Two recent news items referring to two very different events set me thinking about the power that the written word holds over information.
In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare famously penned: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this and this gives life to thee,” intending those words about that person to linger ineradicably kind and loving and true throughout history.
But what about the long term ineradicable untruths and harm caused by words Shakespeare set down referring to a different person?
Earlier this year, the reconstruction of the spine from the-recently discovered skeletal remains of England’s King Richard III proved that his appearance was unlikely to have been anywhere near as misshapen as Shakespeare made it out to be. It would seem that stories set down by enemies more than 400 years ago were able to twist not only Richard’s body, but also his character, beyond recognition.
The myth that Richard was an embittered hunchback with a withered arm would probably have died a death had not Shakespeare - writing from the point of view of the culture and political climate of his own time - become so famous as to create a world wide web of his own more than five centuries before Tim Berners Lee came on the scene.
Mention of the creator of the world-wide web leads neatly on to the second of the news items I referred to. That is the controversial ruling by the European Court of Justice that requires Google to consider information removal requests from individuals whose data its search engine has indexed - even if that information is accurate.
This so-called “right to be forgotten” may be reasonable if the people concerned are merely online users, but what about those who are determined online abusers? The blanket ruling means that they will be able remove information about nefarious activities that readers might otherwise have been alerted to, leading to claims that it could ”corrupt history”.
True, if the Web is indeed to become the brain of the world it must be allowed to forget some of the data it collects and store certain files so deep in its system’s stacks that they can only be accessed in extremis.
But the human brain it mimics has never had the capacity to hide or remove information once shared with or noted by others. So important is this fact that other people’s recall of what was said and seen and meant has become the very backbone of the world’s legal decision making.
Surely Europe cannot be allowed to go it alone in this way? A section of the International Court of Human Rights should be being set up - right now - to create a format that will take care of all information from all continents that has already appeared on the internet and to determine the rules for future filings.
Should that ever happen I suggest that words delivered by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, to a recent conference on Inclusive Capitalism be used as the benchmark:
“A sense of self must be accompanied by a sense of the systemic.”