An archivist argues for archiving software, with a shout-out to George R.R. Martin

Researchers in April recovered Earthrise images from a 1966 Lunar Orbiter, after nearly 50 years in dormant tape storage.

Two days later, Carnegie Mellon researchers identified and retrieved graphics created by Andy Warhol on an Amiga 1000 PC in 1985. The “group forensically imaged floppy diskettes at the Andy Warhol Museum. After some elaborate intermediary steps, including reverse engineering the proprietary format in which the files were originally created and stored, the previously unseen images were released to the public.”

Archivists often talk about the need for preserving old applications, so that old documents can be read. But Matthew Kirschenbaum goes further, saying the software should be preserved for its own sake.

Software__It’s_a_Thing_—_Medium

Consider the case of George R.R. Martin and WordStar. A month after the Earthrise/Warhol recoveries, Martin told Conan O’Brien that he writes on WordStar on MS-DOS using a machine that isn’t connected to the Internet.

Martin dubbed this his “secret weapon” and suggested the lack of distraction (and isolation from the threat of computer viruses, which he apparently regards as more rapacious than any dragon’s fire) accounts for his long-running productivity.

WordStar has an honorable history:

Writers who cut their teeth on it include names as diverse as Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, William F. Buckley, and Anne Rice (who also equipped her vampire Lestat with the software when it came time for him to write his own eldritch memoirs). WordStar was justifiably advertised as early as 1978 as a What You See Is What You Get word processor, a marketing claim that would be echoed by Microsoft when Word was launched in 1983. WordStar’s real virtues, though, are not captured by its feature list alone. As Ralph Ellison scholar Adam Bradley observes in his work on Ellison’s use of the program, “WordStar’s interface is modelled on the longhand method of composition rather than on the typewriter.” A power user like Ellison or George R.R. Martin who has internalized the keyboard commands would navigate and edit a document as seamlessly as picking up a pencil to mark any part of the page.

And yet people branded Martin as a Luddite on social media.

Kirschenbaum writes that it’s “fascinating” that people view WordStar 4.0 as a key to its user’s personality — in this case, Martin’s.

The software, in other words, becomes an indexical measure of the famous author, the old-school command-line intricacy of its interface somehow in keeping with Martin’s quirky public image, part paternalistic grandfather and part Dr. Who character. We know, that is most of us of a certain age remember, just enough about WordStar to make Martin’s mention of it compelling and captivating.

Software, It’s a Thing

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