In part 1 of this story, I described the difficulty of accessing a commercial CD-ROM published in 1989. Eventually, out of frustration, I questioned its value and wondered who actually cared about outdated software. So I consulted some colleagues.
It turns out that some gamers care, especially those who are fanatical about the original look and feel of favorite old games. Many are dedicated enough to build their own emulators in order to continue playing the games.
And some cultural historians care. Geoffrey Brown, professor of computer science at Indiana University, says that cultural historians with technological interests may want to access old CD-ROMs to study the design decisions.
For example, the Library of Congress’s American Memory was initially created for Hypercard. Carl Fleischhauer, digital initiatives project manager at the Library of Congress, worked on American Memory from its inception. Fleischhauer said, “American Memory was put onto CD-ROM between 1990 to 1994. Then the Mosaic browser came out and it became possible – and better – to put it all onto the web. We migrated all the content; nothing was lost. But even though the original disks still reside here in the Library, we can’t play them to see examples of our own original work.”
Brown has worked extensively with vintage CD-ROMs and he said, “Technology isn’t the problem, just lack of demand.” Indeed, just as a cylinder recording circa 1900 will still play on a cylinder player, the Hypercard application will play on the appropriate hardware and software. But lack of demand makes it difficult for the average person to find free or low-cost resources.
Some institutions have created labs comprised of vintage technology, which they use for research. The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland, for example, has collected hardware and software that date back to the early 1980s.
MITH’s preservation services are not open to the general public — it mostly serves the university and funded projects — but some outside researchers can find help there. Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate director of MITH, said he recently helped an out-of-state artist who wanted to restore some of his old digital artwork because he — the artist — valued its original appearance.
The Archeological Media Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder serves a similar function as MITH. Such labs are becoming increasingly necessary as institutions acquire collections that contain digital media, diskettes, CD-ROMs and even whole computers. Emory University is the recipient of such a collection, the Salman Rushdie archive, which includes the author’s personal computer resources.
In this video, Emory staff discuss the uniqueness of the collection for recreating Rushdie’s writing environment, such as Rushdie’s penchant for desktop sticky notes and the way his pages fit his computer screen (suggesting that the screen size may have influenced some of his composition decisions).
The Rushdie collection demonstrates the value of preserving vintage technology to support versions of artist’s digital work. It’s similar to preserving paper drafts of an author’s work to compare with the finished version, such as the drafts of Langston Hughes’s poem “Ballad of Booker T.” or Beethoven’s manuscript of Opus 109.
Geoffrey Brown notes that preservation of electronic games still has not improved and in time our modern games will, too, become inaccessible because of hardware and software dependence. “Look at today’s game platforms,” Brown said. “It’s virtually impossible to emulate them.”
Leslie Johnston, manager of technical architecture initiatives in at the Library of Congress, said that even our precious smart phone apps are destined for the same fate. “An app isn’t any better than a Hypercard stack,” said Johnston. “Because an app, twenty years from now, isn’t going to run easily in the same way that a Hypercard stack isn’t. That app requires a certain operating system and certain hardware to operate.”
So the app, the game, the interactive CD-ROM…all eventually become museum pieces. And that’s exactly where the salvation for curating and preserving vintage technology is likely to come from: museums, libraries and archives such as MITH, the Archeological Media Lab and Emory’s Rushdie archives.
Matthew Kirschenbaum defends the preservation of vintage technology in select cases, if only for the primary experience itself (as opposed to simulating it with modern emulation methods). He said, “What you risk missing out on, even with emulation, is the entirety of experiencing the work in its original environment. Sometimes the complete physical platform, the hardware, the original technology is important and it is integral to what that thing is….Even if the graphics don’t look great by today’s standards, that particular look that we associate with a certain moment in computing – the pixels and the jagged appearance, the 8-bit graphics and tinny sound effects – that’s important for that work and for a lot of people it has a lot of emotional power behind it.” Or an appreciation by younger audiences for creations from the past.
Those of us considering what to do with our old software or hardware may face difficult appraisal decisions.
How about the stuff you created? Artwork? Documents? Kirschenbaum said, “If your personal data is important to you then you should become a preservation activist and know about the steps you can take to get it back.”
A lot depends on formats, of course. A twenty-year-old GIF file should be easy to open in a modern graphics program but a text document might be more difficult depending on the word processing program you initially used. And, of course, once you restore your files, if they have personal value you should back them up on modern media. If they don’t have personal value — if it’s old homework, for example — delete them.
Commercial software and hardware are different. They have broad appeal, since many people enjoyed them at one time and, by dint of their widespread usage, they are true cultural artifacts.
One archiving solution is to donate them. If you can upload your software, the Internet Archive has a software archive that accepts donations. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, accepts software and hardware donations. And they have an online checklist of what they want and what they don’t. The Computer History Museum is open to the public, so generations of visitors may be able to appreciate your donation.
And that’s what I decided to do with my CD-ROM of the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog: donate it. Better to have it curated by professionals and enjoyed by the public then neglected in my basement.