DS: Shakespeare, the iconic author.

Pettitt: Well, he is now. The bracket goes right through his career. I put that bracket at about 1600, and Shakespeare is a very good example of someone who recycled material.

Sauerberg: It’s a Gutenberg-parenthesis symptom to hunt for the real Shakespeare.

Pettitt: He didn’t care. He didn’t care. Half of his works appeared without his name on them.

DS: They were published in quartos [big sheets folded into quarters]?

Pettitt: Quartos. Their equivalent of our paperbacks. They were published as paperbacks, and let’s say, half of them didn’t have his name on them. Shakespeare did not invent any of his plots. Shakespeare rewrote dramatized existing narratives, and in many cases, wrote new versions of existing plays. There’s an awful lot in Shakespeare, which is not Shakespeare. And he also used standardized techniques. He used verbal formulas and traditional dramatic structures, standard units—a bit like Lego bricks fitted together.

DS: Okay, not to keep us going all day, but there’s a couple things I wanted to work with and one of them is the limits of the idea of restoration and return. This idea of poets, storytellers and people who deliver news verbally—all that resonates as being restored today. But there seems to be a real fundamental difference between that kind of cultural production and the digital age, and that is this idea of a record. Sometimes I feel like the Internet is the ultimate container.

Pettitt: Well how long is it since you tried to link to a place, and it said, “no longer exists?” What is the average lifespan of an Internet site? I think I read it’s two years.

Sauerberg: You’re forced to change platforms every 10 years.

DS: Do you really have faith—in a serious way—that something you upload today will not be available later to come back to haunt you? Now we’re talking about authority. Now we’re talking about a thing in which all of your musings, and your poems, and your songs are now open to scrutiny, and I want to say permanently, and I think you should concede there’s a problem here, right?

Pettitt: In my experience and my thinking, the Internet, digital technology are as ephemeral as speech in the sense that I cannot easily now access documents I wrote in 2003. I will ask for special help to do it. And a lot will survive. I’m sure anything wicked I’ve written will turn up somewhere, but an awful lot of other things will disappear.

DS: But you see the issue about someone in Medieval times telling a story that was outside the bounds of authoritative sanction, afterward it was gone. Now, for journalists, this is not a small deal. But also as just people living in this new environment, the fluidity is, to me, within a giant container.

Sauerberg: Yes, but if you take a look at things before the parentheses, people had to keep all those things in their heads. Within the parenthesis, you have books, you can put all of your memories up on shelves. It was easily recognizable and accessible and you know exactly where it is on the shelf. Now you put everything into the computer. I’ve spent most of this morning looking for exact texts from seven years ago, that I hope to be able to recycle and find them. They are somewhere in there. I have to use my own head as the sort of control and I find that, increasingly so, that I have to keep a personal touch on what I need because I cannot rely on the computer because everything goes into it. It’s far too plentiful.

DS: But isn’t the reason that Google is the largest corporation in the face of the earth precisely because of its ability to perform searches just like the one you’re talking about and if you couldn’t find it, someone with a greater technical expertise could? And we’re talking about authority at this point.

Sauerberg: But I need to know what to look for exactly, which means I would have to use my head in the first place.

DS: I wish I could be as comfortable that everything we’re doing now. For instance, this machine [the voice recorder], it changes the whole story, right? Say this was a live feed…

Pettitt: We’d have to worry about it for about four years.

DS: You’d have to worry about it for at least four years.

Pettitt: Yeah, and then after that it would disappear. There’d be so much stuff around, it would disappear. Google only goes for the stuff with plenty of links. Or all the links would be broken.

Sauerberg: That we would have to rely on memory.

Pettitt: And we would claim that it’s been manipulated. That’s the other point.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.