Likewise, we can measure mankind’s recent potential by looking at his software tools. Future historians may ponder how people achieved a surreal vocal effect in music or created the CGI animated films of today. They may wonder at what point a certain tool allowed fantastic, photorealistic image manipulations that now dominate advertising. Without knowledge of and experimental access to various versions of Auto-Tune, Pixar RenderMan, and Adobe Photoshop, they’ll have a difficult time finding accurate answers to those questions.
Software is also entertainment. It is culture. Like books, music, and films before it, the art form expressed in software entertainment programs–usually games–has both reflected and influenced the cultural behavior of multiple generations around the globe.
Is there an American alive between the ages of 15 and 35 that doesn’t know who Mario is? (I’m sure you can find someone who has not heard of Mario, but he was locked in a basement from 1980 to 1999.)
Thanks to the work of preservationists that flout the law, future historians will be able to more fully consider Mario’s cultural impact and answer deeper, ancillary questions like “Why did people wear T-shirts with pixelated mushroom people on them?” and “What games, exactly, did Mario appear in and why?”
It’s possible that Nintendo will be around 200 years from now, but it is unlikely to provide all the answers. The company will only convey the history that is in their best commercial interest to show you (i.e. Super Mario Bros. 3, over and over). Historians will show you everything without restraint — even Hotel Mario, Mario Roulette, and I Am A Teacher: Super Mario Sweater. None of those games will survive 200 years without piracy, because Nintendo would rather see those embarrassingly low-quality titles rot away in a tomb sealed by copyright law.
We Have Everything To Lose
It would be nice if the problem of disappearing software was limited to the past, but there’s a disturbing parallel at work in the current software marketplace. App stores and other digital distribution methods–which often inextricably link purchased software to a unique licensee, sometimes on a unique machine–threaten to deprive us of even more software in the very near future.
Thanks to widespread adoption of aggressive digital rights management (DRM) and a single-source model of distribution, most digitally distributed software will vanish from the historical record when those stores shut down. And believe me, they will shut down some day. If this doesn’t scare you, then you need an allegorical history lesson. Here it is:
Imagine if a publisher of 500,000 different printed book titles suddenly ceased operation and magically rendered all sold copies of its books unreadable. Poof. The information contained in them simply vanished. It would represent a cultural catastrophe on the order of the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C. In that fire, a majority of the Western world’s cultural history up to that point turned to ash.
Now take a look at the iTunes App Store, a 500,000 app repository of digital culture. It’s controlled by a single company, and when it closes some day (or it stops supporting older apps, like Apple already did with the classic iPod), legal access to those apps will vanish. Purchased apps locked on iDevices will meet their doom when those gadgets stop working, as they are prone to do. Even before then, older apps will fade away as developers decline to pay the $100 a year required to keep their wares listed in the store.
From a historical perspective, we can only hope that hackers and pirates have been quietly making archives of as much as they can grab from download services like the iTunes App Store, the PlayStation Store, the Wii Shop Channel, Xbox Live Arcade, and other online app stores.
And what about cloud software? If all of our software tools become centralized and run over the Internet, it will be hard to pirate them, which also means they won’t get preserved. That’s bad for history.
When paleoanthropologists wonder if a 13,000 year-old Clovis point can take down a Bison, they tie one to a spear and let it fly. If spear points had been automatically cloud updated over the course of their development, however, we would only know of the most recent iteration in the design process. Clovis points wouldn’t exist today, and we’d be wondering how ancient Native Americans managed to hunt game with uranium-tipped bullets.
With that in mind, think about this: What did Gmail’s interface look like just one year ago? How did Google Maps work before it added Street View? Lacking experimental access to older versions of cloud-based software tools, future historians will have to depend on screenshots and personal testimony to work out exactly what the tools were capable of at any time, if they still exist.
But if future historians retain access to old versions of non-cloud software, they will be able use the tools, as they would with a Clovis point, to experimentally duplicate the activities of people in the past. For example, they could run the AtariWriter word processing program on an Atari 800 emulator to reproduce a document from the 1980s in a way that would explain its format.
A complete reliance on cloud gaming (think OnLive) is also a very bad idea. Looking to OnLive to preserve game software would be like expecting your local movie theater to preserve film history. They only show what is commercially viable to show at the time, and they discard the rest. That is how cloud gaming will work as well.
The new Great Library is already burning, and we are only just beginning to smell the smoke.
When Corporations Own History, They Change It
The DRM found in digital app stores today poses a significant threat to our future understanding of history. Sure, the companies that create this software own the rights to these products now, but once a work becomes consumed and embedded into mass culture, it belongs to the ages. It assumes a role larger than that of a mere commercial product, and copies of the work should be protected and preserved as cultural treasures.
It’s hard to protect and preserve that which is liable to change or disappear at any time. If VHS tapes worked like app stores, George Lucas could force all of us to upgrade our purchased Star Wars films to the Special Edition versions (to maintain compatibility with LucasOS, of course), overwriting the old ones in the process. Heck, one day he could decide he doesn’t like the movies at all and replace them with copies of Willow. It would be within his legal rights, but it would also be cultural robbery.
It bugs me that iOS software today updates at a galloping pace that deletes previous versions unless you’ve taken pains to archive them. It is convenient and wonderful functionality in many ways, but the practice also rewrites history with every download. What if Photoshop had been updated that way throughout the 1990s? Would anyone have a copy of the first version that could work with layers? Such a historically important piece of software would be lost. Similarly, if we move to a completely controlled, single-source, automatic update scheme for all PC applications–it’s almost here with Windows 8, by the way–we will be destroying digital artifacts with a fervor heretofore unseen.
By accepting restrictive DRM into our lives, we are giving not only software publishers, but all media publishers the power to erase, control, or manipulate digital cultural history if they choose. That is why DRM feels fundamentally wrong from a humanistic standpoint: it conspires, in conjunction with time, to deprive humanity of its rightfully earned cultural artifacts.
To be sure, every creator of software should be rewarded appropriately with exclusive rights of reproduction for a certain period of time, as they are now, but only in a soft legal sense, not with a virtual lock and key that stymies the preservation of history.
Let’s not repeat what happened 2000 years ago in Alexandria. The only scrolls that survived the burning of the Great Library were those that had been copied and distributed, likely without the permission of their authors. (Unfortunately, library officials strictly limited library access to prevent this, so very few texts escaped destruction.) If we don’t open the doors to the legal preservation of all software, civilizations thousands of years from now will only possess copies of programs that pirates illegally duplicated and distributed while the works were still officially available.
The cultural impact of software easily equals that of any other creative work. It is time to legitimately preserve this digital art form in libraries alongside books and films. Setting up such a library, however, is a very difficult proposition.
The Plight of the Digital Librarian
If you wanted to study the history of our culture up to the present, you’d probably turn to a library. There you can find comprehensive collections of analog data to study for free. If you want to study software in the same way, you’re out of luck: operating a practical, comprehensive software library is currently illegal in the United States.
Don’t get me wrong: it is possible to create a legal software library, but its implementation would make it nearly useless. The best a library can hope to do, within its legal limits, is to stock physical copies of officially duplicated software media on physical shelves. That means that all the problems with decaying and obsolete media come along with it. There’d be plenty of bulk and very little guarantee that you’d be able to access what is sitting in the stacks.