Like too many other computer prodigies of his generation, Aaron Swartz was used long before he was invented. He hadn’t lived long enough to know that not every mistake he made would reverberate for all time or haunt him until the end of his days. In this, he was not so different from any other teenager who sweats the pop quiz he failed or the fender he banged up. What distinguished Swartz was that, from a young age, he was handed a fantastically powerful set of tools—“you can do magic,” he would exhort his fellow programmers—and told it was his destiny to create a more free and just society.
For Swartz and his fellow computer prodigies, this was a deeply isolating existence.
I find Schieber’s article from last year a welcome addition to much of the coverage of Swartz’s life and career.
Previously, I have argued that videogames represent in the gap between procedural representation and individual subjectivity. The disparity between the simulation and the player’s understanding of the source system it models creates a crisis in the player; I named this crisis simulation fever, a madness through which an interrogation of the rules that drive both systems begins. The vertigo of this fever — one gets simsick as he might get seasick — motivates criticism.
Procedural rhetoric also produces simulation fever. It motivates a player to address the logic of a situation in general, and the point at which it breaks and gives way to a new situation in particular.
The focus on the “pragmatics” of digital game production can help us broaden the range of analogies game studies is working with. Games can be understood as more than just entertainment products or art pieces.
I’ve been reading Hannah Sullivan’s The Work of Revision, and really enjoying it. Here are a couple of excerpts from her chapter on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, centering on Ezra Pound’s editorial input on the poem.
She makes a good case that Eliot’s style of revision indicated a profoundly different aesthetic than the excisive revisions that Pound (apparently vigorously) put forward. It’s a bit of a counter-narrative to the story of a team-up; rather Pound’s revisions antagonized Eliot’s original vision, creating a poem somewhat apart from both of them, but perhaps more in Pound’s camp.
I’m often asked – in the course of my job or by an acquaintance – to explain ‘digital preservation’ and what I mean by it. And as I’m sure others in this field know, a frequent first guess is scanning – you’re scanning stuff, right?
It’s a reasonable and valid guess – digitization can and is used as a preservation strategy – but it’s a reply that leaves me stumbling, “Yes, but…” as it’s the born-digital content that is most likely to be overlooked for a newcomer.
I’m often tongue tied though to explain why born-digital material is important at a personal level for an individual. To some it seems immediately frivolous – perhaps resulting from a notion that the digital enterprise is inherently ephemeral, or that the ‘information superhighway’ – a dated term but one still with a legacy – is just a media-carrying superstructure over the real stuff.
Not having someone immediately agree with your assumptions startles you into explanation mode. So I reach for a personal example of born-digital vitality. But the truth is that in my recent past I’ve done a pretty good job of preserving the digital materials that are important to me. Setting up a reasonably safe (and this is key: automated) backup routine and checking media health every once in a while goes a long way. So I have no woeful narrative to relate there about personal digital material becoming lost (yet).
So I searched back through my own personal history to think of what born-digital content I have lost to time. Not just any old content that happened to be lost, but something that means a lot to me but is simply no more.
Now I’ve visited a near-loss and partial recovery with a high school art web site, so I recall here a complete content loss. Nothing remains but the recollection. This loss still smarts today – the code for my QBasic games. Hear my tale of woe, as I recreate here whatever will be left of those projects.
My kingdom for some GOTO code
When my family first purchased a computer, it took a few years for me to learn the ropes on it. I recall some unintended directory deletions while I was learning DOS, and at one point I thought I had truly broken the system through one of these errant deletes. The incident was only a mistakenly relocated set of files that broke a start-up routine, but it was not without its moments of vertigo that I had broken the family machine.
Eventually I got to understand command line customs, along with the basics of programming in the QBasic IDE, which came standard with MS-DOS and Windows for approximately nine years. Once I got the hang of basic user input and variable handling, I figured it was time to make games in QBasic.
Ah, to be young and just dive in! None of them were ever completed, though this does not bother me. I still believe just diving in is a handy practice.
Lend an ear and I’ll tell you about them.
The first effort was a fantastical text adventure with ANSI-style art inspired by the psychedelic landscapes of Kingdom of Kroz and Epic Megagames’ ZZT, but featuring the simple rules of a Choose your own Adventure novel. I got pretty far along before the tedium of hand drawing scenes row by row with the extended character set wore me down. I was still learning a lot.
The second game was identical in form, but took some less tasteful tones from Bethesda’s The Terminator title – an early stab for that studio at their now famous open-world design – as well as the Drugwars DOS game. I got even less far along than even the first game – just a couple of sequences before the player was abruptly dumped back into the sharp blue of QBasic’s IDE. I recall becoming bored and directionless at the monotone grimness the setting required, as well as the tedious, screen by screen gameplay.
The third game, and the most involved, was an RPG collaboration with an elementary school friend, very much modeled after the BBS classic Legend of the Red Dragon – but a single player affair. We had races, classes, a town, shops, NPCs, and had begun modeling the wilderness areas where the player would encounter whatever had to be fought there. However, school hedged in and the friend moved away, and our work stopped there.
I would give my right arm for the source code to any of these projects, but that last one hurts the most. My friend and I spent many hours and long nights developing the RPG – and never got very far – but this piece of digital content represents a huge investment of my enthusiasm and passion at that time. That it is utterly lost is painful. I don’t know what I could have done to have had the foresight to keep it, except to have kept the floppies around somehow by neglect. If this were a project nowadays, perhaps a forgotten email attachment could have wrought it up from the bog. Alas, at that time the only network we had was carting floppies between our houses.
There are other losses, such as my old MySpace page, which captures some of my disposition and contacts in the early college years, an embarrassing old fan site for a band I loved in high school, a lost DOOM level .wad – but the absence of this QBasic code hits strongest. This is simply how things get lost, alas – though I sigh wistfully when hearing of old game code being discovered. That someone, amazingly, has managed to create a modern game coded entirely in QBasic just makes me all the more wistful.
Citizens of tomorrow, your digital content – even if, like myself, you are not a heavy user of social media – can be profoundly important to you and very likely to others. Keep an eye on it, as I wish I had.
Just a little post to say I’ll be speaking at the NAGARA e-Records Conference this year in Austin, Texas. I’ll be describing the efforts of CoSA’s State Electronic Records Initiative (SERI) over the past few years – specifically our educative efforts, and the upcoming electronic records training workshops this year and next. These workshops will collectively be attended by every state and territorial archives and records program in the country.
Today is the second annual Day of Digital Archives, an effort to promote and explain what those of us working in or with digital archives are doing on a daily basis.
I wrestle with explaining this every time I’m asked what I do here. If I carry on too long I risk losing interest; too short or technical an explanation and my job remains obscure – not a good thing. I want my work, and the work in digital archives in general, to be widely understood and appreciated.
I work to ensure long-term and reliable access to the digital records of Mississippi government.
It’s perhaps wordy, but the best I’ve come up with – it describes what you get from my work (long-term access to digital public records of the state government) and the scope of the work without getting into the detailed reality of day-to-day tasks and projects.
So–what is that detailed reality? Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been doing lately:
• Working in Electronic Archives to manage a transition to DSpace for our digital repository. This entails metadata scrubbing (using Google Refine) and normalization to Dublin Core, along with writing import scripts, settling on organizational policies, and server administration.
As an example, we’ve just finished a routine to bundle relatively legacy MARC21 data – both a binary .dat file and XML – with the record in its new home. It’s great to retain this data in the event we overlook a piece of metadata in the migration.
I’m very excited about this project – DSpace will serve as a central store and get us closer to the services we would like to offer users when accessing digital material here.
• Processing born-digital records from state agencies and offices. This entails description, scanning for confidential data, format migrations, and generating an online access point for the material.
• Delivering electronic records training to state and local agency staff — I train both local government employees and state staff on best practices in managing their digital records.
• Managing the department’s Flickr account, where we share scans of our archival photos.
• Lately we have been looking into state agency web sites and social media to see what content is being made there that should be preserved. I hope to have more news on this in the near future.
It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s some indication of daily work.
So this is the sort of thing I do. It’s a mix of technical work – stuff like Unix, Python and Java – and applying best practice in the records and archives fields to the unique circumstances here. It’s a good field to be in – lots of creative problem solving, lots of new technologies and tools in development, and you get to work with lots of smart, earnest people — always a huge plus.
I want to make a strong claim: realpolitik equilibria are only disrupted by technological changes. If there is no major technology change, political actors who are unhappy with the prevailing order, no matter how cleverly they attempt to reorganize, will not succeed in creating a stable new order with a different power structure. A reason to do things differently is not sufficient. Different means must become available.
Saying that there is no discovery in libraries and archives, because all the discovery has been pre-coordinated by librarians and archivists is putting the case for the work we do too strongly. It doesn’t give enough credit to the acts of discovery and creativity that library users like Papaioannou perform, and which our institutions depend on.