Early in January I attended the first-ever BitCurator Users Forum in Chapel Hill. This was a fantastic day with a group of folks interested in the BitCurator project and digital forensics in an archive setting — definitely one of the most information-packed and directly applicable conferences or forums I’ve attended. I’m very much looking forward to next year’s.
I have a paper out this month in the American Archivist with my friend and former UT Austin colleague Tim Arnold. The paper centers on best practices for collecting and preserving a collection of tweets, and looks specifically at a collection culled during the protests in Tahrir Square in early 2011. We dig into the difficulties of scoping search terms and users (in the context of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and more generally), the constraints of the Twitter API, and how to contextualize the harvesting of thousands of tweets through that API.
Many thanks to the original researchers for collecting the data and to the American Archivist for their interest in the paper.
Jon Ippolito, from an interview with Trevor Owens at The Signal:
Two files with different passages of 1s and 0s automatically have different checksums but may still offer the same experience; for example, two copies of a digitized film may differ by a few frames but look identical to the human eye. The point of digitizing a Stanley Kubrick film isn’t to create a new mathematical artifact with its own unchanging properties, but to capture for future generations the experience us old timers had of watching his cinematic genius in celluloid. As a custodian of culture, my job isn’t to ensure my DVD of A Clockwork Orange is faithful to some technician’s choices when digitizing the film; it’s to ensure it’s faithful to Kubrick’s choices as a filmmaker.
As in nearly all storage-based solutions, fixity does little to help capture context. We can run checksums on the Riverside “King Lear” till the cows come home, and it still won’t tell us that boys played women’s parts, or that Elizabethan actors spoke with rounded vowels that sound more like a contemporary American accent than the King’s English, or how each generation of performers has drawn on the previous for inspiration. Even on a manuscript level, a checksum will only validate one of many variations of a text that was in reality constantly mutating and evolving.
In my own preoccupation with disk imaging, generating checksums and storing them on servers, I forget that at best this is the very beginning of preservation; not an incontestable “ground truth” of the artifact.
I just finished reading Anna Anthropy’s ZZT, from the Boss Fight Books series. While I have a few issues with the book, I was really happy with her work and felt that it struck a great balance between personal narrative and game history.
On the latter, I’m especially happy that the author has taken pains to convey the culture surrounding the ZZT game and its creation tools. There are two reasons for this which tie well into game preservation.
First, it’s a prime example of discussing games and game development outside the context of entertainment. I previously linked to Jaroslav Švelch’s article in Game Studies, “Say it with a Computer Game”. Anna Anthropy’s book demonstrates how a game (in this case ZZT and the games made from its toolkit) facilitated groups, rivalries, skill demonstrations, personal expression, cultural commentary, and so on.
It’s also a great example of looking beyond gameplay as the final result of game preservation. I recently attended the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage conference in Melbourne, put on by the Play It Again group there. In his keynote Henry Lowood emphasized looking to end products of the preservation process beyond playing the game, such as recordings of play, narratives of play, the cultural materials surrounding the game, etc. ZZT preserves some of the experience of play, and of being enmeshed in that culture, through a wonderful preservation technology that goes criminally under-emphasized: writing.
(As a further example, if you download Stanford’s DOOM collection you’ll have the shareware copy of the game, but along with that you’ll find a wealth of artifacts surrounding the game: .WAD collections, web pages and fan sites, articles, reviews, forum user threads, and the like (and I will add, many copies of beta and alpha versions of the seminal shooter, which I have argued before ought to be a key priority for game archives). It’s an excellent resource and any researcher would want to move through this collection as a way to understand the game and some of its critical context.)
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’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).
And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I find myself agreeing with David Rosenthal’s research that suggests file format obsolescence in a post-Internet world is not a major risk for the majority of digital materials. So I don’t feel terribly relevant trying to spook someone with the scenario of their Microsoft Word files becoming obsolete in a few years. They are far more likely to become lost through neglect before approaching obsolescence.
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.
It’s quite an epic project, and one that aims to address a worrying gap in archives’ management of born-digital records – the “gap between the authority to act and the ability to act effectively” (Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel, a supplement to The State of State Records, 2007, p. 5.).
The slide links to the presentation, which is also available at NAGARA’s site.
This will be my third time attending the conference – the forum is always timely and interesting, and Austin is just icing on the conference cake.