Preserving software for future historians: Emulators versus physical copies.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 30 2013 8:47 AM

History.exe

How can we preserve the software of today for historians of tomorrow?

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For decades the library has also been receiving computer games, and in 2006 the games became part of the moving-image collections at the Packard campus. While the library registers the copyrights, what it means to preserve and restore vintage computer games—or any kind of computer software—is less clear. What kind of intervention is necessary to keep computer games from meeting the fate of the 80 percent of pre-1930 American films now lost forever thanks to their volatile nitrate film stock?

That question was recently explored at a two-day meeting dubbed “Preserving.exe” at the Library of Congress’ Madison building in Washington. A roomful of computer historians, technical experts, archivists, academics, and industry representatives discussed what role the nation’s cultural-heritage institutions, from the library and the Smithsonian to the Internet Archive, ought to play in gathering and maintaining collections of games and other software for posterity. While libraries, archives, and museums now routinely confront the challenges of massive quantities of files and records in digital format, actual software—“executable content” in the parlance of the meeting—raises some especially vexed problems for preservation.  

Fans of vintage computer games will be familiar with emulators, software programs that create a virtual simulation of some bygone computer, allowing one to actually execute legacy code in a kind of Potemkin environment. The experience of using an emulator can be uncanny, with sounds, graphics, and the behavior of the original system all instantly recreated on a modern machine. Emulators, moreover, are not only duplicates of the original system; they also allow for forms of study—a peek into the underlying state of the program’s machine code, for example—that the original software running on original hardware couldn’t. Examples of this approach were well represented at the Library of Congress meeting. The Olive project at Carnegie Mellon is investigating streaming virtualization technologies, allowing users to configure legacy hardware as needed from the cloud; Jason Scott, the flamboyant archives populist and activist, demoed a browser-based system that would allow users to embed vintage computers like they do YouTube videos.

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Still, others at the meeting emphasized the need to retain actual exemplars of old systems, in order to allow users the most complete experience of the original look and feel. While a good emulator can work marvels—duplicating the processor speed of the original hardware, for example—the impossibility of recapturing the fullness of the original experience was brought home again and again during the meeting. Sometimes the interaction between software and hardware can be especially subtle. I well remember the frustration of banging away at the keyboard while playing old-school interactive fiction games like Wishbringer or Zork, only to be told by the parser “I DON’T UNDERSTAND THAT” or “YOU CAN’T DO THAT HERE.” But when I hit upon the right solution, I’d know it immediately: The program would pause, the disk would audibly spin up, and a new text description would be loaded as the progress of the game advanced. This sort of pacing and rhythm established the tempo of the experience, in the same way that processor speeds do for more kinetic forms of game play.

But in a world with limited shelf space (and even more limited funding for archives), perhaps my experience of playing Adventure as a 14-year-old can’t make the historical cut. “We don’t want to be a computer history museum,” presenters repeated over and over again at the meeting. After all, machines are fickle, temperamental, and take up space. Replacement parts have to be purchased on eBay or Craigslist, a red flag for certain kinds of institutions. As Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information observed, libraries provide access to 18th-century books, but they don’t promise to recreate the conditions—flickering candlelight, inadequate ventilation, smallpox—that might have accompanied reading it in the 18th century.

There is no preservation without loss. Archivists know this better than anyone. Emulation and hardware conservation, as well as other approaches—even printing out the source code—all have their partisans and proponents. Each entails trade-offs and compromises, and there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution. But one thing I’ve learned in my travels in software preservation is that the most important issues are not technical; they are social and cultural. Many early computer magazines in fact preserved software precisely by printing the source code—which readers could then manually transcribe—but the Library of Congress routinely discarded such magazines as mere ephemera before around 1990. That was a policy decision based on perceived value, not technical considerations. Whatever the details of the technical challenges and solutions for software preservation may turn out to be, first and foremost must be our human desire to harvest historical memory and understanding wherever it may lie.

At the Library of Congress meeting, a representative from GitHub, the massive open-source online repository, made the connection to such ideals all but explicit, declaring the software culture on the Web the new cultural canon and invoking Emerson, Beowulf, and Adam Smith. Rachel Donahue, an information studies doctoral student at the University of Maryland, suggested (only partially in jest) that sentient machines might one day demand a record of their computational past. One preserves software not because its value to the future is obvious, but because its value cannot be known.

Near the end of the meeting Lynch was called upon to give a summary of the proceedings. He pointed out that “software” was a far broader category than had even been discussed, with implications for everything from kitchen appliances to Boeing 777s. He then paused and wondered whether perhaps the Library of Congress ought to be compiling canonical lists of the most culturally significant computer software, just as it now does for books and movies. Such lists are powerful collective motivators, spurring discussion and argument. Could one be made for software? If so, what should be on it?

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