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Text of a speech I gave at Copyright and the Network Computer: A Stakeholder's Congress in Washington D.C. on 8 November 2003. (Video of this talk and the others at the conference is available on the conference site.) This is the speech I wish I had given.

Condemned to Reload It:
Forgetting New Media

Nick Montfort

This is typically the point at which I tell you that we need to maintain our precious cultural legacy, where I explain that we should worry about things like the preservation and archiving of new media for the sake of the children, because they are our future.

Let me frame the issue that I'm going to talk about in a way that may be a bit more direct: We live in the dark ages of digital media. We fantasize about the infinite possibilities and revolutionary potential of the Web, about how free information wants to be, about uploading our brain to a hard drive — but we actually know less about the creative computing that happened in our lifetimes than some people know about incunabular broadsides and Babylonian school tablets. Forget about Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad — we can't even run MacPaint. Forget about Vannevar Bush's trails — we can't even run The Oregon Trail. It's as if we have some sort of cultural, corporate, and academic attention deficit disorder and mommy has sold our supply of Ritalin to Rush Limbaugh.

To begin with one example: What did look like when it first came online in January 1996? It's not even clear from the newspaper of record exactly when the launch occurred. The paper's own January 22 article about the launch, which I paid $2.95 for, has an unfinished sentence and generally looks like a Burroughs cut-up; it doesn't even make it completely clear that the launch occurred that day or when it did occur. And in fact, scrolling through the corporate site of the New York Times we find claims that the launch occurred on January 19. But there's no documentation there of what the first incarnation of the site even looked like. Where is the gray lady's original home page? It's not at or the corporate website, at least not in any obvious location. The next place to check would be The Internet Archive, but they have no record of the site until November 12 of that year. The original site just seems to be gone.

And keep in mind, with regard to The Internet Archive, that this project represents some of the few neurons still firing in our collective memory of the Web, a memory that otherwise looks like Phineas Gage. It's an essential effort that deserves our support, and the Web deserves more efforts like it, because no single attempt, however well-directed and well-supported technologically, will be able to deal with all the meaningful and important new media works, all the pages and sites of merit, that have been created. And keep in mind that the Web is hardly the only interesting thing out there with regard to computing; it isn't even the whole Internet and it certainly isn't the wealth of stand-alone software and computer games that has come into our lives since the 1970s, the sort that still run on networked computers today.

What I'm going to tell you is this: the creative works and systems that run on computers — systems that we learned from, that we love — software that simulates spaces, unfolds stories, challenges us with new forms of gaming, provokes us with manipulable images, draws us together to communicate as we couldn't before — these programs are going to increasingly become inaccessible, will effectively be gone. Not gone like Gilgamesh, surviving in pieces that can be rediscovered and defragged and translated later on, but often gone like Eurydice, just suddenly not there when we turn around. There are at least two factors that contribute to this. One is that the most interesting new media objects are technically complex, heterogeneous things: they may contain different media, to be sure, but they also, importantly, are computer programs, instructions for an elaborate machine that is not likely to be on hand in the future. I'm going to speak mainly about this force that leads to forgetting, but I will also mention briefly, in the spirit of the conference, that another impulse of digital darkness comes from legal restrictions, sometimes only pertaining to a single necessary piece of a system that has many such pieces, and that it is the combination of these two factors — rather than technical complexity alone — that will condemn many important creative contributions to oblivion.

I'm going to discuss the issues of technical complexity and legal restrictions with regard to a few specific examples. These are mainstream, widely-distributed new media creations that had some commercial existence, not because I think these are the most interesting things done creatively with computers, but because we really should be able to remember this stuff. I mean, come on — a Shakespeare scholar can find out how a page of the first folio was laid out without leaving her chair — just reach for the facsimile on the bookshelf and take a look, that's all there is to it. How much trouble would a new media scholar, or a human-computer interface researcher, have to go to find out how the menu bar and menus were laid out on the breakthrough computer for the graphical user interface, the 128k Macintosh? Or how quickly MacPaint launched on this machine, and how exactly it worked? If this tremendously successful, mass-produced computer wasn't influential enough for people to care about it today, I don't know what computer would be. And if this tremendously successful, mass-produced computer — which shipped less than 20 years ago — is practically impossible for university or industry researchers to access today, how can we expect the fate of more obscure software and hardware — which includes almost everything else — to be any different?

I don't mean to say that every student of computing or new media must use the original Macintosh to have a complete education, but some people certainly should be able to take a look at it, and it might be nice if we could turn to universities or libraries or archives for this purpose instead of sifting through dozens of thrift stores and garage sales (or the online equivalents). And people interested in human-computer interaction should be able to not just look at an original Macintosh, but to operate it. Really preserving new media should mean preserving our ability to interact with interactive systems. Printing out a website and saving that for posterity is like photographing the facade of a building and declaring that the building is preserved. This does preserve something, but not the building — not how it is structured, what spaces it forms, how the light falls inside, how it allows air and people to circulate. As we continue to earnestly bulldoze the Web and other parts of our computing heritage, I'd like to suggest that at least some important systems be designated as historical sites, and that they be truly preserved so that people today can encounter them, interact with them, and apprehend them fully. Otherwise, all we'll have left will be traces that survive in traditional media formats, and it will be really hard to figure out what was innovative, what was truly new.

I've mentioned the Web already; fractured as our memory may be, we are actually in fairly good shape with the Web since this global computer system is only a teenager and since we have official and unofficial projects to preserve parts of this system so that people can gain insight into what it was like. Still, there are plenty of early Web efforts that are far too difficult to look back upon — not just obscure things, but, for instance, Time Warner's mammoth project Pathfinder, which lumbered online in October 1994 and lingered until around the middle of 1999. If we want to learn something about this media giant's colossal, multi-year, failed project to dominate the Web, we won't find much in The Internet Archive, which only covers the last few months of the site's existence (omitting images). We'll have to refer to print and online articles and to things like the screenshots in this Pathfinder Museum that is online here [shown on screen] — don't laugh at the Geocities ads or the pulsing animated GIFs; the fact is, this resource seems to be the best online documentation that there is of Pathfinder. No library or university or corporate archive or official project seems to have done a better job. If in fact Pathfinder flopped because of how the site worked — how difficult it was to navigate, how long images took to load, how cluttered the whole experience, rather than just a particular page, was — it is going to be pretty difficult to figure that out from a bunch of screenshots. Still, we should be grateful that someone — without getting paid to do this, without grant funding or (obviously) access to institutional server space — at least was kind enough to save these screenshots for us.

But I want to look beyond the typical websites of the mid-1990s, which could reasonably be viewed as interlinked electronic documents rather than as computer programs. I'd like to look at a small programs that also had a commercial life and played a part in popular culture, but that is of interest more for literary reasons, and more as an example of early computer gaming. Looking at a few websites, you might get the impression that the problem of technical complexity is just one of the different media formats involved. So let me subtract out that factor: let me show you an all-text interactive computer program, one which is an adventure game and also represents a category that I find very interesting, that of interactive fiction.

The game and self-described "electronic novel" I'll talk about is called Mindwheel [shown on screen]. It was developed at a small company, Synapse, in the early 1980s and was published in 1984 for several then-common computer platforms. Actually, the core program was written in a language called BTZ and then BTZ interpreters were developed so that Mindwheel could run on many different computers, much as Java programs today can run unmodified on Mac, Windows, and Unix machines. Synapse was purchased by Broderbund before Mindwheel was published, so the hardback book and floppy disk that constitute Mindwheel bear the names of both companies. Broderbund, incidentally, was acquired by an Irish company, Riverdeep, last year.

Now, Mindwheel is interesting for a few reasons. It was sold as a hardback book and called an "electronic novel," as I've mentioned, so it should be interesting to people who want to look at the way computer software and the book are related. It was also part of a serious attempt by Synapse to create interactive fiction works that were literary and that were substantially different from the text adventure games that had been written so far — it was one of four works in this electronic novel series. Finally, the author of Mindwheel is, rather unusually, an important literary figure — Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States for three years, author of six books of poems and four books of criticism, and translator of Dante's Inferno, which, like some of his poems, figures rather prominently in Mindwheel. We should really hope that a groundbreaking electronic novel, by one of the best-known poets living in the U.S. today, would be available somehow to students who are writing about Pinsky's poetry, or about creative expression in the Cold War, or of course about new media and creative uses of the computer.

What you see on the screen when running Mindwheel is utterly boring and gives you no idea of what Mindwheel is like. I could peck at the keyboard for you to show you something about how the program responds, but the truth is, you really would have to become familiar with the conventions of interactive fiction and then spend some type exploring this program — typing commands in natural language, such as "pick up the candy bar" or "jump into the crowd" — in order to get any idea of what this program can do and what is going on in it. In short, Mindwheel simulates its own special world in which your character, the Mind Adventurer, can take action; what happens in this world can be the result of chance or of the actions you choose. If you think this sounds like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, you chose a comparison that is almost, but not entirely, wrong — yes, both of these let the reader make meaningful choices, but interactive fiction (which actually predates Bantam's Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series) simulates a world using a computer program, unlike one of these books, and it also allows the user to type in commands, literally writing part of the story in a way that is actually parsed and understood by the computer program. But it's hard to see or understand any of this unless you actually get to interact with a program like Mindwheel.

As you can see, it is possible to run Mindwheel on a modern computer, but it isn't easy, and I can't legally give you a copy of the software that I can run on my machine now to enable a session. The best way I've found to run Mindwheel involves running an Apple II emulator within which I run the Apple II version of the Mindwheel program. I have four virtual floppy disks that I need to swap as I go to different locations within the world, so unless you're familiar with the Apple II emulator I'd have to write out lengthy instructions for you, anyway. Since Mindwheel uses a cumbersome copy protection scheme, which requires you to look up a particular word in the book and type it in order to continue, your attempts to interact would be further obstructed. Now, I can only run this program because someone (again, it wasn't a company or a library or a university) wrote an Apple II emulator, a virtual computer that runs on my Mac and lets me run Apple II programs. You can download that emulator, but to run it you need the ROM image from an Apple II computer, which is copyright Apple and not legally available, even for noncommercial use. And of course, as far as Mindwheel itself is concerned, neither the book nor the program is legally available either, and it's not certain that the thirdhand corporate owners of the program even know that they own it. It's quite possible that if Mindwheel were available, someone would have already written a BTZ interpreter (as has been done for other similar formats) and it would be possible to easily play all the electronic novels on many different computers. I think the reason Mindwheel and many other novel computer programs are now unavailable, or available only in very limited ways, is that the legal difficulties with access to these programs make what would otherwise have been a surmountable technical challenge into something that is just too difficult to bother with.

In our dark ages, the few fires that we can see by — rather than be burned by — have been lit by heretics, not by institutions. Frankly, there is no hope that universities, libraries, or companies will do anything to make our immediate past available to us unless it turns a profit or fits in with existing traditions, and these are the institutions that have the experience and funding and legal muscle to deal with the copyright issues that constrain us here. The people who have made the Pathfinder Museum and this Apple II emulator probably don't have the time, inclination, or resources to go on legal crusades. If we want any of the real innovation that is happening to survive, we'd really better do everything we can to foster it and to allow these modes of preservation to work. We can't make the technical problems any easier, but fortunately our modern-day renegade scribes are intelligent, inspired, and assiduous in their work. We can make the legal situation better, and although I don't have a slate of specific suggestions, I will urge you to do all you can to enlighten our use of the computer, a device which — if we allow it to serve as such — can be much more than a conduit for the effluvium of the content industry.

The networked computer can offer us new ways to communicate and create and think — if we don't forget the wonderful things that have been done with it already, if we are able to study the failed attempts of the past and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. If we fail to recognize the potential of the networked computer, we might easily end up seeing it only as a doorstop for our shopping portal or a spigot for repetitive entertainment. If we make it legally possible to see what's going on right around us, and to remember and study the recent past, we leave only the technical challenges — formidable challenges, but ones that many intrepid individuals have already dealt with. If we have more new media works around and legally available to students, scholars, and industry researchers — more actual usable computer programs, working websites, functioning systems — we might have the opportunity to really study new media, not just to glance at snapshots of it. We might see what computers can do that really is new. And instead of reloading the past, we might find it easier to see how everyone can use the computer not just to consume but to work and explore and author and create.

— nm, 2003-11-15