Rise of the Dragon was a video game released in 1990. It is about a private detective who sets off to find the drug kingpin responsible for the death of the mayor’s daughter. It came on a stack of six-inch floppy disks, which meant that it was played on a belligerent, boxy computer, a pile of tan plastic with a bubble screen and keys that got gummy and grimy and needed a Q-Tip.
Rise of the Dragon was designed to be played on precisely the machine that you finally sold at that garage sale nine years ago. No right-thinking person would still own this game.
The Library of Congress owns it.
“As you can see, we have the first 25 and the last 25 pages of [the game’s] source code, too,” says Greg Lukow, the chief of the library’s motion picture and sound division. He is proud of the library’s collection, which includes not only Rise of the Dragon, but also “Dexter,” “American Reunion” (the new “American Pie”; don’t pretend you don’t know), the home movies of nobody citizens, cached and abandoned Web pages, and defunct technologies.
Let us honor the preservation of the mix tape. Let us explore not who we were a long time ago, but who we were just yesterday, through the Library of Congress — the archaeologists of our recent history, of our impending obsolescence.
‘I worry about this’
Books have worked the same way, more or less, for centuries. They are a remarkably intuitive technology. Open, read, close. “Or if you have a photo album, you know exactly what that is,” says Bill LeFurgy, who works for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the library. “It’s self-evident. It’s self-describing.”
Now consider the disc, compact or floppy. The disc is not intuitive. The disc may contain photographs, but the disc will not show them to you unless you know how to open it — which, as everyone relocates to the Cloud, will become an increasingly antique skill. In 75 years, the disc will be modern civilization’s hieroglyph; the Rosetta Stone will be the yellowed user manual of an Apple IIe.
While books have endured unchanged, other forms of technology have bred with the speed of invertebrate insects, multiple generations each decade: 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, flash drives, Google docs, Pinterest boards — old things abandoned for new things in increasingly short life cycles.
“I worry about this,” LeFurgy says. “I worry about things being thrown away.” He worries about the specks of dust that could get in crevices and render unusable the temperamental floppy. He worries about the documents saved on WordStar, the pre-Microsoft Word word processing system.
All of this worry coincides (appropriately, ironically) with the rise of self-curation — our Instagrammed era in which every meal, photo, event and thought is hashtagged and filed away with a virtual Sharpie. But for all of the organizational skills that Pinterest has bestowed upon us, we are remarkably unconcerned with how accessible our virtual collections will be to our progeny.