platforms and constraints

In Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (The MIT Press, 2009), Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort introduce platform studies as an approach to studying games and other digital media, tracing the history of the Atari VCS home video game console as a case study. Here’s how they define platform:

“Whatever the programmer takes for granted when developing, and whatever, from another side, the user is required to have working in order to use particular software, is the platform” (p. 2-3).

Platforms shape the actions of their users, which can cut two ways. The Atari VCS’ many limitations sparked creativity in game design, but the assumptions hidden in other platforms could have malign consequences. When preserving platforms and platform-dependent art, we’ll need to consider how best to make these influences explicit.

creativity from constraints

In order to preserve executable and/or reusable versions of software and digital artworks, we’ll need to document how constraints in platforms shape creative decisions. In Racing the Beam, a member of the design team for the Atari game Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back recalls, “We prioritized the game elements we wanted to include and watched the list diminish as the available cartridge space was used up” (p. 128). This is one of many instances in which designers and gamers maximized what they could do within the Atari VCS’s limitations.

Bogost and Montfort write, “Technical innovations are often understood as the creation of new technology–new materials, new chip designs, new algorithms. But technical innovation can also mean using existing technical constraints in new ways, something that produces interesting results when combined with creative goals” (p. 53). The limits of preservation, such as our inability to completely document or perfectly save an old piece of software, offer their own set of restrictions. Preservation-related constraints can be detrimental to faithful reproduction, but they also free artists and curators to reinterpret the works, with “interesting results.”

Specific documentation and interoperable data might be the dream combination enabling Ippolito and Rinehart’s gross but effective concept of a “mother copy” (Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014, p. 24). But where description and documentation inevitably fail could be where reuse really takes off.

hidden assumptions

While the restrictiveness of platforms can be good for creativity, hidden constraints and assumptions aren’t always beneficial. Game designers working with the Atari VCS seemed extremely knowledgeable about the limits governing their work, but that might not be true for artists working with software and hardware today. Platform studies suggests that we should continually interrogate the tools and systems we use, even as we build upon them.

I’m reminded of an article about “library as infrastructure” in which Shannon Mattern highlights problems with a popular “library as open platform” metaphor. Infrastructure is embedded, complicated, old and dirty, comes freighted with history. Open platforms are ostensibly about encouraging anyone to remix library collections and metadata (for example) but can obscure the values on which the platforms run. While Mattern argues that infrastructure is closer to the reality of libraries than the open platform, her “infrastructure” is akin to “platforms” as framed in Racing the Beam.

As a complement to Bogost and Montfort’s observations about technological innovation, Mark Matienzo’s keynote for the 2015 LITA Forum wraps up a lot of key issues in building new technology upon old platforms. He questions how innovative or revolutionary a technology — such as linked data created from old classification systems — can actually be, so long as participation and “the power to name” are distributed as before. My first reaction to the talk was, “Read this if you are human and work with information.” But these concerns are especially important for us since preserving platforms and their products means documenting creative cultures and relying upon members of those cultures in the documentation process.

Matienzo might find common ground with glitch artist Scott Fitzgerald, who says:

In glitch art, more so than a lot of other art forms, I am a really big proponent of the idea that the process is more important. Part of the process is empowering people to understand the tools, understand the underlying structures, like what’s going on inside of a computer. So, as soon as you understand a system enough to know why you’re breaking it, then you have a better understanding of what the tool is built for.

hidden histories go on and on

As Matt Kirschenbaum, Mattern and Matienzo (and many, many others) suggest, we can push, break apart, and interrogate platforms by delving into the social and political histories of the hardware and software. We’ll probably find that the hidden histories just keep going.

For example, Bogost and Montfort mention that the Atari VCS used a processor and other hardware manufactured by Fairchild Semiconductor. I happen to have read a paper by digital media scholar Lisa Nakamura tracing the history of Navajo women’s involvement in the manufacture of these parts at Fairchild’s plant in Shiprock, N.M. “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture” focuses on convoluted representations of these workers in Fairchild’s corporate archives, and the conspicuous absence of their actual testimonies in the archival record. This chance connection is based on my having just one other context for the name Fairchild Semiconductor, but it reinforces that platform studies are inseparable from studies of gender, labor, race, and class.

from platform studies to preservation strategy

All of this suggests that preserving digital art is a continuous process of investigation forward and backward in time from the moment of a digital object’s creation — if a singular moment can be identified at all.

Arms and Fleischhauer (2005) make two especially helpful contributions to how we might translate platform studies into preservation strategy. First, they conceive of digital formats as tied to the stages of a digital project’s life cycle (creation, preservation, and use). They call for archivists to investigate the full range of formats used and the relationships between content stored in each. Second, they enumerate specific sustainability and quality/functionality factors for promoting the longevity of digital formats. Each factor could serve as a way for archivists to enter into conversation with creators and users of digital media platforms, from whom we seek help.

Innovation and Preservation

Innovation can mean many different things depending on the topic being discussed. In Nick Montfort and Ian Bogos’ book Racing the Beam they write that “Technical innovations are often understood as the creation of new technology—new materials, new chip designs, new algorithms. But technical innovation can also mean using existing technical constraints in new ways, something […]