaning | jason his own self

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  1. Erin says:

    Great post, Jason.

    Sadly, I think our society has reached the point in where they believe facts are no longer important. Many want the truth to be something that mirrors their own beliefs, even if it goes against hard facts.

    I came across this disturbing trend a while back when I worked as a reporter. A couple of days after interviewing an important figure, I spoke with an acquaintance who had an interest in my assignment. She commented that the person I spoke with — someone she never met or spoke to — had a certain perspective on recent events. I explained this person had the opposite viewpoint. I offered to play a recording of the interview. She didn’t want to hear it and continued to insist I was wrong.

    Has society become this way because of a lack of education? Or are they too weak to just face the facts? Either way, it is depressing. 

  2. Gene Buckle says:

    It’s become quite the norm (from my experience) that people don’t want their opinions challenged by facts.


  3. Chris Barts says:

    Anyone who thinks this is new (the idea that facts don’t matter) is themself woefully mistaken. The difference now is that we usually have more than one source for things, so there is at least a chance (not a certainty) of someone getting it right.
    In short: Anyone who whines about “Kids these days” probably doesn’t know much about kids back then.

  4. Decius says:

    Wow… not even internally consistent:
    “By 2000, a mere six years after the internet became available to the general public”
    “I cannot help remembering what it was like in 1994 when the first “pure internet” ISPs set up shop. I quit AOL for Earthlink”

    And the jargon file says that the September That Never Ended (when AOL allowed access to newsgroups) was in 1993, and the internet went _mainstream_ in 1994.