ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

A Bright Day of Shovelware —

With the documentary’s day-to-day production out of my life, I can focus on getting back to a number of projects that were seriously back-burnered. The office I work in here has a bunch of large metal racks that basically function like a huge, piled “to-do” list and the list had gotten very physically large.

One of them is very simple and very satisfying; integrating another 30+ CDs into the website. I don’t talk about that website much, because it’s basically a minefield, but a minefield I’m running for a bunch of good reasons.

The site contains CDs of shareware. Mostly BBS-era, but a few that postdate the heyday of dial-up BBSes. And some isn’t shareware. But they are CDs. Lots of them. Over 90 gigabytes of them, in fact. There’s a bunch of doubled files, but I’ve decided to let that go in favor of having the included CDs maintain their structure.

The Shovelware CD era came and went pretty quickly; about seven years from about 1991 to 1998, with a few before and after. It’s actually a situation that crops up again and again in subcultures and societies: people coming along and grabbing what they can, then repackaging and selling it back to the people they got it from. Basically, these are CDs containing programs, graphics, songs, and whatever other files the company could pull from dozens of BBSes, repackaged onto the then-cool CD-ROM medium, and then offered to BBS Sysops and users as a way to quickly get their hands on a bunch of files to offer for download. Because little regard was held for quality and a lot was held for quantity, these became known as “Shovelware” instead of “Shareware”, since they were basically trying to fill the nearly-700mb capacity of a CD-ROM to point to as a selling point. In doing so, they would grab nearly any cruft that any BBS had to offer that anyone would ever potentially want.

In other words, they unexpectedly became historians.

By grabbing any and all files, we end up with a range of captured aspects of BBSes that would have otherwise never existed: old versions of programs, writings from BBSes and services long gone, and even collected messages and photos from users who thought they were sharing things to a small group but who were in fact destined to share them with the world, forever. This is where I come in.

For quite some time, I have been trying to get my hands on as many shareware CDs as I can. Any. All. From anyone. Hand-done ones, commercial ones, forgotten ones, and for all sorts of platforms: Atari, Amiga, Palmpilot, PC, UNIX… whatever they have. I’m not picky. I’m whatever the exact and total opposite of picky is.

If, in fact, you have any shareware CDs, consider copying them and sending me copies. I’ll integrate them into the site as fast as I can. And that is, in fact, fast.

See, while on one side we have a bunch of old programs and demos written for platforms not in as much use, and with operating system changes that make any programs kind of not work…. we also have on these discs an entire snapshot of history at that time. The way people wrote, the priorities in their documentation, the references to the world around them…. what I find is that, like a library, you can go through the whole thing 100 times with 100 different agendas and find 100 different examples without overlapping. With over 800,000 files and counting, my Important Research Topic of the day likely exists to some level on these discs.

One day, I might be looking for a bunch of old BBSes. Another day, artpacks. Yet another, I might be trying to prove something existed before a company patented the (simple) idea. I’ve done all of these things at one time or another. And it all uses the same material.

There’s so much to learn here, and as I pile on CD after CD, growing my collection by 650mb a hit, I know that this will function, in some cases, as the only way to get to this information on the Internet. It’s a shame it’s not in more places.

This is part of what I am doing as a goal; putting up so much stuff that people are getting things out of it that I never dreamed of. Life shouldn’t be spent trying to accomodate a range of set possibilities; it should be lived so that possibilities you couldn’t dream of are welcome and find a home.

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  1. CrazyCanadian says:

    I wish you could get all the files from the (still up and running) Exec-PC BBS. I bet there’s some stuff on there that can’t be found elsewhere. Who knows how long it will stay up.