Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Electronic Memory Holes

Recent Speculator column in Investor Relations Magazine.

Paper brought to book
March, 2007

Ian Williams worries about rewriting history
Books breed at night, with a surreptitious rustle of pages; there is no other explanation for their proliferation. But the days of excess paper may be short-lived. In the old days, backup meant laboriously interleaving the carbon paper in the typewriter and making sure you filed the copies away very carefully. Now, after reading a document in hard copy, you most likely throw it away. It’s easier to print a new copy when you need it than to waste space and time on filing cabinets.
Books have also become easier to print. My first tome, The Alms Trade, has been out of print for 15 years. But a publisher now wants to do a just-in-time edition: people who order online will get an individually printed trade paperback. The publisher is already anticipating e-books, however, so customers will just pay to download text the way they do now for music.
So far, though, the various e-book formats don’t meet the standards of flexible usage required by bathroom, bedroom and on-train readers. But it can’t be long before, instead of weighing down a suitcase with a heavy selection of tomes for beach reading and delays at airports, we can pack one handy electronic device the size of a book, but lighter, thinner and capable of carrying half the Library of Congress.
Certainly, we are close to dropping paper from the newspaper industry. Morning papers increasingly look dated; most of the stories are online the day before. A handily portable ‘flexi-sheet’ that gets updated during the day with customized news and features, which I could read everywhere from cab to work cubicle, would be very attractive.
But there is one drawback, for which we need to refer to George Orwell’s 1984, in which the hero Winston Smith’s job is continually rewriting the articles in the newspaper archives to reshape history according to the current political line.
I often write for online publications, and I think of Winston each time I spot a mistake and call the editor. A few strokes of the keyboard and the online article is rewritten as if the mistake had never happened. It’s almost spooky. Just think of the future paperless world of knowledge.
A CEO wants to backdate options? Simply adjust the minutes of the meeting and hey presto! The past is altered on the electronic file.We said someone had WMDs and went to war but it turned out we were wrong? Simply adjust the record, either to add WMDs or to change the rationale for war.
Paper may not be as durable as inscribed marble slabs, but at least there are usually multiple copies, not all of which can be recalled and altered. With the penetration of the web, however, is it inconceivable that Microsoft, Time Warner or the Department of Homeland Security could enter and edit documents in your electronic library? Will your collected works of Shakespeare have Othello, Shylock and shrewish Kate edited out for political correctness? Will earnings estimates be revised so companies always meet their targets?
That is why I suspect the SEC and the judicial system will insist on printed paper documents for some time to come – and I will stick with my paper library.

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