ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Before It All Arrives —

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.

Two million.

Two million.

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.

Categorised as: computer history | Internet Archive | jason his own self

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  1. drxb2k says:

    So what if the emulation is still rough at times, this is so much more than a description, screenshot or video recording. I *used* VisiCalc, now I understand how it could turn home computing around, and also how it could be replaced almost over night by a competitor. I don’t want to read about software, I want to *use* it!

  2. jonippolito says:

    Jason, I just finished a chapter for Henry Lowood and Ray Guins’ book on gaming that argued Preserving.exe marked a turning point in institutional recognition for emulation as a preservation strategy. But now you beat me to it!

    Don’t worry, I’ll sneak your 2M statistic in at the last minute.


  3. Temujin says:

    Long reply; apologies in advance.

    The news about console games broke first in my circle of friends, and then someone shared the news about the arcade games, just as I was considering doing so. A good many of us have lost days down the rabbit hole, I’m sure, myself included.

    As to software in general, there’s so much more value, as I see it, in experiencing the thing than just reading about it. As drxb2k pointed out above, actually using the programs provides a direct understanding of their effects. To which I’d respectfully add, at least in part. Those of us who were, say, too young to have owned a particular piece of software and used it as adults, or who were on another platform and so didn’t use *that* particular set can’t ever wholly recreate the initial experience or the milieu of the times, but we can know *better* and understand *better* what those things meant and why they are important. The programs and the platforms they ran on, as I see it, are primary sources, no different than primary sources in other media. They are our direct link back to another time, another perspective, another set of problems and solutions.

    Just recently I was flustered by some old files of mine from the early 90s and found myself wishing there was an easy way to get hold of the programs necessary to access them so that I could get them in a format my modern machines support. I eventually found my solutions and was happy. Still, being relatively non-technical in my education, it was difficult for me, and the things I needed were scattered across a number of sites. In the process, the thought occurred to me, “God, it would be so cool if I could just pull this version of the OS up in a browser, with a full complement of time-contemporary software, pop my files open, and do what I need to do.” Perhaps it’s a silly sentiment, but I’d like to see this be a thing with as much old software as possible. Until this week, I had files that had sat, untouched through many transfers, for over fifteen years. I imagine there are many people who have a situation like mine, and an equivalent lack of technical knowledge. An easy, fully-loaded browser setup that could do the things I mentioned might be the gateway to saving many more aspects of our digital past.

  4. Jon J says:

    Actually I’m pretty sure Rocky and Bullwinkle and Mr. Peabody invented the Wayback Machine waaay back in the 1960’s. Fun read here though.

  5. msikma says:

    I’m curious as to how optimal the IA’s website and its surrounding code is. They have a ton of projects up on Github. It seems very fragmented. It’s sort of surprising that the admins had to go through such trouble to figure out how many people had been using their emulators.

    It would be fun to thoroughly examine the IA’s code and tech stack and see how it could be improved, and which parts could be rewritten or replaced.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Internet Archive has striven to be as transparent as possible with their code and infrastructure. They always welcome useful contributions and forks on the projects to improve them.

      The reference them having trouble, is mostly because they do not keep long-term logs, and keep some general information on usage, but the weird way we do emulators in a browser meant it wasn’t intuitive in the system. In other words, it wasn’t hard like “math is hard”, but hard like “we don’t generally track users, but we wanted to track something users do”.

  6. I’m one of the selected people who could be at preserving.exe (though that “.exe” still stings me, as I know software and its preservation is much bigger that stuff with “.exe” in its name”) and I’m still thankful of all the people who made that possible as it was awesome to dive into this area given that in daily life I rarely get to work on other things than making sure Firefox is stable.
    That said, since I learned there what you and the IA are doing, I’ve been a big fan of that work, and it’s fascinating to see how esp. JSMESS is moving forward, you’re doing awesome work there!
    I’d love to see and be part of a meeting like we had last year again and see where efforts are going – I wonder if anyone else is making nearly as much progress on their projects as you do! 😉