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Media Archaeology and Digital Stewardship: An interview with Lori Emerson

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Lori Emerson Using an Apple Lisa in the Media Archaeology Lab

In what we hope will become a regular feature here on The Signal I am excited to have a chance to chat with Lori Emerson, a representative from the newest member of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance. Lori is the Director of the Media Archaeology Lab and an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She writes and teaches on electronic literature, 20th century experimental writing practices, and the history of technology/computing.

Trevor: Can you first tell us briefly about the Media Archaeology Lab and what led you to start the lab? I’m curious about your trajectory into retro computing from studying poetry.

Lori: Thanks so much, Trevor, for the opportunity to talk about the Media Archaeology Lab (or MAL) and the kinds of projects we’re working on. I’d like to discuss the lab in greater detail but for now, let me just say the MAL tries to both preserve and provide access to several interrelated aspects of our cultural past: historically important works of electronic literature, generally from before the era of the WWW, along with the platforms they were created on and for; and historically important computer hardware and software, such as the Apple IIe, Apple Lisa, Apple Macintosh, NeXT Cube, and Hypercard.

PCs in the Media Archeology Lab

This obsession I’ve discovered I have for trying to understand the inner workings of obsolete computers has caught me by surprise – in fact, I didn’t own a computer until the mid-1990s and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve dabbled in programming and started working on understanding how computers work. That said, in retrospect it does all make sense – for one thing, my background in experimental poetry and poetics is entirely based in my interest in materiality, whether it’s sound poetry and the accompanying material presence of the body or concrete poetry and the material shape, size, texture of individual letters created via letterpress, typewriter, or dry-transfer lettering. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in archiving these experimental poetry practices; for example, I’ve been the editor-in-chief of the online, grassroots archive for the Canadian poet bpNichol for a number of years and before that I helped created an online audio archive on Pennsound of sound poems by Nichol. Once I moved on to looking at digital poetry as a contemporary mode of experimental writing, I began thinking about the nature of materiality in these digital poems and it didn’t take long before I started to see that the original, now obsolete platforms for works from the 1980s and early to mid-1990s were essential to the works themselves – essential both in simply providing access to the writing, especially in cases where no one had yet created an emulation of the work, and in coming to a complete, even deeper understanding of the work and how it was produced.

Games and Software in the Lab's Collection

This need for preservation and access is one that e-literature authors themselves have recognized for a long time; they’ve known for at least a decade or more, for example, that their use of any proprietary software means that access to their work is not in their control – it’s in the control of the companies that own the software (such as Adobe Flash or, going further back, Apple’s Hypercard or Eastgate’s Storyspace). In 2004 the Electronic Literature Organization published “Acid-free Bits” which was a plea directly to writers, asking them to “work proactively in archiving their own creations” because “preserving e-lit, and creating e-lit that will remain available, is essential to the very concept of electronic literature, the basic idea that the computer can be a place for new literary works that make use of its capabilities.” My own solution to this need for preservation and access was to create the lab in 2009 after receiving a generous grant from ATLAS at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Since then, the lab has taken on a locavore approach to sustaining e-literature – a primarily hands-on and resolutely local version of the work I’ve done in the past with online archives that have a global reach.

Trevor: Can you elaborate on what you would like to accomplish via the lab?

Lori: While I would like to very soon develop a robust online presence for the MAL that uses Omeka and includes a complete catalogue of all of the lab’s holdings – its hardware, software, and documentation – for now, as I say above, my work with the MAL is motivated first by the pragmatic need to preserve and provide access to early works of electronic literature. The field of e-literature is rife with works that are historically important to the field and yet many of them we’ve either lost or lack the hardware/software to view them. How can we ever have a sense of e-literature as a field with a complex, varied past and then support the continued vitality of the field if its past is constantly receding and we only ever have access to works no more than ten years old? I understand there is an argument to be made for creating intentionally ephemeral works of art as a way to disrupt the increasingly profit-oriented art world, one which has, some argue, utterly capitulated to capitalism in that, for example, the value of an art object is not only tied to a carefully marketed individual artist but that also only increases over time. But what happens to our cultural memory, our past and therefore our future, if practically every work of e-literature disappears in the name of ephemerality – whether intentional or not? Moreover, to return to my point above about providing access to the platforms these works were made on: we do need emulations of early works of e-literature, such as bpNichol’s First Screening, because not everyone has the ability to travel to view it on the Apple IIe (on which it was written), emulation will never be able to replicate the entire physical, sensory, tactile experience of working on the original machine. The clackety-clack of the keyboard, the act of taking the 5.25″ floppy out of its sleeve, sliding it into the drive, hearing the whir and beep of the machine, the ability to open up the hood and insert an expansion card is integral to the reading/writing experience.

Lori Emerson operating the Lab's Vectrex

In tying the lab to both preservation and access, I hope to make sure that it isn’t merely a museum space for passive viewing or a nostalgia generator but rather a place for active research and teaching that also unquestionably has a political aspect. It seems to me there is a clear push in the contemporary computing industry over the last decade toward the so-called “interface-free” and toward making computers, computing devices, “invisible – which is another way of saying that the industry is trying to make our devices so perfectly woven into the fabric of everyday life that we no longer notice them and so we no longer have a sense of how they are working on us, steering and directing our creativity, making access to information anything but neutral. I’ve found that critical-minded tinkering with obsolete hardware and software actually has the effect of bringing the present back into view again and even re-enlivening our sense of the creative possibilities computers help bring about. For example, I often bring the Apple IIe into my classes along with the First Screening floppies, have my students run the poem, tinker with the machine, look at the Apple BASIC code, and suddenly, because they learn to navigate a command-line interface for the first time, not only do they see the Graphical User Interface of their own computers for the first time, but suddenly programming and getting behind the scenes no longer seem so daunting. It’s striking how often students are inspired to create something themselves based on their interactions with First Screening.

Trevor: Could you give us a bit more of a background on what media archeology is and its connection to the MAL? What value do you think the media archaeology perspective brings to broader discussions of digital preservation and digital stewardship?

Lori: I first called the lab the Archaeological Media Lab without knowing anything at all about the field of media archaeology; now, given how much the field resonates with what I’m trying to do in the lab and with my research in general, I’ve renamed it the Media Archaeology Lab. The lab tries to, then, be a place to “do” media archaeology – a place to do practice-based research, as I’ve heard Mark Amerika call it. Media archaeology is a wonderful and (deliberately?) frustrating field because it’s not clear what its overall methodology is, what its precise parameters are, or even what its driving philosophy is. It does find its roots in Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge in which Foucault thinks through the archive as a system that governs discourse. The field also finds roots in work by Marshall McLuhan that’s roughly contemporaneous to that by Foucault as well as Friedrich Kittler’s analysis of discourse networks. However, I’d say that beyond these three thinkers, the field splinters into those who have an interest in reviving Foucault’s notion of the archive in a digital context, those who want to inaugurate a new way to think about (media) history, those who want to renovate dead media or imaginary media, those who are looking for a theoretical framework by which to look at the particular material dimensions of machines, and many other variations I haven’t mentioned here. (If readers would like a clear introduction to the field, I highly recommend Jussi Parikka’s What Is Media Archaeology?) The version of media archaeology I’ve found particularly useful is one that does not seek to reveal the present as an inevitable consequence of the past but instead looks to describe it as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous past. Also at the heart of this media archaeology is an on-going struggle to keep alive what Siegfried Zielinski calls “variantology” – the discovery of “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, especially those variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward “standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.” Following Zielinski, I partly use the lab to uncover a non-linear and non-teleological series of media phenomena – or ruptures – as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media.

eLiterature in the Lab's Collection

In terms of the relationship between media archaeology and digital preservation/stewardship, I think discussions of digital preservation that may tend toward linear narratives progressing from past to present can benefit from media archaeology’s sense of a heterogeneous media history while media archaeology’s sometimes excessive emphasis on the machine at the expense of the human can benefit from the very humanist, cultural, even political concerns at the heart of many efforts at preservation and stewardship.

Trevor: Work in computer forensics has had a substantive impact on archival approaches and practices for working with born digital content. (For example, in the CLIR report Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections). Many of these discussions end up using the term “ archaeological” as a way of describing the desire to capture and record the integrity and context of digital content. To what extent do you think this sense of the term archaeological is related to the sense of archaeology in media archaeology?

Lab Storage

Lori: I think the meaning of ‘archaeology’ in these different contexts depends on what definition of history one is working from – in the CLIR report you cite, Matthew Kirschenbaum mentions Seamus Ross’s and Ann Gow’s 1999 study, Digital Archaeology: Rescuing Neglected and Damaged Data Resources, as a crucial first attempt at meshing together work in digital forensics and archives. The emphasis in their report is, as the title implies, on recovery – on bringing the past into the present because the past underlies and leads to the present. While recovery is necessary to have a rich sense of our cultural past, media archaeology has a theoretically complex understanding of “archaeology” that, again, comes out of Foucault. For a certain branch of media archaeological thought, history is a shifting practice of uncovering the ways in which media themselves, in a very physical, concrete sense, engender and delimit what can be said, what can be thought. As Wolfgang Ernst – one of the most influential theorists of media archaeology – puts it, “Archaeology, as opposed to history, refers to what is actually there: what has remained from the past in the present like archaeological layers, operatively embedded in technologies…” (“Media Archaeography” 241, emphasis my own). In this sense, the field is a much needed critical intervention in that it reminds us the study of media no longer needs to involve uncovering a static series of firsts that neatly give rise to this present moment. In terms of the Media Archaeology Lab, the sense of history driving it is not particularly linear or oriented toward the excavation of an originating moment in the history of computing that leads directly here; instead, the MAL is more about excavating multiple origins, some of which were dead-ends, and some of which had a significant role in defining the shape and thrust of contemporary computing. The relationship between past and present in the lab is, then, multiple, complex, shifting, varied.

Trevor: The National Digital Stewardship Alliance is member driven, which means it ends up tackling what members think is useful to their local work but could benefit from the collaboration of a coalition of different organizations. So, are there any ideas you have for activities or projects that you think could benefit the membership? It is always great to get fresh ideas from new members, so what kinds of things would you like to see the alliance getting into?

Lori: It seems to me the NDSA’s strength is the way in which it creates a readymade community for members who genuinely need each other to be fully effective stewards of digital culture. To that end, I’d like to see the NDSA create a national resource exchange for members – primarily for software, hardware, books, manuals, and other kinds of documentation (on, for example, disk-imaging). Here is a compelling example that underscores the need for such a resource exchange: I recently learned the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) has the CP/M operating system on 5.25” floppies – CP/M was a popular operating system used throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s for computers such as the Kaypro and the Osborne. As it happens, the Media Archaeology Lab houses both a Kaypro II as well as an Osborne 1; but unfortunately, while these computers both boot up fine, we cannot currently do anything more with them because they need the CP/M floppies; conversely, MITH has the floppies but no functioning computer. Clearly, both MAL and MITH would benefit tremendously from access to a database of members’ resources and a system by which we could exchange these resources.

Comments (4)

  1. It is great to see a resource like the Media Archeology Lab grace my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Digital preservation is so important, given the fast-paced-ness of the current technological revolution. Thanks Lori Emerson for moving this forward.

  2. As an archaeologist who works in digital stewardship the title of this posting caught my eye. Though Lori’s research and Media Archaeology Lab project takes a different approach than my own, I was really interested to hear about the work she is doing with “ancient” computing technologies. I love the pictures of her lab showing a room full of functioning computer relics! Protecting and preserving early digital records are topics in which I am especially interested, and it is wonderful to know that her lab will work to ensure that early experiments in electronic literature are not lost as time moves forward and technologies to access these works change—but also that the Media Archaeology Lab maintains the original technology to view and experience them!

    Because there is considerable overlap with the language Lori uses to describe her work and my own, I wanted to take a minute to describe the project I’m involved with relating to archaeology and digital stewardship. At Digital Antiquity we curate digital copies of archaeological records—typically the documents, data bases, and images—associated with archaeological research in the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR). These data document the archaeological record, the efforts of the archaeological and scientific community, and the material and social characteristics of the cultures studied. It is our mission to provide long-term preservation of and easy access to these important archaeological data.

    Prior to the 1990s most of these records were created on paper and often exist in one or only a few locations. In addition to the difficulty in tracking them down (or even discovering their existence in the first place!), their loss is a real risk. We are also concerned with the risk of obsolescence faced by early digital records, for reasons Lori’s lab doubtlessly understands well. Importantly, unlike some of the e-literature Lori’s lab preserves, the archaeological records we seek to preserve were never meant to be ephemeral—quite the opposite in fact! We’ve worked with archaeological projects whose records were generated on machines that no longer exist, and are often stored in formats we can’t easily access today. Archaeologists are used to depositing artifacts and paper records recovered or created during field work into physical repositories, usually museums. tDAR exists to ensure that the information contained in digital files generated by that research, will be similarly preserved and accessible to professionals into the distant future.

    The preservation of digital information is important! Thanks Lori for your attention the preservation of early electronic literature!

    • Leigh Anne: Thank you for this additional information. It adds some useful context!


  3. Leigh Anne, and another thank you for your great addition to the discussion here – sorry I didn’t see your comment until now. I’m grateful to know more about Digital Antiquity!

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