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Down the Dependency Tree: Exploring the Materiality and Politics of Software Preservation

Sat, May 27, 8:00 to 9:15, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 4, Sapphire 410A


Software is currently taking its place alongside hardware, websites and games as an important focus of digital heritage. This paper introduces concepts for understanding the challenges of software preservation as well as the different institutional and individual efforts emerging today.

First, we draw on the metaphor of the ‘dependency tree’ to discuss how key actors envision the problem of software preservation. A dependency tree is a hierarchical list of software packages needed to run a given application and is normally used by automated installers. The term takes on new meaning in this context, as the problem of locating and installing packages is exacerbated over time as languages, software and hardware change. Metaphorically, the dependency tree also suggests a wider universe of documentation, licensing and knowledge that may become necessary to understanding, preserving and reproducing software. Emerging approaches such as Long Tien Nguyen’s and Alan Kay’s ‘Cuneiform System’ may be understood in part by how they conceptualize and solve the problem of the dependency tree. The various approaches to software preservation emerging today can be distinguished by their different assumptions about how old software is ‘buried’ and what aspects can and should be unearthed.

Second, we introduce the term ‘software reenactment’ to highlight an emerging practice in which software is emulated or otherwise recreated in relatively small-scale and single-purpose fashion. Examples include the KDE Project (which reengineered an early UNIX desktop environment) and a University of Amsterdam project for preserving and emulating De Digitale Stad, a Dutch forum and interactive website from the mid-1990s. In addition to providing rich illustrations of issues related to the materiality of software preservation, these projects stand out for how they strive to create versions of past software that function within contemporary contexts. In this way they collapse temporalities in a way that resembles historical reenactment, a genre that as Vanessa Agnew argues is part of a larger “affective turn” in historical representation. We argue that these reenactments offer a different definition of the ‘essence’ of software that needs to be preserved, one that foregrounds process, affect and embodied experience over accuracy and exhaustiveness.

Agnew, Vanessa. "History's affective turn: Historical reenactment and its work in the present." Rethinking History 11.3 (2007): 299-312.


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