Emulation as Resistance and Social Memory

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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Game Computer System by Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort offers a detailed look at the Atari VCS or what is known by many as the Atari 2600. The book focuses on when the system dominated the market from 1979-1983 and discusses its eventual role in the video game crash of in 1983. In particular, the authors examine a number of game cartridges to reveal the affordances and resistance created by the video game platform and its limiting of “computational expression” in the creation of these games. At first glance, this book may seem largely tangential to preserving digital art but I think there are many commonalities that Bogost and Montfort illustrate quite well and which we can learn from.

The Resistance in the Materials

Early Atari enthusiast, William Morris

As William Morris once stated, “you can’t have art without resistance in the materials.” The Atari VCS could be defined by its resistance. Coders had to deal with the physical and technical limitations of the platform such as the speed of the beam writing across the screen one line at a time, the limited ROM, and the limited graphical elements, to produce games people actually wanted to play. For what they had to work with, the coders’ results were often innovative and astounding.

All the while, the concurrent political, social, and economic challenges such as creating games for the home (rather than arcade) environment, deadlines for game release based on market forces, and questions over ownership also affected game creation. In these ways, Montfort and Bogost are connecting what is on the screen and the cultural context with the forensic materiality of the hardware that Kirschenbaum describes in Mechanisms. Understanding the entire process of game creation and the limitations of the platform gives a better understanding of all the factors that need to be preserved.

Porting and Licensed Adaptations

The theme of resistance continued in the challenge of taking other arcade video games and licensed works from their original medium and adapting or “porting” them to the Atari 2600. To me, this process raised some interesting connections with ideas of social memory, digital preservation, and significant properties. Specifically, the quote below really got me thinking about these issues:

Along with the lack of true originality in most VCS games—that is, the basis of many VCS games in arcade games or licensed properties—another closely related theme runs throughout the history of the Atari VCS, that of the transformative port or adaptation. When an earlier game is the basis for a VCS game, it can almost never be reproduced on the VCS platform with perfect fidelity. – page 23, Racing the Beam

We see that these games lacked true originality in the sense that they were attempting to copy other works but were original in their transformative adaptation to a system loath to provide the elements needed to reproduce their inspiration exactly.  Montfort and Bogost go on to say that, technical limitations notwithstanding, it is still impossible to replicate the physical environment, interface, or economic context to create a true copy of the game experience for the player, but it can be transformed to get something close enough to make the memory live on.

Social Memory

Porting and adapting have many parallels to the production of informal social memory through recreation and variation. Exactness is not key in this approach, instead adapting or porting seems more like a performance based on a “score” or the instructions of the original artwork, similar to the process that Rinehart and Ippolito discuss in Re-Collection.

From page 69 of Racing the Beam
Pac-Man for Arcade vs. Pac-Man for Atari. From page 69 of Racing the Beam.

Or seen in a different way, the retelling of a game on a different platform can perhaps be compared to the retelling and memory sharing process of oral history. In these ways, the idiosyncrasies of each repetition can be forgiven, assuming the significant features remain, allowing it to be the same “work” on a more conceptual level. With the Atari VCS, the resistance in the materials forced game creators to focus on the most significant elements in order to create something that resembled the look and feel of the original, while still acknowledging the variation of its underlying medium and its context.


As both professionals and amateurs try to preserve these games through emulation or even rewriting them to work on new devices that do not have the same resistances, they encounter new unique resistance. The problem here remains of being unable to reproduce these items with the exact fidelity of the original. Newer technology can overcompensate for the original quirks. Newer processors can make a game run faster and better than it ever could, LCD and HDTV’s do not display the games in the same way CRT televisions blur pixels together, and the interface is often not the original joystick. Compensating to make these items run like their original and to feel less advanced is its own form of resistance.

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But as seen above, these characteristics can be forgiven if we view emulation as an attempt to implement the “score” of the original game and its most significant elements. These very good efforts can still ensure that the social memory of these cultural artifacts survive. And to what extent is perfection necessary? Perfection, in fact, can be problematic in communicating authenticity. Sound recordings do not perfectly reproduce the natural world, the sounds of particular elements are amplified to be heard better. Furthermore, some consider vinyl recordings to have a warmer, more authentic sound than their high quality digital versions. In these examples, the consumer expects imperfection. Additionally,  Glitches (often as result of a system running incorrectly) in computers can be hints of the materiality of the system and also provide a certain authenticity. 

If there are always errors or difference, how do we determine the acceptable level of tolerance of them in the preservation of objects and their social memory? I think there can be multiple tolerances as Rinehart and Ippolito describe the “both/and” approach to preservation that allows for multiple representations of the same work. So if a range is okay, where do we stop? Overall, the platform study process Montfort and Bogost undertake seems like an essential framework to understand sufficient context to decide what level of preservation is good enough. But how do we make it scalable?

All the World’s a Stage

TroymcclureHi! I’m Joe Carrano, you may remember me from such courses as Digital Public History, Spring 2015. This is (hopefully) my last semester in grad school where I am pursuing an MLS with a concentration in archives, records, and information management as well as an MA in history with a focus in U.S. history. As I mentioned, I took Digital Public History last year and thought taking another course with Trevor would be a valuable experience. While that class was more in my wheelhouse, I’m hoping to challenge myself a little more with this course.

I do know the basics and principles of digital preservation but have very little background in art, let alone new media art. I don’t plan on becoming a digital art curator but I think having broad knowledge of the issues of multiple fields is essential. The networked world is fascinating to me and understanding its many facets and its interconnections are important to preserving any slice of it. As Rinehart and Ippolito discuss in Re-Collection, all of these fields are part of the process of preserving social memory.  

In particular, I hope this class can teach me some of the commonalities of digital art preservation and general digital archiving work and allow me to see where the two fields might learn from each other. With the advent of the internet and things like gifs, memes, and emojis, the way we convey information seems more visual than ever. Additionally, some of the complex issues with digital audio, video, and software are the same no matter the subject genre. Similarities in genre extend to legal and organizational issues as well. Still, digital art is unique and has complexities that merit their own attention and make other digital objects seems easier.

In Re-CollectionRinehart and Ippolito make clear that all the world’s a stage and the bits and bytes are merely players. What I mean is that, in a sense, every digital object rendered on a screen is a performance which we mentally separate from the physically encoded bits on a hard drive. Thus when we talk about digital art versus simply a digital document there are many similarities that I think are more available than when comparing analog collections. The question is how important are the aesthetic or performative aspects of these objects when preserving them into the future. At first thought this is very important to artworks. Preserving art means preserving aesthetics, right?

However, Rinehart and Ippolito raise the alternative option of preserving instructions or the “score” of an artwork so that it may be reconstructed in the future. This approach allows for certain variations as the work is reproduced each time. Furthermore, they bring up the option of emulation, where an object is severed from its original hardware and displayed using newer components. A document, conversely, is often kept for its informational value. But in the world of a multitude of hardware, software, and websites, when is the aesthetics and the functionality of the digital document necessary to preserve?

Overall, whose opinions matter in making these decisions? Is preserving the hardware a necessary part of preserving the context? The extent to preserve a digital object is something that continues to puzzle me. How feasible is it to emulate everything? Is that desirable? I think learning more about curating digital art will help to clarify my thinking on how to determine significant properties of digital material, the informational value to visual culture, and how to best preserve these elements.

Whether or not we can all agree on how much to preserve, it is important to act now to combat the ephemeral nature of the digital world. The Fino-Radin and Smithsonian piece both give more practical examples or steps forward, showing the trades-offs made when trying to do your best with the tools at hand instead of seeking perfection and being frozen by inaction. I’m looking forward to tackling these issues and meeting everyone in person!

Project Reflection: stereomap

Instead of boring you with every inane detail of my project, this post will weave a narrative of the most important trials, tribulations, and things I learned from constructing my project: stereomap, a site devoted to geocoding animated stereographs.


Trial 1: Overcoming a Dead End

Many (or should I say the few?) of you who read this blog outside of the students in the class might be thinking “hey, isn’t that the guy that was doing that project of mapping unbuilt spaces in Washington, D.C.?” Yes, you are right, it was me but shortly into starting the project I discovered a number of distressing details that made me switch my topic. First, it turns out the Histories of the National Mall site is in the process of doing a number of explorations on my very subject and will be releasing them sometime soon. To make matters worse, I learned the National Building Museum did an exhibit called “Unbuilt Washington” in 2011 and created an online map for it detailing the unbuilt spaces. My exact project idea! This was my lowest point in this process, I had no clue where to go from here.


Enter: the Stereograminator

Having attended a MITH digital dialogue earlier this year, I learned about the Stereogranimator, a tool from NYPL labs for animating stereographs and it came back to me when I was racking my brain for a new project idea. In an “MTV Cops” moment I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could take these animated stereograms and map them in the style of HistoryPin?” These images typically feature a distinct location and could benefit from the context of geographic space. I chose NYC for the ease of using the over 3,000 stereographs focused on the city and held by the NYPL. With my crisis averted by deciding to create a map and website to fulfill this project idea, I started figuring out the logistics of its implementation.

Trial 2: You Can Map GIFs, Right?

While there is a glut of mapping software out there, few handle animated GIFs well in their information boxes, often cutting off images, making them static again, or not displaying the images at all. Finding a tool that overcame these challenges became my top priority in making this project feasible. Along with my main goal, I hoped to find an easy-to-use, mobile friendly, free, and still decently attractive interface. Looking through many map options (Google My Maps, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB, WorldMap, Scribble Maps, and on and on), I finally found one that actually would work: ZeeMaps. While not gaining full points on the attractive interface scale, this site fulfilled the rest of my requirements mentioned above. In finding the right mapping service, I learned a lot about evaluation of digital tools, compromise, and to understand practical limitations. With this crucial element decided, I started building the map and the website to host it.

stereomap in action, GIFception!
Trial 3: Building Diversity

As I began constructing my site and its elements, I started to learn more about the collections themselves. It was difficult to create a diverse mix of selected points due to the biases towards certain subjects and areas. If historians were to look at the collection as a documentary example of the late 19th to early 20th century, then it could summed up as a white man wearing a bowler hat in lower Manhattan.

While lower Manhattan was a cultural center then as it is today, the collection overlooks important segments of the Black population in Harlem and other parts of the city. Even in stereographs focused outside of New York City where Blacks are subjects, they are depicted in racist ways as minstrel characters. Women and the lower classes were also seldom depicted other than to emphasize their need of saving from destitution. These characteristics made it difficult for me to create a wide ranging selection of subjects, however, it drove home the point of the photographers’ biases and the frequent inadequacy of the documentary record.

Trial 4: Becoming a Bot

As I was building, I also was promoting the site at the same time. Taking an idea from the Trevor Owens, I decided to “curate in the open” and publicly share each image I made and considered using as I went. This was both to generate interest and to aggregate all the links to use in the project. I chose Twitter as my main sharing platform because I already had an account (although not too many followers) and all my tweets were open to the public. Overall, judging from my Twitter analytics, my tweets were mainly seen by my followers but some of them did seem interested. Some of them seemed disturbed:

He’s normally a nice guy.

I realized that Twitter may not have been the best platform for this part of my project. In sending out multiple tweets in rapid succession, it seemed to my followers that I was becoming a bot, taking over their timelines like the bots of conviction we read about earlier this semester. Certainly some were alright with this, but I’m sure many did not appreciate having these images forced upon them. Perhaps a more image focused site like tumblr would have served this purpose better. Whether or not I chose the right social media platform, I do believe the effort was worthwhile and drew more attention to my project than simply keeping it behind closed doors until a big reveal in the end.


From all my trials I learned how to weigh options, choose between resources, and create a deliverable product. In the end, I overcame my trials and created a usable website that met the goals I set when beginning this journey. Thank you, dear reader, for following along with me throughout the semester and in this post. I hope you take a look at the site and send me your thoughts.


Dude, Where’s My History?: A Look at Historical Mapping Interfaces

The advent of digital technology allowed a greater exchange of knowledge and ideas to enter homes at an astonishing new level. This change brought information and services straight to users that before may have required someone to actually leave their home to seek it. The advancement of mobile computing technology furthered the trend of information coming directly to people but without restricting its access in one physical place. Many cultural heritage institutions have noticed these changes and adapted to become not only places that house information, but resources that increasingly push it directly to their patrons wherever they may be. The affordances of this new media also allow institutions to bring their materials into geographic space, adding another layer of interpretation and context while bringing to the public’s attention that history is all around us.

Histories of the National Mall

One site that takes advantage of mobile application and a spatial understanding of history is Histories of the National Mall created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media run using our old pal, Omeka. Taking their own advice from their report Mobile for Museums, the site is device independent, made to run on a web browser allowing for use across desktop, laptop, and mobile and is not a native downloadable app that needs tailoring for each device. As the title indicates, the site is an interface for learning about the histories of the national mall through maps, explorations (short examinations based on questions people might have about the mall), people, and past events. Most of these sections can be filtered into different historical periods. Some of my favorite sections, and much to my chagrin,  are the great explorations of unmade designs of the national monuments. There are also a number of scavenger hunts that send you to a specific part of the mall and have images of places for you to find. Once you find the images, you tap or click them and can read or listen to more about it.

Histories of the National Mall Map

The key feature of this site is the map, which has over 300 points containing historical information, audio, video, images, and documents. The user can filter by each of those categories as well as by place and event. As stated above, the site is web browser based and largely looks the same when using on a desktop/laptop or a mobile device. Using GPS, Histories of the National Mall centers the map on the user’s coordinates and locates them within historical context. What is good about the map is that there are no set way to explore the points, you can wander around and discover new facts and events that shaped the environment all around. This allows the user to set their own narrative in a serendipitous combination of explorations.


Aris Games

While Histories of the National Mall is a ready made site, Aris Games is both an open source application to create geographically based games and a mobile app to play the games. The back end is not the scary coding or programming that some in the cultural heritage sector may fear, but a simple interface so even those without the technical skills can make the games with the infrastructure invisible to them. One downside to the Aris created games not encountered in the mall histories site is that the mobile app is only available on Apple products and has a much more limited audience because of it.


The Aris editor interface to create is simple but it is by no means easy to understand without first reading the manual or viewing the helpful video tutorials on certain topics. It is important to understand the different elements (especially non-obvious ones such as scenes, plaques, and locks) and how they function so you can create a working game. The games are largely tours or explorations of certain areas. Building a game is based on creating “scenes” or different scenarios that the user can encounter as they travel around. You can make conversations for the user to have at each location that can lead them further into the game. All of the features you create can be mapped to a certain location to create an exploratory geographic environment. This feature is unfortunately cumbersome to use as the only way to find your points is through precise GPS coordinates or by dragging the point to where you want with no way to search for your general location so you can get there quicker. Also there is no way to see how your game will look in app without having and opening the app. Since I have an Android device, I needed to borrow an iPhone to do this. Despite these drawbacks, Aris editor is a good way to make games without requiring programming experience.

Aris Editor

Playing the games is fairly simple but, as mentioned above, does require downloading their Apple based app. Inside the app you can play any number of games created with the editor. You can either find  games based on your geographic location, sort by popularity, or search for a specific title. Aris provides a demo that will give you a good overview of what it is like to play these games (avert your eyes if you dislike semi-obsolete media):

Overall, National Histories of the Mall and Aris Games are good examples of the creative ways spatial history and mobile technology can work together to engage the public. By embracing this new trend and the ubiquity of mobile phones, institutions will add layers of meaning, attract a wider audience than before, and bring content out from behind closed doors.


Defining Archives: A Context Standard

Practitioners and theorists are posing many fundamental questions about the archival profession. Where is it heading? What are its core principles? Is it in jeopardy of becoming obsolete or even ending all together? The questions of what the archives profession is and what it means to be a member of it relates to how we define the archives itself. The articles for this week focus on this definition and the activities and functions entailed when using the word “archive” or “archives.” Archivists claim jurisdiction over what constitutes an archives and are fending off perceived misuse of the word by digital humanists, philosophers, businesses, and everyday people. This defense is part of archivists affirming their authority to decide what it means and their unique fitness to perform this work. At the same time, the changes of the digital era are challenging the applicability of archival theory. In this atmosphere, one wonders about the importance of arguing for a single definition.

A Professional Defense of Archives

Professionalization of many occupations in the United States occurred during the Industrial Revolution, a period of uncertainty similar to the changing digital economy that we are experiencing today. As Burton J. Bledstein demonstrated, starting in the late-nineteenth century, groups such as architects, accountants, etc., created professional standards, organizations, and schooling to establish themselves as professions and to gain authority within a specific field. They aimed to define a “coherent system of necessary knowledge within a precise territory, [and] to control the intrinsic relationships of their subject by making it a scholarly as well as an applied science.” Sounds familiar right? It should, because this is almost exactly the same path that archivists followed. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) formed and sets the standards for the profession, the MLS degree (and the legion of other acronym permutations) has become a standard job requirement, and archival science is both a scholarly and applied science.

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Acknowledging the current state of archives is more complex than I make it out, the situation largely seems positive profession-wise. However, as Trevor Owens demonstrated, other groups have (increasingly so with the advent of digital world) and continue to use the word “archives” under their own definitions and undermine the archivist’s professional authority over this term.

It is here where many, such as Kate Theimer, reassert the definitions established by SAA based on the traditional notions of an archives. These definitions focus on the ideas of controlling materials based on provenance, original order, and collective control. She asserted that “many other kinds of professionals (and non-professionals) select or collect materials, preserve them, and make them accessible” but the archivist’s value stems from doing these tasks based on the tenets referenced above. She fears that historical context will be lost by basing archival practice on other ideas. Theimer is emphasizing the importance of the archivist’s role both to inform the public that this information needs protection and to demonstrate it is the archivist that should be doing it. While it is reasonable to defend these tenets in a societal and professional sense, the historical context of the theories and the emergence of digital materials calls them into question.

A New Digital Order

Jefferson Bailey wonders how much the archival profession should be relying on Respect des Fonds (made up of provenance and original order) in his essay “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives.” Bailey revealed the theory’s contested past, showed that Respect des Fonds was born in a specific historical moment in France, and was merely a simplification of standards for new archivists, one that was never completely implemented there. He further demonstrated that multiple theorists have challenged these principles, complicating the idea that the archival core values are static and unchangeable. Additionally, Respect des Fonds becomes increasingly problematic when applied to born digital material.

I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords

Bailey asserted that analog records have clouded the possibilities of describing records and that digital materials do not function in the same way. For instance, original order is unobtainable on magnetic disks that store information in multiple places with no inherent order. He did not dispute the utility of original order and provenance but instead believes “it is time to revoke their privileged place in archival discourse and revisit the true goals of arrangement and description in light of the capabilities of digital records.” With all the problems with archival theory, why defend it so vigorously in the defense of the definition of archives?

You Say Archives, I Say Archives

It makes practical sense to defend the traditional idea of archives for professional reasons. Archivists have not been at the fore of handling digital material and part of this defense is reaffirming the archivist’s place in roles that would traditionally fall into their purview.  Digital humanists and IT departments attempted to fill the void in recent years, handling the preservation and access to digital materials in novel ways. Though these groups have different understandings of an archives than the traditional archivist, should the archives profession fight them if, as Bailey demonstrated, the archival ideas prove problematic? It is my belief that we should be learning from each other.

As Jaime demonstrated in her post, there are multiple ways to display and examine the context of a record just as Bailey stated that “the multiplicity of meanings possible with digital records can be better realized through an ongoing interrogation of archival traditions of arrangement and description.” Similarly, what I argue is for a multiplicity of meanings for the term archives, depending on the context of which it is used. The term can mean something and be useful in one field just as it serves its purpose within the archival field itself. I agree with Bailey in that the archival core notions need a reexamination. Archivists should embrace this complexity and learn from the other occupations to grapple with the digital material its terms of art are failing to fit. While it may feel wrong to allow other fields leeway into the archivist’s professional territory, failing to do so and learn from their innovations puts the archivist down a path where they could have no profession at all, relegated to only a mention in an archives somewhere.