May 3, 2002

Hayles and Farewell

In an interview in The Iowa Review's Web 'zine, Kate Hayles worries about the future "playability" of electronic literature.

I am especially concerned with building and conserving an archive of electronic literature, in a technological environment where any electronic work is likely to be unplayable in 3-5 years, certainly by a decade. How will we achieve the depth, breadth, and quality of the print archive--a treasure store without which the practice of literature would be unthinkable--for electronic works? This crucial issue is currently being addressed by a number of organizations, including museums, text-encoding initiatives, and in the case of literature, the Electronic Literature Organization. Historians accept the idea that without an archive, the discipline would be impossible. The same goes for literature." (emphasis mine)

This claim is unsupported by the evidence and probably untrue. It is extremely likely that most electronic work written today will be easily performed in 3-5 years, and that much will be easily readable in a decade.

Every Storyspace document ever published is readable today. Afternoon is fifteen years old. Victory Garden is a decade old. They're read all over the world.

Even if Eastgate hadn't just released bright and shiny new Storyspace 2, you could still read these titles with Storyspace 1. Storyspace 3.4 -- the unpublished 1987 beta, still runs fine. So does lots of antique software. You can download the 1987 outliner MORE 1.1c and run it on machines sold today. You can still run Lotus Agenda (1988). You can even still run neglected and forgotten hypertexts like my Election of 1912 (with Erin Sweeney). Flash is four years old; if you wrote a hypertext in Flash in 1998, it'll run just fine today. Old Director files work fine. HyperCard works fine. HTML will be readable for centuries, assuming there is anyone alive to read it.

Historians have often worked without archives. According to Anthony Grafton, the first historian to make real use of archives was Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886). From Thucydides to Samuel Eliot Morrison to Russell Meiggs to John Keegan, students of history have often worked in the absence of complete (or any) archives.

Since works a decade old are not only "playable" but widely available, why does Hayles assert that works will "certainly" be unplayable after a decade? I understand the problem to which Hayles is calling attention here, and agree that it's worth study. Preservation is important, and initiatives like the Text Encoding Initiative can provide invaluable infrastucture, as can good library collections of electronic literature. But, the specific assertions Hayles makes here are unsupported and probably unsupportable. Surely an intelligent editor should have queried this? Surely someone at Iowa is familiar with the history of hypertext, and the history of History?