EMG Specialty Group Sessions, May 14: Adventures in digital archaeology

A pair of fascinating papers by Walter Forsberg and Elizabeth Seramur gave two views of just how much effort can be required to make sense of artist-created digital files – even files that are barely a decade old. The idea of “Digital Archaeology” – Seramur’s term – summed up the problem.

Seramur’s paper (Developing a Digital Archaeology for the Warren Spector Collection: A Case Study) traced a project that took her back to the pre-historic days of personal computing – the early 1980s, when there was no such thing as standardization of file formats, interfaces, cabling, or operating systems. The project involved recovery of word processing documents created by game designer Warren Spector, whose papers are part of the Video Game Archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. The media: 18 5.25 inch floppy discs – from the days when floppy discs really were floppy – containing files created on the Kaypro IV personal computer using WordStar or WordPerfect, and on an Apple IIc using Appleworks.

Key to her work was the discovery of Austin’s Goodwill Computer Museum, which was founded as an offshoot of Goodwill’s computer training program. Volunteers from the tech industries watched as a wide variety of early personal computers came into Goodwill as donations, and couldn’t bear to see these rare specimens recycled. The result was a collection holding nearly every model of early PC. The museum was able to provide a computer that could read the early files – though a great deal of trial and error was required. A lack of standardization meant incompatibility between ports, cables and drivers – even among PCs with the same make and model number. The smallest variation rendered files unreadable.

Walter Forsberg’s project had the advantage of both relatively recent files – the 1990s – and a living artist, Cory Arcangel, willing and able to consult. In this case, the subject of research was a collection of CD-Rs holding backup files made in the process of creating multiple computer works. The discs held more than 200 different file extensions, marking different file formats, many of which are tied to obscure, obsolete, or short-lived software. Frequently, the file names were obscure or meaningless, and Arcangel sometimes wasn’t able to tie the files to a project now more than a decade past. The takeaway: organize digital files and standardize file names!