A Heisenberg Principle of web archiving ?

Whatever it means to real scientists, the famous ‘uncertainty principle’ of Werner Heisenberg is sometime popularly taken to mean that it is impossible closely to observe something without in some way altering it. It’s also a conundrum that has faced anthropologists when observing cultures far removed from their own: how far does the consciousness of being observed alter the behaviour of the subject ?

I’ve been publishing in print in the traditional way for some years now, and everyone knows that books are (in theory) permanent, that they find their way into libraries; and so one writes conscious that the words cannot be unwritten. Writing for the web, however, has had a more transient aesthetic: I can write with the freedom that comes from knowing that (in a site I control) I can retrospectively edit at will, should I choose to. There are good scholarly reasons not to, to do with making my work reliably citable; but in the final analysis I am not bound by them.

So far, the visibility of web archiving by national memory institutions is not yet high. In addition, if the UK Web Archive considers a site important enough to archive, then it must gain explicit permission; and by no means all website owners give that consent.  This blog is already being archived by the UK Web Archive  (last crawl in April 2012); but had I been at all concerned about the things I write having a permanent existence, then I could have withheld permission.

On the horizon is a major piece of legislation that could subtly but importantly change things: the Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-print Works) Regulations 2013 (see the most recent public consultations here.) As and when these successfully negotiate the passage through Parliament, any website in the .uk domain could be archived for posterity without the explicit consent of the owner.

The change in the law in itself isn’t my main point, however: the effects of increasing consciousness of it is. Put simply: will some words that might have been written in 2012 not be written in 2014 because the author was conscious that they could not later be retracted ? I think it likely. Would it be a ‘bad thing’ ? I don’t suppose we know yet; but we ought to be thinking about it.

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