Digital Amnesia

A must see 50 minute documentary on digital record keeping and our history.

Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, Digital Amnesia:

We’re going to want archives of every form, of all of the different generations: Physical form, the micro-film form, when they lived on CD-ROMs, when they’re on hard drives, when they’re on the next optical polygraphic whatever. We’re going to want to keep each one of these generations to make sure that we have a way of knowing what really happened and not make it so that people can go and change the past.

I am all for digital goods and less physical clutter, but there is something so fleeting about it. I recently wrote about my theory of technological rubber-banding; a craving for analog technologies in an increasingly digital world.

I’m not sure if I’ve brought up my practice of buying physical (preferably hardback) books once I complete the ePub version. Why not start with the physical version? Reading books has always been a personal challenge. I find it less daunting to visualize and feel one page at a time on a static tablet rather than see exactly how much more I have to read in physical space. Then why the physical version? I use it as a trophy and physical memento of the book. Too quickly do I forget the contents of books. Seeing one that I have completed on my shelf is a positive reminder that I have not only finished reading the book but that I had actually read it at all.

Over the past few years, I have grown deeply concerned over the preservation of digital history, beginning with early software including video games and code printed in the backs of magazines. It became even more alarming when I heard the following quote from Blake J. Harris, author of Console Wars, on the HarperAudio Presents podcast:

When you’re a kid, you’re not always conscience of how you choose your interests. I always felt like it wasn’t a choice to play video games. It was part of your lifestyle.

Getting a Genesis for my birthday a few years ago reminded me of all of that. I hooked it up, thinking it would be sort of nice and nostalgic to play these games again, but I found that not only was it that, but these games were still very enjoyable and very challenging.

Knowing that this was such a big part of my life and that there were so many hours spent and so many entertaining games and aspects to the culture, I went to Barnes & Noble on 86th Street. It’s an enormous Barnes & Noble. I asked where the video game history section was, assuming it would be near the film history or music history sections. The woman pretty much laughed at me. That it was pretty amazing. For an industry that’s bigger than music and film, there was not only a video game history section but when I asked for one of the books on Sega and Nintendo, the woman told me there was no such book that they could even order. The only thing they had on video games in the entire store was walkthrough guides.

That was kind of shocking to me. It wasn’t like a light went off and I thought, “I will fill this need!” But I did.

Even more shocking is the vanishing of historical online events in MMOs and the like; events that are completely digital yet full of human, communal interaction. This is one of the most re-listenable podcast episodes I have found. I still have a hard time not tearing up during the close:

Stanford University gaming curator Henry Lowood on the Library of Congress commissioned “Preserving Virtual Worlds” project, as heard in A Life Well Wasted: “Gotta Catch ‘em All”:

In terms of practical projects, there are basically two things:

One is preservation of games. We have, for example, the Cabrinety Collection. We have roughly 25,000 games from before the early 1990’s.

Also, a lot of work that we are doing is on how the heck we’re going to be able to make sure people have access to games and especially the multiplayer networked games and things that happen in those games 50, 100, 200 years from now. How are we going to save that history knowing that for other media such early film much of that early history of was lost?

Jason Scott, digital historian, Digital Amnesia:

The half-life of software is insane. The fact that we go from “this working” to “this not working” in not just the span of a lifetime but in the span of less than a generation. And I mean unreadable. Like unreadable, physically unreadable because the signal is gone. Or physically unreadable because there’s no device to read it or the documentation is gone.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine and I rounded up as much audio content from our time playing in bands in the early 2000s that we could find and launched the Altamont Archives. (Written article here.) While we were able to scrounge together a majority of the content, much of it was lost to bad CDs, no backups, no access to master recordings, and low-kbps audio rips. It’s gut wrenching to remember that there were songs you loved that you will never hear again. Complete memories lost.

I am less concerned about changing the past and more concerned about forgetting the story of the Information Age. I recently had a nostalgic back-and-forth with game designer Pete Vigeant about hearing our first MP3. Until then, we were convinced computers would only ever be capable of MIDI output and unable to deliver high-quality organic sound. It was a blip in time that will likely be forgotten or at the very least delivered as a footnote in a grade school history textbook. But to our generation, it was (to use Vigeant’s words) “sorcery.”