ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

On Objects and People —

A muffin is a muffin. You like it or you don’t like it. But there’s not much to the muffin beyond it being a muffin.

Now, if that same muffin is being eaten by someone who is keeping you captive and they have declared that you will be slaughtered when they finish the muffin, then the muffin takes on a whole other nature.

The muffin is a measurement of time. It’s an indication of a scary end. It’s also a combination of hilarity and terror as you realize that the bastard is actually enjoying this muffin as it makes your demise. You have, in other words, a whole range and spectrum of feelings about the muffin, far outside of the muffin-esque aspects of its nature.

I bring this odd idea up just to help understand an even odder idea.

A lot of my work is collecting artifacts. But that’s just what they are… artifacts. Representations of activity. A program or .ZIP file represents not only the work that appears in it but the work that has gone into that project, over time, of which you are getting the most recent revision as of the time of the ZIP file. You lack the revisions now gone, the letters written, the phone calls made over pizza, the hours of walking and talking (possibly alone) and all the rest of that critical, human interaction.

A lot of the games I play on my XBOX become a dozen times more compelling with the addition of people. The interaction is not just in a matter of the words they say but the style with which they play and the actions they take both inside and outside the game well away from the base “rules”, which are “get a point for killing, most points win”. It is the difference between a cup of water and an empty cup.

This human interface aspect, being transient and ethereal, is one of the first things lost in collecting artifacts. You can have a program but not really understand the programmer. You can have a BBS but not know the voice of the Sysop.

This is why I do video recordings of people. There is so much additional information you get, listening to someone talk; the modulation of the voice, the pauses, the way they make a face. We are built to understand and read this, and pull information from it not easily translated into words and text. It is one of the hardest things to preserve and a factor often cleanly forgotten when looking over the stuff I collect.

As time goes on, the people disappear. We’re left with the shell, the cover, the basics. But I wish there was a way to easily capture more. Lacking that, the discipline is on the historian to constantly be aware that even the collection of every file, every piece and scrap of a historical situation, is still less than half the story.

It is just a muffin.

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  1. Eric says:

    Cool post! I think this is why I find some of the archival work that Google does so fascinating. Looking at the “Timeline View” of my emails in Google Desktop or revisting decades old Usenet posts on Google Groups is still a pale imitation of the genuine article, but in many cases it can be a very cool cross-section of the day-to-day details, whether significant or mundane, that we all leave scattered behind us. (Example: “i’m at the computer lab right now – then i’m going home to wait for my sister – we’re going to get a key made for our backdoor, then we’ll probably go to the unicorn or something.”)

    But it is a shame that this is ultimately a very limited view into the past, that leaves undocumented things like BBSes and probably millions of CD-Rs with obscure labels like “New Site Assets, V36” and so on. But then again… some things *are* better left unremembered =)