The numbers are a little hard to calculate, because the Internet Archive, heroes to the core, do not keep logs for pretty much any time at all. But using a few methods, comparing some general graphs, and doing math, the admins handed me an estimate of how many people have played video games at the Internet Archive in the last 3 days.
While I’ve had bursts of somewhat public facing events and wonders over time, none of them have ever have crashed into the lives of millions in just a couple days. And certainly not in the continually ongoing way I am finding people are returning, over and over, to look at the games. Additionally, it hasn’t taken people long to find other software collections, and other places where the emulator has been utilized for consoles and general computers. In other words, they are cascading through all of the services that the archive provides, and poking at them all with brand-new eyes. Many thousands will have never heard of the Internet archive before Sunday.
I am hesitant to use a term like “turning point” in regards to the archive in general, since you could go on any subway platform and somebody who was waiting for the train would probably know that there was something called the Wayback machine. It’s been around for 15 years, and even if people don’t know all the details, they get with the Archive is about.
Not so with emulation, or the state of software preservation. The last three days have been, unquestionably, a turning point in emulation.
Emulation made the local TV news. The ability to play old software in your modern browser and on your current machine was a decently packaged story that found its way into magazines, newspapers, blogs, podcasts, and an unknown amount of water cooler conversations.
People who know me let me know about overhearing conversations about the Internet arcade, and therefore Emulation, in classrooms, workplaces, and in the street.
For the contingency of people who were hoping that one day society would understand what Emulation was, and would be able to articulate, even in the lightest fashion, its underlying theories, well, that day has arrived. That day is here.
Certainly, there were and always will be factions within the regard of historical software. Some people believe that actions like this are a dreadful mistake, and could only lead to horror and sadness. Others are flying high today, getting exactly what they had always hoped for.
A rough travel schedule last week has left me rather sick, and I am still recovering. Regardless, I can’t let these moments slip away. My work in historical circles only highlights for me how fleeting moments of happiness can be. We were watching as many as 1000 people a minute running into the Internet archive, overrunning resources within, having an incredible time. The sky is the limit for them. For this time, a bounty lay before them, utilizing the strength of their own computers to provide them a nostalgia roller coaster, a recovered treasure trove of memories, a new insight into a world nearly 30 years dead.
It can’t last. Nothing lasts.
What’s coming forward are questions, and ideas, and arguments, and discussions. They’re on the way, I can feel them formulating now. Letters and think pieces and essays, and debates.
I’m sure I’ll play a part in them at that future time, but I just want to go a little bit into the past.
A year and a half ago, I participated in what was probably the most white-hot conflagration of software preservation experts in the country. It was called preserving.exe. Here was the agenda and information on it:
I gave a talk there. It was called “I did it 35 minutes ago” and in it I laid out the importance of software preservation, and the efforts of the Internet archive to move forward in that space. I am more than happy to admit that the speech was equal parts passion and plans.
I predicted the inevitability of what’s happening now, this week. I asked peers and contemporaries what they were going to do about it, what moves needed to be done, and if we are going to sit by and let software be buried, forgotten, or if we would work to give it the due it deserves and the access it needs to have.
I asked, fundamentally, what software is, in a historical context. Is it an eternal product, service, and item that is always to be sold, treated as such, perpetually unreachable, and distributable until the very media it is on rots beneath it? Will software have to be something described, as a lore, instead of presented for people to experience themselves and understand?
In other words, would software’s very specific nature of easy duplication and transfer ironically doom it to disappearance? Would the software preservation experts refuse to make their hard work available, out of fear, concern, lack of guideposts? Would the newness of the medium paradoxically lead it to be lagging decades behind in advances made with almost every other medium? Is that the world we want to leave behind?
I pounded my little podium, and I sat down. And when I went home. I went back to work.
Like blasting a firehose into a kitchen, the pure sheer numbers of people now running through the Internet archive are a fascinating spectrum of regard. Some people are disappointed when they run into rough patches, others are delighted that the whole thing comes together at all. Shouts of disbelief clash against demands for decade-old playing tips. The project has been praised and cursed, lauded, and questioned.
Through it all, one thing is obvious: software is more than code. Programs are more than executables. This medium we have formed forms us, and returning to it brings back joy and the agony, no different than a book, a poem, or a face.
Soon, a stunned populace, an alerted establishment, is going to come forward and have a lot of questions and want to debate.
But before they arrive, before the buzzing in the distance becomes a roar in the valley and a scream in our yard, I have one last question, to colleagues and bystanders:
Where will you be?
It is going to be most interesting for me to find out.