Computer archaeology

digital_archaeology_thumbArchaeology and computers… when the two are put in one sentence, most people will think of the use of computers and modern technology as useful tools that facilitate the cataloging of a dig. For sure, that’s the most logical association as after all, looking at computers as archaeological artifacts seems a bit strange as, after all, the computer is only a couple of decades old.

Nonetheless, the advances in technology, the speed at which it changes and the rate at which we tend to consider things as being “old”, increases with every new release of the latest smartphone, console or processor.
No, computer archaeology is definitely something that’s real and also quite different from traditional archaeology. When scientists unearth some long forgotten tomb in Egypt, they’ll be able to touch, read and see the texts written on the walls, on the scrolls and be able to decipher the secrets hidden within. If an archaeologist in the year 3000 unearths a box containing disks full of software, he or she will probably be unable to read the contents of them. Not because they will not have technology that can access the data (perhaps they discovered an old, probably still working, C64 next to it), but because the data stored on the plastic is gone… perished over time, scrambled into a string of 0’s and 1’s.

It is this sense of non-permanence that makes computer archaeology something that we need to think about right now. We need to preserve the magic, the data on the disks, the structure of the silicon wafers so that the next generations can marvel at the wonderful things that were created in the 20th century.

Luckily, we have many people that take this to heart and are actively preserving today’s and yesterday’s technology so that future generations will have their own Rosetta stone. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the efforts of the “chip archaeologists” of Visual6502 who are meticulously documenting the structure and inner workings of the legendary MOS 6502 chip and now, last week, the web and the art community was buzzing with news of the discovery of previously doodles, pictures, camera shots, notes, and more that belonged to the iconic artist Andy Warhol, stored on… a couple of Amiga disks dating back to 1985.

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Unearthing the files was no small feat (and we’re only 30 years into the future), performed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Club and numerous Warhol Museum staffers. The Warhol Museum’s collections manager, Amber Morgan, stated in the museum’s press release:
One of our responsibilities is to preserve the museum’s collection. Up until now, we have only been able to address the computer disks themselves, and not the content held within them. This project has enabled us to safely extract the data, which can now be properly backed up, ensuring that the images will be preserved even if the original disks fail.

Just imagine if these disks would have been discovered a hundred years from now… chances are, the data would be lost forever.

It seemed that the past week was all about unearthing hidden computer gems (literally), as the Atari Alamogordo landfill myth turned into reality when CAT tractors pulled heap after heap of waste from a 30-year-old landfill and discovered what was the final resting place of the ill-fated ET cartridges.

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The diggers also uncovered Atari catalogs, Raiders of the Lost Ark game promotional materials, and even a crushed copy of Centipede that looked like it was buried in its original shrink wrap. Some of the cartridges appeared surprisingly well preserved given the circumstances and looked “playable”.

But it doesn’t have to be all about digging up stuff in the ground or meticulously reconstructing data on an old Amiga floppy… we can actively make sure that the future archaeologists won’t have to scratch their heads when they see an Apple I or have to figure out how to put a cassette in the C64’s recorder. We can put the icons of the 70s, 80s and 90s already today in a museum and make sure the objects, both hardware and software are preserved for all eternity, just like it is done today in Switzerland by Yves Bolognini with the Musée Bolo.

We can be the future guides for the next generation of archaeologists. Digital, chip, or computer archaeology starts today!

Note: You can watch the documentary about the recovery of the lost Andy Warhol’s on May 10th, right here.

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3 Responses to Computer archaeology

  1. Another great post….thanks.

  2. Computers just two decades old?

    Though preservation was also important even before floppies were old hat. And even ten years ago, my relief was palpable to finally copy my own old BASIC programs to disk image; and so much so, I went to the bother of pleading with other Commies to do this in the letters page of Retro Gamer.

  3. Also, though glad of it, I can’t believe the pace of change in computing. I think back to my old days on the BBC Micro or educational PCs at school and consider the experiences may as well have been in a different universe.

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