Three internet tropes

Number three, from WikipediaThree articles in today’s Observer demonstrate three recurrent tropes.

Update: The first relates to Goodwin’s Law; the second concerns the long-term fragility of digital storage of date; and the third relates to the religious wars between mac and pc.

First, Goodwin‘s law. In its original form, it stated that as a usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. One evolution is that it is now applied not to usenet discussions (of blessed memory) but, first, to all internet discussions, and then to debate in general. And another evolution is the qualification that, once the comparison occurs, the debate is automatically ended and whoever made the comparison has automatically lost. There is an excellent illustration of the extended application of Goodwin’s law in the Observer‘s Readers’ Editor’s column:

The readers’ editor on … the important line between argument and insult

Why is it that when heartfelt anger enters a debate, we so often wave goodbye to rational discourse? It’s self-evident that the freedom to express ourselves carries with it the duty to use that freedom responsibly, but time and again the red mist of odious comparison descends and a valid point is lost before an argument has even begun.

Take the widespread shock at the occupation of Gaza. … Some of that shock found its voice in letters to the Observer and in postings on our website. One reader wrote demanding to know why his comment had been taken off the site. “You have censored me,” he said. A check revealed that his posting had begun: “What we are seeing now is a recapitulation of the Warsaw ghetto, an exercise in pathological sadism.”

… [The piece set out a discussion that ensued between the reader and the editor, and concluded that] however genuine the reader’s loathing of Israel’s action, he lost the argument as soon as he deployed such an offensive comparison. By all means let’s have a lively, heated, informed debate, but no cause, however worthy, is furthered by the casual use of an easy insult.

Update (26 January 2009): here‘s an Irish example of reaching for the Nazi analogy in a similar context.

Second, there is an ongoing debate about whether the internet remembers everything, or whether the fragility of digital memory means that we are in danger of forgetting not only the ephemeral but also the irreplaceable. Lynne Brindley, the head of the British Library (in a piece that is taken up elsewhere in the same paper by David Smith) issues a call to arms:

We’re in danger of losing our memories

Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft. I call it personal digital disorder. … As chief executive of the British Library, it’s my job to ensure that this does not extend to our national memory. At the exact moment Barack Obama was inaugurated, all traces of President Bush vanished from the White House website, replaced by images of and speeches by his successor. … The 2000 Sydney Olympics was the first truly online games with more 150 websites, but these sites disappeared overnight at the end of the games and the only record is held by the National Library of Australia. …

If websites continue to disappear in the same way as those on President Bush and the Sydney Olympics – perhaps exacerbated by the current economic climate that is killing companies – the memory of the nation disappears too. Historians and citizens of the future will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century. … We are in danger of creating a black hole for future historians and writers. In the British Library, the UK has an institution capable of leadership and a track record of delivery to ensure that our digital future can be a rich goldmine and not a void. …

Third, Apple divides the computer world into those who are zealots for the works of Steve Jobs’ Cupertino minions and those Redmond apostles for Bil Gates who are sanctimoniously repelled by such zealotry. John Naughton has a wonderful take on this modern religious divide in his column. He begins with a wonderfully acerbic essay by Umberto Eco on this great theological divide: The Holy War: Mac vs. DOS. He gives the example of the new White House team, mac evangelicals all, calcified by six year old pcs. And he concludes:

Apple’s holier-than-thou attitude may be its salvation

… So the struggle between the Apple and PC religions goes on, yea even in the highest circles. Outside, in the marketplace, their respective fortunes diverged markedly. Apple announced better than expected results, with quarterly sales exceeding $10bn. Microsoft’s results were worse than expected and prompted the first mass layoffs in the company’s history … Intel – the chip manufacturer that supplies the hardware to power the church of the PC – announced plans to cut 5,000-6,000 jobs and close five manufacturing plants. … For those reared in an era when owning shares in Microsoft and Intel was a licence to print money, this is a token of a world turning upside down … when everyone is tightening belts, it means that Microsoft and Intel are especially vulnerable to business conditions.

Conversely, does this mean that what analysts have hitherto always regarded as Apple’s weakness – its inability to penetrate the business marketplace – has suddenly become a strength? The answer depends on whether the millions of consumers who buy Apple laptops, iMacs, iPhones, iTunes tracks and iPods also begin to feel the economic pinch and cut back on discretionary spending. We’ll know in three months.

The moral of the story is that I’m glad that this blog-post was written on a mac, backed up twice, and didn’t infringe Goodwin’s Law.

Oh, and happy Burns Night.

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