On mutation of digital texts

From: The Future of the Humanities: Reading by Michael Dirda

[Great article. Read it in entirety before getting to my reaction to the following quote].

“A second worry is somewhat Orwellian. Physical books are — more or less — textually stable. We own them, we don’t simply borrow them for a while from an online vendor or download them from some nebulous cloud. But how much integrity can you attribute to pixels? Who’s to say that some evil jokester, religious zealot, or government agency might not quietly start altering texts, adjusting them to conform with current beliefs and ideologies? Controversial books might be softened — no more N-words in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — or even suppressed. Once begun, censorship never ends and could be far easier when dealing with evanescent pixels instead of cold, hard type. This anxiety may seem slightly paranoid, and yet the Internet is already rife with misinformation. I once looked up a famous quotation from Walden online and found four different versions of the same sentence, only one of which matched my Princeton edition of Thoreau’s book.

The fear that altered digital texts are somehow going to diminish the original texts are, IMHO, overblown. Yes, governments and censorious organizations can alter digital texts. But aren’t they already doing that to physical texts? Just check out the history books in some of the more repressive regimes. Censorship has always existed alongside ideas. The age of the Internet has made censorship only harder to achieve.

As Michael noted above, he found four variations of the Walden quote online - one of which was the original quote. Hidden in the worry about digital text mutation is also the fact that the original had survived the mutilation.

Searching for the original version of a text does indeed become more difficult in this age but it is not impossible. Over time, as digital text technologies evolve, we will be able to clearly separate the original text from the mutilations, annotations, commentaries, and variations, leading to a richer living text.