Editors’ Choice: Software, It’s a Thing

This is the text of a speech I gave as the opening address to the Library of Congress’s Digital Preservation 2014 conference July 22 in Washington, DC. The audience was composed of professional archivists, technologists, and others who work in museums, libraries, universities, and institutions charged with what we generally term “cultural memory.” Where does software fit into that? What does it mean to think of software as a made thing, a wrought human artifact to be preserved, and not just as an intangible, ephemeral trellis of code? Should there be a software canon? Those are the questions I wanted to pose. I’ve retained the verbal character of the original text which was also accompanied by some 50 images, only a few of which are reproduced here.

What is software then, really? Just as early filmmakers couldn’t have predicted the level of ongoing interest in their work over a hundred years later, who can say what future generations will find important to know and preserve about the early history of software? Lev Manovich, who is generally credited with having inaugurated the academic field of software studies, recently published a book about the early history of multimedia. That project, like my own on the literary history of word processing, presents considerable difficulties at the level of locating primary sources. Manovich observes: “While I was doing this research, I was shocked to realize how little visual documentation of the key systems and software (Sketchpad, Xerox Parc’s Alto, first paint programs from late 1960s and 1970s) exists. We have original articles published about these systems with small black-and-white illustrations, and just a few low resolution film clips. And nothing else. None of the historically important systems exist in emulation, so you can’t get a feeling of what it was like to use them.”

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Amanda Regan based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: Leigh Bonds, Maria Ortiz, Estee Beck, Angela Zhou, Adriana Bastarrachea, Elizabeth Kelly, Fiona Stewart-Taylor, Maria Jose Afanador, Laura McGrath, Maria Ortiz, Rhae Lynn Barnes, Abigail Scheg, Henriette Roued-Cunliffe, Linda Towne, and Cinzia Pusceddu-Gangarosa