'History is written by the victors' is a phrase with which most of us are familiar. It may have been coined by Winston Churchill, though opinion on the matter varies, but the relevant point here is that written history was once immutable and permanent, whoever penned it.
Back in the days when information was stored on flattened sheets of mashed up trees, the written word was all powerful and in most cases unquestioned. But the 'democratisation' and digitisation of information has changed the world for the better in so many ways that it makes our heads spin just thinking about it.
And the world is on the brink of an overload of information. Where once the only people with access to printing presses were scholars, academics and clerics, nowadays anyone with access to the all-powerful Internet can disseminate information - be it accurate or asinine - on a whim.
And while most of us will filter content which has had no peer-review process whatsoever, there are undoubtedly millions of people who treat the likes of Wikipedia with the same unquestioning lack of pessimism as our parents and grandparents would have treated the Encyclopedia Britannica (or whatever esteemed tome set the standard for accurate information wherever in the world you happen to be reading this).
A little bit of history
The written word was once literally set in stone. If you wanted to inform your populace, you got your masons to carve your words of wisdom into a slab of granite, and propped it up in the marketplace or place of worship or privvy for all to see. That hardly anyone could actually read the missive was of little consequence. The words were there for all time. Anyone who wanted to surreptitiously alter your take on current events would have to bring a hammer and chisel under the cover of darkness.
The first books were hand written for Kings and Cardinals. The mainly religious tracts were painstakingly illuminated by cloistered monks and rarely saw the light of day, being so rare and fragile. Anyone who tried to tear out a few pages with which they didn't agree and add a couple of their own would have met with a sticky end (probably on the pointy end of a stick).
Then some bright spark called Caxton invented the movable type printing press and all hell was let loose. Printed matter became commonplace and even the unwashed masses learned to read. People were free to publish their opinions on the Kings and Cardinals and revolution inevitably ensued.
Today we all take the written word for granted. It informs, entertains and enrages us in equal measure. The Internet has given us a global soapbox on which to stand and bellow at our fellow earthlings. Everyone has a voice.
Andy Warhol promised us all fifteen minutes of fame, but the Pop Art pioneer hadn't reckoned on the Internet. The web's growing reach into our lives has enriched our existence beyond measure. But it has also exposed us all to so much eroneous information that it has become all but impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Someone once said: "with great power comes great responsibility". It was either Franklin D Roosevelt or Spiderman's grandad, depending on which generation you are from. The problem is, the modern digital world has given all of us more power than we can possibly handle.
Among the witless witterings and twitterings of the Facebook generation, fundamentalism of every hue has been given a global platform. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing. But the freedom to perpetuate lies in the pursuit of self-agrandisement, or profit, or political power is less attractive.
And it's in the next chapter in the history publishing where some worrying cracks in the veracity of the written word are appearing.
Brave new world
Electronic publishing is now becoming mainstream. Amazon's Kindle, Apple's iPad and a growing tide of portable devices are bringing books out of the library and into the hands of the people in an unprecedented way. Many of us now have the ability to carry thousands of volumes of written material in our pockets wherever we go.
But unlike those dusty, musty slabs of bound paper with which some of us are still inextricably enamoured, today's published formats are open to abuse.
Some Amazon Kindle readers have recently been surprised to find that books that they have purchased have been updated. One novel by F Paul Wilson was found to be missing several chapters once it had been converted into the device's native format.
In this case, the text was updated to reflect the author's original manuscript, and subscribers were openly informed that the change had been made. But it doesn't take a rabid conspiracy theorist to postulate that the system could be manipulated to more nefarious ends.
We live in a society where information is everything. We rely on those in the upper echelons of government, the media and a wider society to provide us with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
But the sheer quantity of written material available has forever blurred the line between information and opinion.
The individuals and organisations which once furnished us with the tenets by which we historically measured our own place in the grand scheme of things - our religious leaders, our newspaper editors, our novelists, our philosophers, our public service broadcasters - have all become forever lost in the white noise of information overload, advertising revenue and celebrity tittle-tattle.
The truth is still out there. It's just so much harder to find.