Kari Kraus Talks About Digital Archeology, Video Game Preservation, and Being a “DH’er”

Digital preservation’s many challenges (planning, choosing formats, metadata, storage, etc.), can be further complicated when dealing with multi-media cultural and arts materials. For example, music and dance performances that incorporate the digital may also include the element of chance, and can change with each performance.  Or, maybe a piece of born digital artwork was created with several software programs that are already obsolete.  How do you best preserve the integrity of the original work?

Kari Kraus

These issues were discussed during the lively panel session “Preserving Digital Culture” at this years DigitalPreservation2012 meeting.  The panel moderator was Kari Kraus, Assistant Professor, College of Information Studies, Department of English at the University of Maryland. Previous interviews with individual panelists, Megan Winget, Doug Reside, and earlier by Ben Fino-Radin, and Jim Boulton, illustrate some of these specific challenges. I asked Kari to give us her overall take as moderator; here, she shares her thoughts on the panel and beyond.

Susan:  What led you to your current position, teaching in both the departments of English AND Information studies?

Kari:  In 1996, shortly after I began my PhD program in English literature at the University of Rochester, I started working with my advisor, Morris Eaves, and a few others on the William Blake Archive, an online collection of Blake’s poetry and art.  I spent a lot of time marking up Blake’s “illuminated books” in SGML—the precursor language to XML—and writing descriptive metadata for image search and retrieval. That project was my introduction to the world of Digital Humanities, only back then we called it “Humanities Computing.”  At the time we felt like a small band of misfits, doing work we found exhilarating, but which often met with quizzical stares from our humanities colleagues (remember this was 1996: GUI-style web browsing had only been around a few years).

Fast forward to 2012: it’s safe to say a lot has happened in the interim. In the last five years or so, Digital Humanities has really taken off, and a growing number of DHers, like me, are finding their way into Information Schools–“iSchools” for short–either as graduate students or faculty. This makes sense if you consider the increasingly significant relationship between academic libraries and DH Centers. Since iSchools are where we train the next generation of librarians and archivists, many of whom work with cultural heritage content, there’s a lot to be said for cross-pollination between DH students, staff, and faculty and their iSchool counterparts. In my case, I’ve been lucky enough to also keep one foot in an English Department with my joint appointment.

Susan:  During the panel Q and A, you asked the panelists about their use of the term “digital/media archeology” in their work (which prompted a lot of discussion on twitter as well).  Any other thoughts on that?

Kari:  I knew “media archaeology” would be topical for a few reasons. First, three of the four panelists had already adopted the term in one form or another. The brilliant Ben Fino-Radin—digital conservator at Rhizome.org–refers to himself as a “media archaeologist” in his online bio, alongside “archivist” and “researcher.”  Jim Boulton curates “Digital Archaeology,” an exhibition that pays tribute to some of the most influential websites and colorful personalities of the early web, which he spoke about at the conference. And Doug Reside had, just a day or two prior to the start of the conference, posted an online guide entitled “Digital Archaeology: Recovering Your Digital History,” which had been making the rounds on Twitter.

"Digital Archeology", screenshot from Jim Boulton's slide presentation

Second, I thought the question would speak to something that I deeply value about the digital archives community, which is how porous the boundaries currently are between it and several other communities of practice, including DH. The kind of “forensic materiality” that Matthew Kirschenbaum applies to the hard drive or Doug Reside to disk imaging has made inroads into the digital archives community and is evident in a project like BitCurator. That’s a clear example of the kind of crossover work between DH and archives that interests me. It’s also an example of the type of digital work that’s been framed as media archaeology by Jussi Parikka and others. Because Ben, Megan, and Doug all participate in overlapping communities in which the term “media archaeology” circulates, I knew they’d make those kinds of connections and have interesting things to say.

Third, “media archaeology” is as much a style as it is a set of methods or approaches. It’s been strongly influenced by the work of the German scholar Wolfgang Ernst. Ernst’s lab accessions old computers that are then dissected, hacked, and tinkered with, rather than displayed as museum objects (Parikka is essential reading on this). It’s more hackerspace than data recovery shop. So there’s very much a DIY component to media archaeology. You see this DIY ethos in, for example, Ben FinoRadin’s web archiving initiative at Rhizome, where they’re rolling their own solution using open source tools, such as wget and HTTrack, and then ingesting the content into their in-house digital repository, something he touched on in the panel.

Susan:  And how about the other question you asked, “how do you know when emulation is happening correctly”?

Kari:  Part of the larger context, as I recall, was Ben’s discussion of what constitutes “authentic rendering” of digital art. There were a couple of points I was trying to make: the first was that not all emulators are created equal. As part of the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, for example, our partners at the Rochester Institute of Technology selected several games in our case set, including Star Raiders (1982) and Mystery House (1980), to run in different emulation systems for comparison.  They found significant variation across emulators, with some able to re-create the original game experience much more faithfully than others. Differences in support for sound quality, graphical output, and keyboard behavior were noted, among other things.

The second point was that when it comes to cultural heritage content, we often seem to careen between the two ends of the digital preservation spectrum: either we’re reluctant to state that any attribute whatsoever of the original object might be expendable, implying that nothing less than a perfect digital facsimile will suffice for posterity, or else we embrace transformation and the vicissitudes of time in the spirit of the variable media approach favored by Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart, among others. Having frequently argued for models of authenticity that are tolerant of change, at least for certain classes of digital artifacts, I try to lend my voice to the latter perspective.

Susan:  Video game preservation was also discussed on the panel.  In the past, you have said that one of the more impressive digital curation efforts is taking place in the realm of video games.  Why is that?

Kari:  I’ve written and spoken a lot about the role of the player community in preserving video games (see here, here, and here, and in a forthcoming article with Rachel Donahue), so I won’t repeat what I’ve said elsewhere. But let me provide one anecdote from the Preserving Virtual Worlds project that drives the point home.

Our PVW case set included a number of works of early interactive fiction, one of which was Mindwheel (1984), authored by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States. The player of Mindwheel adopts the persona of a “mind adventurer” who must travel telepathically into the past to retrieve the Wheel of Wisdom, a mysterious object upon which the fate of humanity rests.  Along the way, she solves puzzles, answers riddles, and navigates the text-based virtual world via short typed commands.

While researching Mindwheel, I corresponded a bit with Steve Hales, one of the game’s original programmers. I found a short description of Mindwheel and a link to download the PC version on his website. The download includes the binary executable file and the game manual. Opening the pdf of the manual, I encountered the following text at the top of the title page: “Scanned and compiled by underdogs for Home of the Underdogs,” followed by a URL.

Home of the Underdogs, if you don’t already know, was an abandonware site active throughout much of the first decade of this century that made classic video games available for download and play. Shut down in c. 2009, the site has since been partially rebuilt, although most of the original game resources are no longer there. It appears that Hales acquired the copy available on his own website through Home of the Underdogs. In other words, he relied on a pirated copy supplied by the player community in order to gain access to his own work—the game he coded back in the early 80s–some 15 or 20 years later.  There’s a parable about citizen archives and community preservation to extract from this anecdote, I’m sure.

Susan: In your view, what were some other panel highlights?

Kari:  A major highlight for me was learning about Jim’s Digital Archaeology project—he’s the only speaker on the panel whose work I wasn’t already familiar with. Jim should also get some kind of award for the title of his talk, which was full of win: “The Underachieving Subgeniuses that Invented Modern Culture.” I also loved Megan’s discussion of preservation failure, using Merce Cunningham’s Loops project as an example.

 

One Comment

  1. Jim Boulton
    September 12, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Thanks for the mention! What made me call my exhibition ‘Digital Archaeology’ was firstly, the obvious parallels between excavating and restoring ancient artefacts and digging out and restoring early websites. More importantly, what started as an exhibition of hardware, software and media actually became an exhibition about people and culture. Just as archaeology plugs gaps in historical records, I wanted to tell the missing story of the web. The story of the elite, those that built and exploited the web, has been told but the story of the artists and designers that shaped it has not.

    I also need to credit Maris Bowe of Word.com for the title of my talk. She referred to her audience as ‘Underachieving Subgeniuses’, I just added the last bit.

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