Tilman Baumgaertel on 28 Nov 2000 00:10:11 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] From the Middle Ages of the Information Society

  From the Middle Ages of the Information Society
  By Tilman Baumgärtel

  published @: 

  <Tilman Baumgärtel is a freelance author on Net culture
  <and Net art. In this contribution to receiver, he describes
  <why the exciting thing about the Internet - its constant
  <change and further development - is also its biggest
  <impediment. If something is not fixed, it is not present
  <either. Contents generated on the Net are everywhere and
  <nowhere, and at some point they disappear from their
  <non-location into nothingness. Let Tilman Baumgärtel
  <introduce you to the "Dead Browsers Society". 

  The Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus is said to have
  wept when he gave the order to destroy Carthage. His
  troops set off, burnt down the city, razed the buildings that
  were still standing, ploughed up the land and scattered salt
  in the furrows so that nothing could be grown there
  anymore. And yet however thorough the Roman
  legionaries were in their devastation, today tourists in
  Tunisia can stroll through excavated and partially restored
  buildings, marvel at the small stone children's coffins at the
  roadside and the mosaics in the Bardo Museum, or
  wander through the ruins of the huge thermal baths of
  Antonius. Although only fragments remain of Carthage,
  the city that was more or less completely ravaged over
  2000 years ago, the ruins we see today give us an idea of
  the big, splendid and wealthy city that once stood there.

  Perhaps historians that decide to research the history of
  the computer and the Internet one day will weep even
  more bitterly than the Roman commander Scipio
  Aemilianus. After all, in the not-so-distant future the digital
  worlds that have emerged in the last few decades on the
  hard drives of computers and later on the Net will leave
  behind considerably fewer remains than the ruins of
  Carthage currently being excavated by archaeologists
  under the auspices of UNESCO - or, in the worst-case
  scenario, none at all. There is good reason to doubt
  whether in 2000 years there will be any remnants at all of
  the technology that will probably have such revolutionary
  consequences as Gutenberg's printing press or James
  Watt's steam engine in the past. Although computer
  technology is changing at break-neck speed and seems to
  re-invent itself with every passing year, so far few people
  have thought about what will happen to computers and
  their digital products when they are no longer used on a
  day-to-day basis. The march of time is not kind to the
  machines that have triggered what is undoubtedly the
  greatest scientific and social revolution of the second half
  of the twentieth century. While literature and art grow
  more important and significant with time, old computers
  become obsolete technology after a few years; all they do
  is get in the way and take up space.

  Of course, not all old computers are lost and forgotten.
  Some of them are on display at the Heinz Nixdorf
  Museum in Paderborn (http://www.hnf.de/index.html), 
  for example, or at the Berlin Museum of Technology 
  which has even built a replica of
  the very first German computer - the mechanical Z1,
  which Konrad Zuse designed in the forties at his parents'
  apartment in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin. The software
  that was operated on these main-frame computers,
  however, poses more of a problem: it was stored on
  punch cards which often got lost, and programs that were
  stored on other data carriers often cannot be
  reconstructed today because there are no corresponding
  scanners or because the magnetic tapes, diskettes or CD
  ROMs have simply destroyed themselves. "Bitrot" is the
  term used to describe this insidious decay of digital data
  and their carriers - or even the data carriers themselves:
  experts predict that most computer hard drives will no
  longer be of any use within a few decades. Even CD
  ROMs, often thought of as safe, only have a life span of
  around 30 years. Diskettes and audio cassettes, which
  were used to store a lot of programs for the VC 64
  Volkscomputer, are reliable for no more than five to ten
  years - provided, that is, that they are not demagnetised
  earlier through an unfortunate coincidence or because they
  were placed on top of the television. This is why backup copies of texts
  or images on the hard drive are a substitute activity rather than a
  permanent storage of the digital relics of one's own life. 

  State-funded museums or institutes like the German
  National Archives, whose job it is to preserve historically
  significant documents, have so far exercised an elegant
  restraint in this respect. Although the Federal Archive in
  Karlsruhe accumulates piles of files from authorities and
  law courts or the films of Leni Riefenstahl, you will not find
  old computer games there, or even popular programs like
  Windows 3.1, and yet millions of people have used them
  or played with them. The manufacturers of this software
  are now so preoccupied with earning money that they
  have no time to take care of the long-term archiving of
  their products. You may think that it will not harm future
  generations if they do not know how people used to play
  "Moorhuhnjagd", that hugely popular virtual grouse hunt.
  But it is precisely this type of game that, for a brief period
  in time, was much more important to a lot of people than
  the current affairs recorded in newspapers, books and
  archives and handed down from one generation to the
  next. When it comes to classifying the importance of such
  mass phenomena, we would rather leave it up to the
  selective mechanisms of historical writing rather than the
  arbitrariness of sheer negligence. 
  If anyone comes to the rescue, it will not be public
  institutions, but freaks and hackers that have found in the
  Internet an ideal forum for their common obsessions.
  Websites like 8bit Museum (http://www.8bit-museum.de/) 
  or 8bit Nirvana (http://www.zock.de) contain virtual
  collections of historical home computers, which would be
  the envy of any museum of technology in terms of their
  completeness and presentation. Popular computers in
  particular, such as Atari (http://atari-computer.de/abbuc) 
  or Apple (http://www.apple-history.com), have inspired fan sites
  that would satisfy the most ardent of admirers. There are
  also some odd things such as a website of a book on the
  T-shirts of Apple (http://www.appletshirts.com/). 
  Yes, you read that correctly - the
  collected T-shirts on the subject of Apple computers (and
  there are more than 1,000 of them). Even the computers
  of the now defunct GDR have their very own opulent
  website based on a Master's thesis of the Humboldt
  University of Berlin (http://robotron.informatik.hu-berlin.de). 

  It is not only on the Net, but also in the physical universe
  that do-it-yourselfers and computer nerds have set up
  their own computer museums. The University of
  Hildesheim hosts - but does not fund - the Computer
  Culture Museum (http://www.uni-hildesheim.de/~cmuseum/index.html),
  which has amassed an impressive array
  of hardware. Then there is the Computer Cabinet of
  Göttingen (http://home.t-online.de/home/jkirchh/homepage.htm), 
  which has built up a small collection of what
  some people would think of as electronic scrap. While
  these museums tend to be private collections, the
  Computer Games Museum of Berlin (www.computerspielemuseum.de) 
  really is open to  visitors; all the computers and games computers on
  display there can actually be used. This museum,
  however, is funded not by the Berlin Senate (thus
  condemning one of the potentially most popular exhibition
  venues of the city to a back-room existence) but by the
  non-profit-making Association for the Promotion of Youth
  and Social Work. 

  Although these museums have worked wonders in terms
  of preserving hardware and keeping some of it
  operational, our only hope of preserving games and other
  software in the long term is emulation, the re-programming
  of old programs for new computers while remaining true
  to the original. The Java programming language, which is
  not restricted to computers of a certain type, plays a
  particularly important role in this. Programmer Claus Giloi
  used it back in 1996 to write simulations of the first two
  programs for Personal Computer: Altair and IMSAI. Both
  programs are still circulating on the Net today. For games
  in particular, there is currently a confusing mass of
  websites which - like Emulationworld (http://www.emulationworld.de), 
  for example - collect and distribute emulations. Another trend among
  fans of so-called "retrocomputing" is "abandonware",
  which can also be found in abundance on the Internet at
  sites such as "Abandongames" (http://www.abandongames.com) or "Extreme
  These are computer games which are no
  longer sold by their manufacturers (in other words, they
  have been discontinued or abandoned) but still operate on
  commercially available computers. They include the many
  games developed for the DOS operating system as well
  as those designed for Atari or Amiga computers. And
  these are the best ones anyway, according to a lot of

  Incidentally, the manufacturers of these games do not see this 
  as the preservation of digital culture, but use a considerably 
  less favourable term to describe it: piracy. Whether or not the 
  distribution of old, forgotten games on the Internet contravenes 
  the law has yet to be definitively clarified. The fans of abandonware, 
  which in addition to games also includes old versions of programs like 
  the McAffee Anti-Virus-Scan or the Norton Disk Doctor, argue 
  that it is simply a way of providing people with software 
  that would otherwise be unavailable. 

  US software archivists in the abandonware scene also
  point out that a lot of games used to come with a
  guarantee of a free replacement when the games diskettes
  no longer worked. If you ask a software production outfit
  for a replacement today, you rarely find anyone who can
  even remember the game in question. 

  Yet although these games are still available on the
  WorldWideWeb, the medium that promises to be a
  storehouse of the complete knowledge of mankind is in
  danger of losing its own entire history - it is already
  virtually impossible to archive the Internet on account of
  the proportions it has assumed. In the future, aspiring
  publishers of correspondence between artists or authors
  will find themselves looking into a gaping black hole: the
  e-mails written by the luminaries of our time will be the
  victim of some operating system upgrade or will simply be
  deleted from the hard drive to make room for new data.
  And the information available today in the form of HTML
  documents on the WorldWideWeb can easily be
  withdrawn from the server tomorrow without leaving a

  The grey pages of the WWW in its early days with their
  black, unformatted text without pictures or animation have
  now all but disappeared - like an endangered species.
  Today, anyone that wants to see one of these grey pages
  from the stone age of the Net has to search long and hard
  - or consult Pär Lannerö's "Dejavu" (http://www.dejavu.org) 
  website. The Swedish programmer has developed a browser emulator which
  allows the nostalgic user to surf around in a colourless
  web, just like in 1993. In his "Dead Browsers Society", a
  click of the mouse is all it takes to open up long-forgotten
  software like NSCA Mosaic - the very first web program
  - or Hot Java. The old browsers can also display today's
  pages, except that the highly colourful, flickering pages are
  replaced by static grey expanses. If there were a Net
  Museum, "Dejavu" would be the department of prehistory
  and early history. Lannerö is also to be commended for
  holding on to some of the earliest websites - such as an
  inaugural Yahoo! homepage or the page on which Sun
  Microsystems announced the Java programming language
  - so that astounded future generations can look at them
  through the "spectacles" of an ancient browser. Yes,
  children, this is what it was like in those days.

  In its infancy, the Internet was often compared to the
  Library of Alexandria which, in ancient times, is supposed
  to have stored the entire knowledge of the era. The
  analogy is more fitting than was thought just a few years
  ago: the Library of Alexandria is known to have burnt
  down; today the WorldWideWeb is gently smouldering
  away. Virtually no historic homepage from 1994 has
  survived into the year 2000. Major Internet projects, such
  as the Berlin "Kulturbox" or the "International City",
  have vanished from the Net without a data trace. And
  none of the Internet start-up companies soon to go
  bankrupt will hurriedly bequeath its website to the nearest
  national library just before it goes under - and even if it
  did, nobody there would know what to do with it.

  Once again, it is a hacker that has come up with the best
  initiative to preserve historic websites and FTP sites: a US
  Internet entrepreneur called Brewster Kahle, who has
  grown rich on the WAIS technology he developed, now
  wants to set up an archive of the Internet (www.archive.org). 
  Automated robot programs collect websites and pass them on to his
  Internet Archive, where they are currently being stored on
  tape. Part of the collection can be viewed at the
  Smithsonian National Museum of Washington. But here,
  too, it is questionable whether the stored data will be
  accessible at all in the near future - the hardware and Net
  protocols change that quickly. And anyway, the program
  can only collect HTML data at the moment. Websites
  linked to data banks or dependent on other server
  software are not picked up by the web robots. The
  Internet Archive will not be able to show how the Amazon
  website works or how e-mails are retrieved using

  And should Kahle run out of money for his
  mammoth project (his servers currently hold 35
  terrabytes of data), we can only hope that a state
  institution will jump into the breach and save his
  virtual collection. 

  Today, ruins bear witness to the fall of Carthage. But what
  will remain of the digital information society? Just the notes
  written by contemporaries? The information society has
  left it up to the honorary commitment of hackers and
  computer freaks to preserve its memories. But of course
  they could find a girlfriend tomorrow and, because they
  will then have better things to do with their time, they may
  simply delete their websites with archives of old software
  or historic web pages. These will then be gone, and
  no-one may ever see them again. If you measure the value
  of a culture according to how consciously it handles the
  documents of its own development, then today we are
  living in the most barbaric times since the early Middle

  We will still be able to stroll through the ruins of Carthage
  when the much-cited "Internet revolution" is well and truly
  over and forgotten. Anyone wanting to find out about its
  history may have to rely on second-hand documents:
  newspaper articles and books that have reported on the
  phenomenon. Ironically, it looks as if the information
  documented in a medium that has already been declared
  dead - words printed on paper - will have a longer life
  span than the immaterial bits and bytes processed by
  digital computers. Thus an important part of our culture
  will disappear, as if an enraged god had dragged it over to
  the dustbin icon of the Big Computer of History ...

  <Tilman Baumgärtel wrote this article exclusively for

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