Volume 13, No. 1
November 2000

Mercurial Matters

Annual Meetings

Letters to the Editor

Urban Legends & the Challenges of Standardization

Paul Israel Wins Dexter Prize

Email & Website Report

An Artificial Line, or Technology as Spectrology

A Daemon in Her Shape

Lincoln Labs Turns 50

Vogue Picture Records

Media Ecology Book Awards

Contact Us

mercurians back button

Urban Legends & the Challenges of Standardization

According to a not-so-old urban legend, the Smithsonian Institution determined years ago to maintain at least one example of every generation of computer. This decision resulted, so the story goes, from the startling realization at some point that nothing existed that could read the electromagnetic tapes holding the original 1960 census data. After having cobbled together some equipment for reading the tapes, the powers-that-were allegedly instituted this policy.

Is this an accurate, if brief, description of the train of events and the policy consequences? We would very much appreciate some Mercurial assistance with this matter. If some knowledgable person would care to write up an authoritative version of the legend, or to debunk it, please do.

Beyond this question of historical and policy accuracy lies a deeper issue, and one that historians of technology confront frequently, namely that of standardization. We know, for example, that systems and devices do not necessarily become standard because of their superiority. Many years ago, for instance, Antenna carried a couple of essays on the QWERTY keyboard, once designed to keep fingers from typing so fast that typewriter keys jammed. Our fingers must continue fighting this inefficient arrangement because, as the late Hugh Aitken wrote in these pages, history matters. Business management decisions rather than technological superiority may also affect what becomes standardized, as Apple devotees will forever assert in defending their beloved Macintosh computers against the successful expansion and diffusion of IBM/DOS/PC/Windows systems. On and on the examples could continue.

The challenge regarding standardization to which we now draw your attention is different, however. Is there something that historians of technology can do to help address the problems of long-term data storage and retrieval? Museums and archives, not to mention citizens and states, are pondering how they will maintain access to electronically stored information. As we all delight in and prosper through the wonders of the Internet and our own computers, should we be worrying about establishing standards for data migration, preservation, and retrieval? Should somebody other than your earnest editors, be worrying about this? Is somebody doing something about this?

Antennaís older electronic archives reside on Pam Lairdís ancient Macintosh, stored in her basement and petted frequently lest it get lonely. No active computer within shouting distance can now read the files in which the 1992-1997 newsletters are stored. The world will survive this retrieval problem. But what will you lose when no commercially available computer will read your diskettes or CDs? Can historians help figure out what policies could and should minimize the loss of mountains of data stored invisibly? The massive global efforts put into avoiding Y2K problems indicate something of the scale addressing this challenge could entail.