Open the Pod Bay Doors, MAL: The Rumpus Interview with Lori Emerson

By

It is summer and the Rocky Mountains loom large and golden over Boulder, Colorado, where the university spreads out in matching brown-yellow stone. Schools of mountain bikers zip past the traffic on their way up, up, up—where endless blue skies and wild spaces await.

But I am on my way down, down, down: I’m visiting the Media Archaeology Lab, housed in several rooms of the lower level of an ordinary-seeming house just a block or so off campus. Down the stairs into the cool shade of a cut-rock patio I go, brushing my hand against the rough, cave-like walls. Through the window I get a glimpse of what I’ve driven 700 miles to see: a working media lab of obsolete computers (and other technology), the only lab of its kind in the country.

Walking into a room full of computers that are practically pre-historic in computer-years, I feel the sort of reverence one feels at a museum—at first I want to stand at a distance and take photos. But the MAL is no “museum”: this is a working lab, and these computers are here to be used. The lab tech invites me to sit down at the first machine that interests me—a Vectrex game system from 1983—and play around. Before I leave, I’ve played early versions of Asteroids and Space Invaders: monochromatic and blocky, yes, but still fast, fun, and dripping with game-play. I attempt to compose music on an Atari 400, re-live in vivid Macintosh-gray the adolescent experience of fighting with Hypercard on my mother’s work computer, and make it through two levels of Battletoads (Nintendo Hard). I also get to know Lori Emerson, the brilliant mind behind the MAL, who established it, maintains it, finds the computers for it, and keeps it staffed with lab techs.

The MAL has recently opened itself up to artists’ residencies, in addition to being open to the public. It was undamaged by the recent flooding in the area.

I spoke to Lori Emerson by e-mail, shortly after my visit.

***

The Rumpus: What kind of people tend to visit the Media Archaeology Lab? What are they looking for, and what do they seem to enjoy the most, or find most valuable?

Lori Emerson: One of the things I love about the MAL is that it appeals to such a broad spectrum of people that might begin in the university but extends far into the public. We’ve had visitors who have worked in the computing industry since the late 1960s to the present, researchers doing work on the history of computing and early digital literature/art, artists looking to create media archaeology-inflected work, and undergraduates (even parents of undergraduates) fascinated with the foreignness and the simplicity of our obsolete machines. While the spectrum of visitors is broad, they all seem to be captivated with the rare opportunity the lab offers to “live” history—either a history they themselves lived through, or the history that’s embedded in our modern computers that are now so sleek and utterly closed, it’s difficult, if not impossible to get any sense at all about how they work and where they came from. It’s delightful to watch people laugh and smile as they experience the rough whir and buzz of booting up an Apple II computer, to actually hear the computer processing the 5.25″ floppy after inserting it in the drive (which usually is followed by some expression of triumph that it worked at all), or to understand, after loading a computer game onto the Commodore 64 via cassette tape, how this once-ubiquitous medium stores data.

Rumpus: Depending on your visitors’ ages and differing experiences with technology, they may be encountering long lost friends, or stumbling among alien and unfamiliar devices. Have you observed any interesting contrasts in, for example, how those undergraduates respond to the MAL, compared to their parents?

Emerson: Visitors to the MAL who have lived through earlier eras in computing almost all walk up to the machines in the lab and exhale, smile, and say something like, “Wow, I remember this computer—we had one just like it in our living room,” reminding me how personal computers used to hold the same position in the house as TVs, a community machine for learning, playing, and sharing. Reactions from undergraduate students are very different but equally compelling. For instance, the lab also houses typewriters alongside its collection of portable computers and I’m often astounded at how far removed typewriters are from students’ experience—I’ll have them just play around with the typewriters and nearly every time they do, they’ll get to the end of a line of text they’ve just typed, hear a bell ring, and have no idea what to do. They’ll start arbitrarily hitting function keys while exclaiming, “OMG, what do I do next? How do I get it to go down to the next line?” It’s amazing how embedded and unspoken this knowledge used to be of how the typewriter carriage works.

IMG_5482An even more revealing difference I’ve noticed between younger and older visitors is that younger visitors, often called “digital natives,” have earned that name because of their facility at quickly understanding how to operate a graphical, glossy interface. They can easily navigate a website, understand how to sign up for an account, download a bit of information, even create works of art or literature via a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface. But I’ve come to think that this kind of knowledge might better be called digital literacy, rather than fluency. And in fact, while our older visitors (who were raised in a very different era of computing, one which might have predated the Graphical User Interface) may not be as adept at using Twitter or Facebook, or may not understand how to upload/download content from the Web, they have a certain kind of digital fluency that these younger visitors don’t have. These older visitors often know how computers work from the inside out—they can open up the lid of an Apple IIe and understand the architecture of a circuit board, and they also likely know how to program. The two demographics—let’s say undergraduate students on the one hand, and their parents on the other hand—represent two very different philosophies about computing.

Rumpus: I often worry that my five-year-old laptop is too old and will stop working, or cease to be useful—what does it take to keep thirty-(plus)-year-old machines functioning and running programs?

Emerson: Unfortunately, as of about six months ago, the MAL used up its last bit of funding. Fortunately, I’ve found a remarkable group of people who support the lab and are willing to share their expertise and volunteer their time. So while I don’t yet have the ability to fix any of our ailing machines (I’m sometimes able to diagnose the problem, but I don’t yet know how to work with the machines at the level of the motherboard), the MAL has several particularly generous donors who either come to the lab in their spare time to help us out, or even stop by the lab for a day or two while they’re on vacation. For example, Keith Moore, who has worked in computing since the 1970s and enjoys working on electronics projects in his spare time, has not only donated machines such as an Apple Macintosh, an Apple ///, and a Kaypro II computer, but he arranged to come to the lab to work on fixing our machines while he was on a road trip from Michigan to Colorado. We also periodically ship him malfunctioning computers and he fixes them and ships them back to us. Another donor, JR Raith, who works as a network administrator for the University of Colorado, is such an avid vintage computer enthusiast that he’s come over to the lab on numerous occasions before or after work and reinstalled software for us; he even set up an old Macintosh laptop with dial-up so we could run a version of Netscape from 1996. So the short answer to your question is that right now, keeping our machines functioning means relying entirely on the generosity of people who value what the MAL does and what it stands for.

That said, I do think that diagnosing and fixing problems with our machines that are twenty or even thirty years old is similar to fixing an old VW Bug—the architecture is simple enough and open enough that, given enough spare parts, there’s almost always a way to fix them. By contrast, I think of this first generation iPad I have that’s only three years old and unfortunately stopped working; I took it to an Apple Store to try to get it fixed, but after the technician tried to recharge it and still couldn’t turn it on, I was told that my only option was to take it in for recycling. The kind of waste these contemporary devices contribute to is astounding. I think many of us prefer not to think about what happens to our (closed) devices once they stop working, because we feel helpless either to stop the overwhelming influence that companies such as Apple have right now over the shape of computing or to learn about computing for ourselves, from the ground up. I must say, though, that figuring out how the MAL’s machines work and picking up a bit of programming here and there as a result has emboldened me to think that it’s actually entirely possible to build a computer—as incredible as that might sound and as slow, clunky, and ugly as this imagined computer would be. I think that the knowledge of computing I’ve gained from working in the lab is incredibly empowering in that it’s allowed me to imagine what I previously thought was impossible.

Rumpus: When I visited I was pulled back and forth, viewing the computers one minute as priceless artifacts and the next as out-of-date…not “junk” exactly, but perhaps refugees from the junk heap. Are these computers valuable?

Emerson: A few of our computers are now quite valuable. For instance, one of the most difficult machines to obtain was a functioning Apple Lisa; the Lisa was released in 1983 and, originally selling for nearly $10,000 (which I estimate would cost nearly $20,000 in 2013), was billed as the first “affordable” computer to have a Graphical User Interface. It took me nearly a year of haunting Craigslist, eBay, and various vintage computing forums to finally find one for $1,500. I see now the going price for a functioning Lisa is nearly $5,000—for a computer that’s thirty years old, that’s astounding. But really, some computers are not worth more than $100 on eBay; rather, what’s wonderful about the affordable computers is that their real value lies in the fact that the MAL actually has them, houses them, and cherishes them not so much as museum artifacts, but as remarkable sites for research and learning about both the past and the present. I would say that some of our Commodore 64s and Texas Instruments computers have indeed been rescued from the trash heap, but they’re like Duchamp’s Fountain—put them in a context in which they’re revealing cultural artifacts, and quite suddenly you realize that nothing is actually waste or trash; nothing ever disappears or loses any kind of inherent value.

Also, while I’ve certainly bought a number of computers for the MAL, more and more I’m convinced that the most compelling computers in the lab are the ones that have been donated. I’ve been spending more time lately reaching out, especially to older parents who have loved, dusted, and treasured their children’s computers from the ’70s and ’80s—not because they think they’re worth a lot of money, but because the machines played such an important role in their family—and now we house these same machines and their carefully handmade overlays for the keyboards, 5.25″ floppies labeled in the hand of an eight-year-old in 1982, game cartridges wrapped in yellowing paper which turns out to be someone’s painstakingly hand-drawn map of an imaginary landscape they’re trying to navigate while playing the text adventure game Zork. These are all strange zombie-like artifacts that are both living and dead.

IMG_5493Rumpus: Zork! The next time I’m at the MAL, I will have to risk getting eaten by a grue! My other priority is to check out your collection of digital literature—cutting-edge, innovative literature from the past that can now only be properly experienced on obsolete machines. You’re also now working with writers and artists who use the resources of the MAL to create new works. Can you describe your digital literature collection, and any of the new work that is coming out of (or influenced by) the MAL today?

Emerson: I originally founded the lab as a way to access and perhaps even preserve early works of digital literature from the 1980s, so I do cherish our admittedly modest author collections. The most recent addition is Ian Bogost’s limited edition box-set for A Slow Year. Donated to the lab by Jason Scott (an avid computer history archivist at Archive.org), on the condition that we send it to the Library of Congress a couple years from now for careful preservation, this edition of A Slow Year is a beautifully constructed box-set including an Atari VCS cartridge (which is a constraint-based collection of four slow-moving, one kilobyte game poems with no text), book, and CD-ROM. We also have a growing, gorgeous collection of 5.25″ and 3.5″ floppies of digital literature by Judy Malloy, who is a pioneer on the Internet and in digital literature. She began creatively using narrative information in artist books in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then wrote and programmed Uncle Roger, one of the first works of hypertext literature of which we have several copies in the lab. No doubt because of her background creating artist books, similar to A Slow Year, the various versions of Uncle Roger we have in the lab are also beautifully packaged with hand-painted sleeves for the floppies, booklets, and/or cards.

I’m dearly hoping that we’ll be able to attract researchers, artists, and writers to come to the MAL and work directly with material by these authors. Generally, unless researchers or authors themselves take the initiative to put online disk images of digital art/literature created on obsolete platforms such as Hypercard or Apple Basic, these important works are inaccessible and so effectively lost to subsequent generations. While I don’t expect the floppies to last much longer than another ten to twenty years, I strongly believe we should learn everything we can, while we can, from early works of digital art/literature on their original platforms. Also, thanks to a creative suggestion by one of our curators, Mel Hogan, we’ve started an artist-in-residence series as yet another way both to discourage people from thinking of the lab’s holdings as museum pieces which should not be touched, and to encourage a wide range of experimentation with our hardware and software. This kind of critical-minded, creative tinkering with obsolete hardware and software actually has the effect of bringing the present back into view again and even re-enlivening our sense of the creative possibilities computers help bring about. So far, we’ve received a remarkably enthusiastic response from writers and artists across the country—some are applying for a residency to experiment with the strange, variable keyboard layouts on computers from the 1970s and 1980s, while others are looking to explore the concept of obsolescence through performance or sculpture.

Rumpus: One thing you just said startled me a little: I hadn’t really considered that, despite archivists’ preservation efforts, there might be a hard physical limit on the life of these works. So for my final question: is there any way, practical or theoretical, around that? Can you conceive of a way to keep these works “alive” forever?

Emerson: Thank you for closing our interview with this important question. From what I’ve gathered from talking with digital archivists, there is no perfect solution to this problem of bit-rot (as it’s called when storage media inevitably, gradually decay) and of the limited lifespans of legacy hardware and software. There are some who argue we must continually migrate works of digital art/literature to newer and newer media; others argue this method is impractical and expensive, as it requires never-ending labor and resources and also inevitably involves a loss of data with every migration, and thus the most sensible way to proceed is to create a disk-image of works on floppy disks (which basically means taking a sector-by-sector copy of the entire contents on a floppy) and then accessing that disk-image with an emulator. Yet others believe the material specificity of experiencing a work on the original floppy and original machine is the only way to truly understand these old works of digital art/literature—but, as you can imagine, this method requires one to continually stockpile old hardware, software, peripherals etc. in the hopes that we can stave off losing access to these works for as long as possible.

In short, sadly, there is no perfect solution! While I personally believe in trying all three methods I just mentioned, I also fear that, until we develop better methods to preserve old media, it’s unavoidable we will lose access to some works of digital art/literature from the late 1970s and 1980s. But until that happens, the MAL will continue to voraciously collect [and] attempt to preserve, research, and write on as many of these wonderful old works as possible, so that at least there will be a record of our care and our attention.

Rumpus: Lori, thank you for giving us a glimpse into the MAL. I can’t wait for my next visit.


Amy Letter is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in PANK, Puerto Del Sol, Quarterly West, and other journals and magazines. She is the Digital / Electronic / New Media Literature Editor at the Rumpus and assistant professor of Fiction and New Media at Drake University. More from this author →