Beryl made the mistake of making me a guest contributor this month, so I'm going to spam you all with my talk from DOCAM (which in turn draws on the New Media and Social Memory book Rick and I are working on). Part 1 of 3, which follows, veers a bit away from the theme of commissioning, but those stalwarts who make it to part 3 will see Forging the Future's solution to the "too many tools" problem.
Learning from Mario: How To Crowdsource Preservation
Jon Ippolito, Version 1.2
START OF PART 1
* The race to preserve digital culture
We are falling behind in the race to save digital culture. Our best efforts to preserve the rich outpouring of the last few decades known as media art are being buried underneath an avalanche of obsolete floppy disks, restrictive End User License Agreements, and antisocial archival practices. Even when aware of promising strategies such as emulation, museums and other cultural institutions are having trouble adapting to them.
Let me illustrate this by starting with one of the few triumphs of the art world's preservation efforts: the renewal of the Erl King, one of the first examples of interactive video from 1982. This piece was on its last legs when the Variable Media Network chose it as a poster child for the exhibition Seeing Double, resulting in an emulated version that a survey of visitors showed was practically indistinguishable from the original. The technique of emulation, whereby a newer computer impersonates an older one, enabled preservationists to salvage the source code and user experience of the Erl King while replacing its body with up-to-date guts.
The successful emulation of the Erl King was only possible because of a "perfect storm" consisting of talented technicians, an eager and forthcoming artist, access to the original software and hardware, and organizations willing to fund. It's hard to imagine spending two years and tens of thousands of dollars to re-create every interactive video installation from the 1980s, much less every endangered example of media art.
So our shining example of a successful emulation is shining all the brighter because it's pretty much standing alone, surrounded by less fortunate works that are all going dark.
Who's keeping up?
If we're falling behind, who's keeping up? Super Mario Brothers, that's who. When it comes to preservation, the Olympians of new media art are getting their butts kicked by an Italian plumber. While professional conservators have only managed to future-proof a tiny sliver of new media artworks created since 1980 in any systematic and extensible way, a global community of dispersed amateurs has safeguarded the lion's share of a different genre of early computational media: video games.
Take, for example, the FCEUX emulator, at the time of this writing the top-ranked emulator on the prominent site Emulator Zone for the enormously popular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). FCEUX can trace its genealogy back to an early emulator called Family Computer Emulator, or FCE, so called because Nintendo released the NES in Asia as "Family Computer." In the manner of many open source projects, no company controlled the source code for this emulator; instead the programmer, known by the name Bero, released his abashedly titled "dirty code" online for other gaming fans to tinker with and extend. One such fan, known as Xodnizel, released an improvement called FCE Ultra that became so popular in the early 2000s that it spawned a half-dozen "forks," or versions modified by other users. By the late 2000s, NES fans merged four of the forks to produce FCEUX, a cross-platform and cross-standard emulator released under the Gnu GPL open-source license.
I cannot think of a single instance of software created by the professional preservation community in this supple way, passed from hand to hand over decades, diverging, re-converging, and constantly improving without a single institution or copyright holder at the wheel. The amateur preservationists responsible for the FCE emulator stream aren't laboring away in some government-funded thinktank or corporate software lab. They're banging out code in their underwear in a room in the basement of their mother's house. These guys are self-professed underdogs. In fact, the Webmaster of the emulator community "Home of the Underdogs" apologized in 2002 for not updating the HOTU Web site by explaining that "I've been overhelmed with my exams (that, btw, aren't going very well :o( )"
Copyright versus crowdsourcing
Compounding their underground status is the fact that trading the read-only memory (ROM) versions of vintage games used for emulation is just as illegal as sharing copyrighted music or movies over the Internet. Game execs and intellectual property lawyers have proven a bigger threat to Mario than the dragons and mushrooms that supply his in-game adversaries. Maybe that's why so many of the Nintendo emulators contain the defiant-sounding acronym "FCEU."
Professionals have the artist, sources, institutions, funding, rights. So what have the fanboys got that we haven't got, besides litigious Nintendo lawyers breathing down their necks?
In short, they have crowdsourcing. Some people use this term to mean applying a lot of individual attention spans to the same problem, as when NASA invites a population of "crater locaters" dispersed across the Internet to identify features on the Martian landscape. But here I'm using crowdsourcing to mean not just more people, but also more connections among them.
Much as professional conservators might fear an army of amateurs, such "unreliable archivists" have kept their culture alive without any institutional mandate or managerial oversight, while highbrow electronic artworks decay into inert assemblages of wire and plastic in their climate-controlled crates. The 21st century may never know the splendor that was 20th-century media art, but the future of Mario and Donkey Kong is assured.
END OF PART 1