A magazine about programmers, code, and society. Written by humans since 2018.

The Digital Dark Ages

There are three interesting things to do with a computing museum. Museum directors and curators should be aware of all three and design galleries, present information, and make archives available to address them all.

The first, and perhaps most limited, is nostalgia. Nostalgia is the least inclusive interaction with a museum of historical artefacts because you cannot teach anyone nostalgia: they either were there and remember the thing on display, or they do not.

Nostalgia is highly situated in both time and space. As a forty-year-old who grew up in a relatively well off and technology-accepting household in the UK, I remember the British microcomputers of the era: the one that I had access to, the ones that friends had, and the playground discussions about which was the best and which games were available. To someone with a different context—Adrian grew up in Argentina and did not have access to a computer at all until 1991—a display containing gray box with a keyboard on top does not evoke the same emotions and memories. They need different cues to get something out of the artefact, and so must look to the other properties of a museum.

The technological context of the machine is interesting to technologists. Someone does not need to have recollections of a computer with a Z80 CPU to learn that this was how fast it was, and how much memory it could address. But that sort of information is more or less contextually irrelevant to anybody else: OK you are telling me about this little Z80 chip that was launched in 1976, but why could you still buy it in 1990; or for that matter, in 2022?

To answer that question, and in fact many of the interesting questions about the history of computers, we need to explore the social context. Who was using those gray boxes with the Z80 chips in? Did they commission them, or were they sold off the shelf? By mail order, or in a branch of Radio Shack? How were they advertised, and how did people learn how to use them? That sort of thing.

For people who were there, that sort of socially contextual information helps them to position themselves in the zeitgeist. Oh, we had one of those black cube computers in our psychology department back in 1992, I did not know there were only a few thousand of them, and I did not know that my watch is running a newer version of their software! Or wow, I thought it was a huge mistake buying that last Sinclair computer, I did not realise the creator of Linux used one!

And for everybody else, it provides the relatable information on how computers were used and perceived by society, and how they changed that society. Wait, I cannot imagine using a computer without the internet / waiting two minutes for an app to load from a tape / having to sit at a desk ugh what did people even do with these things? Being shown a box and told that you could play Pong on it is not interesting. Playing Pong is…well, maybe interesting, but certainly more of an insight into early video games.

There are many great computing museums in the world. I have helped out at a number in the UK (helped to fix a MicroVAX for the Centre for Computing History; done some gallery design for the Museum of Computing; archival work for the National Museum of Computing; and donated hardware to the Retro Computing Museum) and visited others on two continents. Part of their approach to communicating this social history is immersion: letting you experience computers as they would have been used in their right contexts.

To future historians—not just of computing, but of humanity—the current period will be a dark age.

How was Facebook used by students in the 2010s? We cannot show you, that version of Facebook is not hosted anywhere.

What correspondence did Vint Cerf have as president of the ACM with other luminaries of computing industry and research? We do not know; Google will not publish his emails.

What was it like playing Angry Birds on an iPhone 3G? We do not know; Apple is no longer distributing signed receipts for that binary.

What did the British cabinet discuss when they first learned of the Coronavirus pandemic? We do not know; they chatted on a private WhatsApp group.

What books were published analysing the aftermath of the Maidan coup in Ukraine? We do not know; we do not have the keys for the Digital Editions DRM. How was the coup covered in televised news? We do not know; the broadcasters used RealVideo and Windows Media Encoder and we cannot read those files.

The post-Roman period in Western Europe came to be known as the Dark Ages first because they were seen to be unenlightened, until Caesar Baronius retconned it: they were dark because of the lack of written records. In the Digital Dark Ages everybody is writing: posting to Reddit; sending e-mails; chatting in Telegram; producing Office 365 documents. But nobody will be able to read anything they write, and so knowledge of this time will be forgotten. Software has truly eaten the world.

Cover photo by Alexander Grigoryev on Unsplash.

Continue reading William Aspray or go back to Issue 046: Computer Museums. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
Back to top