I still love that quote, from George Orwell. It was the title of a column he wrote in 1944, you can read it here. I bring it up because China – the People’s Republic of China, or as it’s also called, Communist China – just celebrated the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. The Atlantic, and one of my favorite features they do, In Focus, has great photos up that relate to both this topic, and this great quote from Orwell.
When Orwell wrote in 1944, he argued that it had been possible to know, before that era, the generals facts of history. People could be in general agreement about the general dates of events, the campaigns of wars, even about the general numbers of casualties in wars fought long before. He argued that between Gutenberg and his printing press, and modern wireless and other communication means, truth and lies were so mixed, there would nevermore be agreements on any such things.
Like China and World War II. Did the communist forces fight the Japanese in World War II, or was it the nationalist forces who did the fighting, only to later lose power to the communist forces and flee to Taiwan? That’s now a battle fought largely in history books, I suppose.
But compare that with the battles fought now, regarding Russia’s role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. That’s being discussed, documents, and archived forever on the semi-free, semi-foreverness of the internet. That’s less an issue of history being written by the winners, than history being written by the writers, and history being shaped by those who control the servers.
With that, archiving data, for the sake of archiving data, becomes important. How we produce information and now history has changed, just within my lifetime. The wars and conflicts of my military career were all ones carried out with an internet presence, with people blogging, and emailing, and generating digital footprints and content. There aren’t the paper letters and old black and white photos, as was the case when Orwell wrote in ’44, but low resolutions .jpg photos of scruffy soldiers besides tanks in Bosnia in 1996, and emails sent on America Online via dialup.
I don’t know what the new buzzphrase is that will replace “History is Written By the Winners” but there’s something needed. It’s changed, post digital.