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We need a Library of Congress – but for the digital world

Hack the future with a meta museum: 1 weird trick to free 50 years of digital life

Opinion The word hacker, for most people, means a youth in a hoodie turning off power stations with a sticker-encrusted laptop. This annoys those who know that the true hacker ethos is to make stuff do things it was not designed to do, with bonus points for charm, ingenuity, and the maximum effect for the work put in.  

That ethos is alive and well. How else to explain the excitement among the cognoscenti for yet another way to revive old software, such as DOS, on new systems? DOS wasn't so much the operating system of choice in the early-to-mid 1980s as the only choice most people had. It was text-based. It had rudimentary file and IO  handling. Any of that newfangled networking or multitasking nonsense had to be retrofitted. Not that there were any networks to speak of, and memory was too expensive to multitask more than the odd utility. 

Yet here we are 40 years later, and a lot of clever people have solved a lot of hard problems to make DOS run smoothly on 64-bit systems that don't so much support graphics, networks, and multitasking as allow you to meet up in VR with beings around the world. Do you think that's more exciting than WordPerfect 4.2 for DOS? You do not have the hacker ethos.

A museum of the mind

There's a good reason why thoughtful technologists find emulation exciting. One of the real intellectual thrills is that it preserves the exact experience of using vintage software, going back to the very first days of commercial computing. It's like going to a museum to see a Model T Ford, only to find there's an infinite supply of them, fueled up and ready to go, waiting for you in a period-perfect replica of a 1920s Detroit suburb.

There is not a single museum director who wouldn't put their grandmother in a glass case to offer that sort of experience for their visitors, and we techies can just whistle it up. We're right at the start of the digital age, too, with so much of the very earliest developments still easy to find and capture. The opportunity and the duty to build the library to end all libraries, the museum to end all museums, is ours. 

A global museum of physical technology isn't so much easy as practically here already. A short trawl through YouTube brings up hundreds, probably thousands, of collections small and large, from individual collectors to departments of the world's biggest institutions. They're not connected but they must be.

A decent online meta-museum capable of answering questions like "Where's my nearest working Amiga?" or "How many Jupiter Aces are there?" would provide the focus and the continuity to unify the global collection. It's safe to assume that anyone involved in preserving vintage tech has the resources, skills, and motivation to take part in such a project. Go to it. 

The technical side of collecting software and making it available online either through in-browser emulation or for download is also solved, often many times over. You can, with a little work, find just about anything from Babbage's Analytical Engine onwards, online to play in situ or download as an app. You can also find, of course, huge amounts of application software to run. It's out there. Turning it into a cohesive museum is trickier. 

The closest thing the Net has to an official museum, the Internet Archive, has a lot of software and emulators. It also has a very busy legal team because the difference between making the world's digital history available to the world and Warez! Theft! Piracy! is the very agar dish in which entire colonies of lawyers thrive. 

Software is treated much as any other copyrighted work in terms of how long copyright lasts. This is famously complicated and jurisdiction dependent, but it's the thick end of a hundred years. To date, no software has ever come out of copyright, nor will any until the second half of the century.

This is insanity. The value of a book or painting stands by itself, the value of software is in its utility, and that expires in a handful of years. Other technical IP goes open much quicker – patent protection runs for a couple of decades – and there's a good case that software loses its value the moment its creator withdraws technical support. That would be radical. That would be fun.

Of course, many companies have implicitly or explicitly made their once-commercial software freely available. In the case of video games for obsolete platforms, the genie is so far out of the bottle enforcement is unimaginable. In many other cases, the owners of the IP cannot be traced, and the age-old exemption of nobody giving a toss is widely applied. But risk remains: reform of a situation that protects nobody and restricts many, with cultural and practical implications, is absolutely necessary.

Whatever museums do that makes them worthwhile, the museum of the digital can do far better, at far lower cost, and with universal, 24/7 access. The same is true of libraries and scientific research, but here powerful commercial forces brandish their business models as proof of the iniquity of freedom. There are no such business models in the way of freedom for old software: the sense is of a door waiting to be pushed open.

Emulation used to imply inferior performance. Now it is fairy dust: 20 consoles and 20,000 games in a $50 box. Twenty operating systems running at once, and 20 more not on piles of floppies, but a click and a few seconds away. Likewise, emulating the idea of a museum will give us the best museum imaginable, one fit for 500 years of perfect preservation in perfect working order. All it needs is a little imagination and a tweak to the law. A more elegant hack is hard to imagine. ®

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