Preserving our digital heritage

As technology advances more and more, we are now faced with more than 4 decades of truly digital heritage, heritage that even now is often misunderstood and ignored. Things such as web video, music, Software (Video games, office tools, etc.), Digital illustration, 3D models, Flash animations and interactive, multimedia… things (i hesitate to call them videos, and i truly cant think of a word that properly describes them), are part of our cultural heritage now and are in true danger of being lost forever. But before we go into why they are in danger, we must first make a case for the preservation of these things.

The easiest argument can be made for anything that is indisputably considered art: music, web video and digital illustration, and in some cases the argument can be made that they can be simply printed out or moved to some other format (e.g. cd, vynil, tape, amongst other methods) however are these the original works? Or are they merely second stage signs of a digital representation as Baudrillard might categorize them in Simulation and Simulacra? ( of course the argument can be made that these works themselves are by themselves a fourth stage sign and therefore the point is irrelevant)However regardless of the method, a conservation effort is sure to be made. The problem then arises when we are faced with those things that are considered mundane or irrelevant. Should we preserve windows 3.1, DOS, Mac Os 9? These things lack the immediately apparent necessity of being preserved for posterity, however can we not argue that windows 3.1 is as important and worthy of a museum space as a set of 15th century woodworker’s tools? The world was build upon this modest piece of software, just as generations of designs, buildings, animations and films were created on Mac Os 9.

Just as important is the need of preserving digital information and entertainment such as multimedia projects and video games. Entire generations have been brought up on these 100% ethereal products, and they are the most problematic. Why? Because for the first time in history (as far as I know) a piece of cultural heritage depends on a very specific artifact to function. Computer technology moves at an amazing speed and software and file formats become obsolete in a matter of years, and some of these products can not be used in modern computers. Windows 3.1 can not be installed in a contemporary computer, neither can the original office or even a game made in 1997. So what do we do? This is the problem I think museums have to address now, before these things become lost.

The digital conundrum

Digital media has given us the ability to create unlimited copies of things, often without fidelity loss, but at the same time blinded us to the volatility of these copies. The U.S. Library of Congress tells us the following: 1. Media durability Computer storage media devices vary in how long they last. The quality and construction of individual media items differ widely. The following estimates for media life are approximate; a specific item can easily last longer–or fail much sooner. 2. Media usage, storage and handling People have a direct impact on the longevity of storage media:

  • The more often media are handled and used, the greater the chance they will fail; careful handling can extend media life, rough handling has the opposite effect.
  • Stable and moderate temperature and humidity, along with protection from harmful elements (such as sun and salt) helps keep media alive.
  • Good-quality readers and other hardware media connections are beneficial; poor connections can kill media quickly.
  • Media that are not labeled or safely stored can be lost or accidently thrown away.
  • Fires, floods and other disasters are very bad for media!

3. Media obsolescence Computer technology changes very quickly. Commonly used storage media can become obsolete within a few years. Current and future computers may not:

  • Have drives that can read older media.
  • Have hardware connections that can attach to older media (or media drives).
  • Have device drivers that can recognize older media hardware.
  • Have software that can read older files on media

As we can see this introduces a lot of time consuming processes that rise costs and require trained professionals. Adding to this, short-sighted anti-piracy laws have made it difficult if not plainly illegal to circumvent Digital Rights Management locks and emulation of software. And it is in the emulation of software and DMR circumvention where the answer to all these problems lies and why it is so frustrating to attempt to . While windows 3.1 can not be run in a current computer, and it has been effectively been abandoned by Microsoft, yet under current legislation in the US generating a fake cd key so as to be able to run the software in an emulator is effectively illegal for a museum. And it gets worse, emulation is neither cheap nor 100% efficient yet the alternative is total obliteration, so what are the current options: in some cases nothing except keep a pirated copy and hope for legislation to finally recognize the need to preserve this heritage, in others is hope the publisher is still around (highly unlikely when just this year 20 videogame studios have been lost, and their properties might lie in a legal limbo for decades) and request their support. This situation obviously has to change, and museums across the world should ask for revised fair use provisions or at least an exemption on such laws as to allow the preservation of our cultural heritage.

Practical Matters

So while the legal situation is still a minefield for anyone attempting to preserve digital heritage, there are other factors to be taken into account. Some of these can be addressed with careful and thoughtful curation, others however pose much more complex challenges for curators and visitors alike. The first thing to be tackled will be how to utilize the interactivity inherent to these new media. While the simple answer would be to treat them as any other interactive experience in an exhibition, video games and certain art projects require certain familiarity with concepts such as game mechanics, controller schemes, difficulty curves and the length of the experience itself. In these cases we can opt for recorded performances, in this case however the interactive experience is lost. Another option is to hold performances where someone familiar with the program controls the experience and takes feedback from an audience, which while more interactive is not ideal but allows interactivity to a higher degree. These options however limit the experience and do not solve the length issue. To solve this problem, we can turn to several options: either create a highlights exhibition where the essential non repetitious factors of the media shine or we allow the user free reign of the experience for as long as they wish either through some kind of online pass where the visitors get a password and are allowed to stream the experience to their own computers for a limited amount of uses per museum ticket using a streaming service such as OnLive or if distribution rights are available, sell the visitors a copy of the media in question. Of course any interactive method deployed within an exhibition will be subject to constant manipulation and this will cause great amounts of wear and tear, and the possibility of overheated computers, broken joysticks, stuck mice, etc. All these things should be considered during the planning stages and budgeted for, however creative solutions can be found depending on resources and the team’s creativity. Also touching on visitor numbers we have exhibition space, sensory overstimulation and noise pollution on the adjoining spaces. By putting together more than one multimedia object into a space, we introduce sounds, movement and colours into the ambiance in a non controllable manner, and thus barriers must exist to isolate these stimuli. One such way is to eliminate the most distracting factor wich is sound simply by implementing the use of headphones, which also has the added benefit of further immersing the visitor into the experience. Another barrier has been used successfully in offices around the world: the cubicle, isolating the user for the outer world permitting better immersion and reducing visual stimulation, what’s more, with some creative design they can be used to confer more information on the experience, or add to the ambience. Finally all of these things have to take into account space and the expected visitors and so there should exist a balance between number of exhibitions, the space they take and allowing free safe movement from visitors.

However the greatest challenge from a creative standpoint, is what to do with heritage that is not as exciting as an interactive video, or a video game, things such as Microsoft Office, Windows 3.1 and other similar pieces of software that may have been historically relevant yet not the attention grabbers the entertainment software can be. Are they to be archived, kept only for the experts that might need to study them? Or would it be interesting to challenge contemporary audiences to perform certain activities that today are easy to perform, yet back then required many steps, as a way to illustrate how interaction has evolved over the decades? Things can certainly be done yet they require curators familiar with the technologies they exhibit, and the evolution of such software, otherwise we might end with sterile boring exhibitions that do nothing but bore the visitor.

The last two hurdles are attribution and costs. Attribution can be a touchy subject when software is made by studios that can range from 1 to 500 people all in one way or another in direct participation. So who should get the credit? The studio? The publisher (who sometimes is also the creator)? The lead designer? Or the entire team? For as long as film has existed, authorship is usually given to the director, this however has created a culture that ignores writers, creative directors and many others and piles up a lot undeserved credit into one person. At the same time it is impossible to create a label big enough to credit everyone, in such a case in my personal opinion to credit the developing studio might be the best compromise, while at the same time inviting visitor to check the credits screen. As for costs, along side with the usual costs that come from any other kind of conservation effort, certain extra expenses should be taken into consideration:

  • IT support
  • Any kind of software development needed (emulation, software hacks, controller emulation)
  • Hardware emulation including the creation of control interfases, simulation now extinct hardware, etc.
  • Dedicated hardware (e.g. cpu’s, printers, joysticks, mice)

These costs should always be taken into account, as technology can be unreliable when subjected to constant use and stress.


In conclusion, in order to preserve digital heritage we find ourselves in unexplored waters, and more than ever interdisciplinary approaches are required. This advice is just the tip of the iceberg, more research needs to be made into copyright issues, and into conservation itself, and until we do, our digital heritage is in real risk of disappearing.



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