Internet Archive’s Jason Scott shakes up Digital Preservation class

Preservation maverick Jason Scott joins the University of Maine’s Digital Curation students this week for a special conversation on emulation, crowdsourcing, and how his Archive Team has saved more of digital culture for posterity than most of the world’s museums put together.

A powerful spokesman for preservation, Scott will be the guest for a Digital Preservation class (DIG 550) that looks at both mainstream and radical strategies for rescuing new media from obsolescence and oblivion. The course is part of an all-online graduate certificate in Digital Curation targeted at librarians, conservators, archivists, and anyone else who has to manage digital files.

One of the textbooks for the course is Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, which describes the extraordinary accomplishments of amateur computer enthusiasts working on open-source preservation tools. In one of the most promising recent developments, a band of developers including Scott have made progress merging the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator and emscripten to produce JSMESS, a JavaScript-based emulator that simulates platforms like Atari, Gameboy, and Sega directly in a web browser.

Apart from championing causes like JSMESS, Scott is the ringleader of a remarkably effective network of volunteers, the Archive Team, which regularly saves vast swaths of the Internet from extinction. He’s also known for turning some of Silicon Valley’s truisms on their head, as reported in the Huffington Post story “Jason Scott’s Archive Team Is Saving The Web From Itself (And Rescuing Your Stuff).”

Jason Scott is the creator and outspoken public face of the Archive Team. Depending on the day, he describes his role as “mascot,” “archivist” or “loudmouth.” He’s said the group, which has no official status as a business or nonprofit, operates by three virtues: “Rage, paranoia and kleptomania….”

Since 2009, Scott and the Archive Team’s international group of volunteers, many of whom have never met in person, have been backing up sites just before they’re erased. When Yahoo pulled the plug on Geocities, for example, the Archive Team raced to download a decade’s worth of fan sites and photos (Scott calls it a “cultural artifact that needed to be saved”). The Archive Team has rescued 498 terabytes of information in total, more than all the web archive data collected by the Library of Congress….

scott_jason_where_exportThere’s a lot that bothers Scott about the way Internet companies behave.

He’s dissatisfied with what he perceives as a general disregard for preserving web history and people’s personal data. As he sees it, users remain “the most ignored factor in a website.”

He’s irked by the cheeriness with which entrepreneurs announce that because of an acquisition or change in strategy, terabytes of user data will be deleted. A friend of the Archive Team recently created a Tumblr, “Our Incredible Journey,” that highlights companies’ attempts to spin their closure as a blessing for all involved — though the culmination of a “fun and exciting ride” can mean mass erasure of personal information.

“It sounds like you’re holding hands with your userbase on the beach and walking with them into the sunset, when in fact you’re choking them to death in the ocean,” says Scott. “There’s the fake civility written in shutdown messages that reflects people trying to act like somebody who cares.”

And Scott especially isn’t crazy about startups, which he sees as Archive Team’s enemy number one. He says the feeling is mutual.

While “thinking like a startup” has become a mantra inside companies large and small, and startups are cheered for their founders’ risk-taking ways, Scott is one of few dissenting voices troubled by the constant reinvention such a mindset entails. The decreasing costs of running and building sites means new products can be born faster. At the same time, they can die off more quickly, too.

“The startup world does not like people like me because their attitude is ‘fail often, fail frequently, sell quickly,’ and I don’t come from that world and I don’t like that world,” explains Scott. “Startups are not made with a long-term goal. Their goal is to make something that can be sold, and that attitude pervades everywhere: ‘Do it for a year and if it’s not working, kill it.’ And I just don’t like that because it leads to these unannounced shutdowns and the loss of user content.”

Top photo by Sage Ross.

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