Retcons and Reversals

Wendy Grossman looks back at this week’s real-life Internet-related news, showing that it has seen so many retcons and reversals, that if it were a TV series, the showrunner would demand that the writers slow the pace.

Image: CC-BY-SA Gary Knight

 Reversals - in which a twist of plot or dialogue reverses what's gone before it - make for great moments in fiction, both comic and tragic. Retcons, in which the known history of a character or event is rewritten or ignored are typically a sign of writer panic: they're out of ideas and are desperate enough to betray the characters and enrage the fans.

This week real-life Internet-related news has seen so many of both that if it were a TV series the showrunner would demand that the writers slow the pace. To recap:

Reversal: Paul Chambers' acquittal on appeal in the so-called Twitter joke trial is good news for everyone: common sense has finally prevailed, albeit at great cost to Chambers, whose life was (we hope temporarily) wrecked by the original arrest and guilty verdict. The decision should go a long way toward establishing that context matters; that what is said online and in public may still be intended only for a relatively small audience who give it its correct meaning; and that when the personnel responsible for airport security, the police, and everyone else up the chain understand there was no threat intended the Crown Prosecution Service should pay attention. What we're trying to stop is people blowing up airports, not people expressing frustration on Twitter. The good news is that everyone except the CPS and the original judge could accurately tell the difference.

Retcon: The rewrite of British laws to close streets and control street signs, retailers, individual behavior, and other public displays for the next month, all to make the International Olympic Committee happy is both wrong and ironic. While the athletes are required to appear to be amateurs who participate purely for the love of sport (no matter what failed drug tests indicate), the IOC and its London delegate, LOCOG, are trying to please their corporate masters by behaving like bullies. This should not have been a surprise, given both the list of high-level corporate sponsors and the terms of the 2006 Act the British Parliament passed in their shameful eagerness to *get* the Olympics. No sporting event, no matter how prominent, no matter how much politicians hope it will bring luster to their country and keep them in office, should override national laws, norms, and standards.

In 1997 I predicted for the top ten new jobs for 2002. Number one was copyright protection officer, which I imagined as someone who visited schools to ensure that children complied with trademark, copyright, and other intellectual property requirements. Today, according to CNN and the New York Times, 280 "brand police" are scouring London for marketers who are violating the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 by using words that might conjure up an association with the Olympics in people's minds. Even Michael Payne, the marketing director who formulated the IOC's branding strategy, complains that LOCOG has gone too far. The Olympics of Discontent, indeed.

Reversal: Eleven-year-old Liam Corcoran managed to get through security and onto a plane, all without a ticket, boarding pass, or passport, apparently more or less by accident. The story probably shouldn't be the occasion for too much hand-wringing about security. The fixes are simple and cheap. And it's not as if the boy got through with 3D printer and enough material to make a functioning gun. (Doubtless to be banned from Olympic events in 2016, alongside wireless hubs.

Retcon: If you're going to (let's call it) reinterpret history to suit an agenda, you should probably stick with events far enough back that the people are all dead. There is by now plenty of high-quality debunking of Gordon Crovitz's claim in the Wall Street Journal that government involvement in the invention of the Internet is a "myth". Ha. Not only was the development of the Internet largely supported by the US government (and championed by Al Gore), so was the of the rest of the computer industry. That conservatives would argue this wasn't true is baffling; isn't the military supposed to be the one part of government anti-big-government people actually like? Another data point left out of the (largely American) discussion: the US government wasn't the only one involved. Much of the early work on internetworking involved international teamwork. The term "packet" in "packet switching", the fundamental way the Internet transmits data, came from the British efforts; its inventor was the Welsh computer scientist Donald Davies at the UK's National Physical Laboratory. Not that Mitt Romney will want to know this.

For good historical accounts of the building of the Internet, see Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (1998) and (especially for a more international view) Janet Abbate's Inventing the Internet. As for the Romney/Obama spat over who built what, I suspect that what President Obama was trying to get across was a point similar to that made by the writer Paulina Borsook in 1996: that without good roads, clean water, good schools, and all the other infrastructure First Worlders take for granted, big, new companies have a hard time emerging.

It's all part of that open, free infrastructure we so often like to talk about that's necessary for the commons to thrive. And for that, you need governments to do the right things.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

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By Wendy Grossman on Jul 30, 2012

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