Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Archive as Time Machine

[Cross-posted to Cliopatria & Digital History Hacks]

Our story so far: even though we know that it's probably impossible, we've decided to think through the problem of building a time machine. In the last episode we decided that we wouldn't want one that allowed us to rewrite the past willy-nilly... because what would be the point of history then? It turned out, however, that the world itself is a pretty awesome time machine, tirelessly transporting absolutely everything into the future. Today we look at the archive widely construed: one small portion of the world charged with the responsibility of preserving our collective representational memory.

As every schoolboy used to know (at least back when there were 'schoolboys' who knew the Classics), Thucydides wanted his work to be "judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future ... an everlasting possession, not the showpiece of an hour." The fact that we know this twenty-five centuries later speaks pretty well for the potential of preserving representations for long periods of time. Precisely because they can be readily transferred from one material substratum to another, written words, well, remain. Of course, since languages change over time there can be difficulties of decipherment or translation, and exactly which words survive can be a real crap shoot.

With the relatively recent spread of optical, magnetic, and other media, it became necessary to archive media readers, too. The endurance of the written word (or new cousins like photographs and phonographic records) now also depended on devices to amplify, transduce or otherwise transform signals into a form that is visible or audible to human users. Along with the obsolescence of media, librarians and archivists now had to worry about the obsolescence of reading devices.

Enter the computer. Representations are now being created in such quantity that the mind boggles, and they can be transformed into one another so easily that we've taken to referring to practically all media as simply "new." This, of course, poses librarians and archivists with a class of problems we could also refer to as "new." My students and I were talking about this in my digital history grad class a few weeks ago. How do we store all of this born-digital material in a form that will be usable in the future, and not just the showpiece of an hour? One possibility, technically sweet but practically difficult is to create emulators. The archive keeps only one kind of machine: a general-purpose computer that is Turing-equivalent to every other. In theory, software that runs on the general-purpose machine can emulate any desired computer.

My students are most familiar with systems that emulate classic video and arcade games, so that framed our discussion. One group was of the opinion that all you need is the 'blueprint' to create any technological system. Another thought that you would be losing the experience of what it was like to actually use the original system. (Here I should say that I'm solidly in the latter camp. No amount of time spent on the CCS64 emulator can convey the experience of cracking open the Commodore 64 power transformer and spraying it with compressed air so it wouldn't overheat and crash the machine while you were hacking.)

More than this, however, the idea that a blueprint is all you need to recreate a technical system shows how much more attention is focussed on the ghost than on the machine these days. The showiness of new, endlessly plastic media obscure their crucial dependence on a systematic colonization of the nanoscale. I might be able to read a microfiche with sunlight and some strong lenses, but never a DVD. The blueprint for a DVD reader is completely useless without access to some of the most advanced fabrication techniques on the planet. So we're in the process of creating all this eternally-new stuff, running on systems whose lifecycles are getting shorter every year. What would Thucydides say?

Next time: how and why to send messages way into the future.

Tags: | |