AIVAS’ legacy for digital archiving

Edited to note: there’s a fun discussion happening on Twitter about this. Should clarify, I definitely believe in the point of digital preservation, I just think I’ve moved away from archaeological perspectives and more towards “inheritance” (thanks Joel).

So when I was younger, I read Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series somewhat obsessively. Some of the books, I loved to bits (Moreta), and some I was less fond of (The White Dragon). But on the whole, Pern and its world, spanning several thousand years of human history, were ingrained into my soul. It’s not always obvious how deeply this alignment lies.

More recently, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on archiving and its relationship to technology (intro archives course and a film preservation course) because I’m generally interested in this subject with respect to video and computer games. The general line of thought in these readings is that archiving is an incredibly arduous task, and only more so when the material being archived depends on technology to be accessed. So for example, keeping good quality paper in a stable environment might make it last for up to five hundred years, but that Betamax tape in your closet might not be relevant now – who even has a Betamax player anymore? Anything that gets between the content and the person is another hurdle to jump over in the future, a hurdle that might be insurmountable by the time we decide to go back to the original material.

So! Storytime with morbidflight! Huge spoilers for the Pern series will follow. Early on in the history of Pern, humans from Earth (etc.) colonize the planet and bring their technology with them. Unfortunately, the environment has a few things to say about all this colonization—it’s not very friendly. In the struggle for life, maintaining the old technologies (what we would consider futuristic tech, although computers feature prominently) becomes a lower priority, until eventually, the humans on Pern decide to abandon their computers and fancy machines and return to sustainable ways. We go from a high-tech and quasi-militaristic society to a heavily feudal, very militaristic society with an air force (of DRAGONS). There’s an intriguingly thought-out discussion of what it means to transfer the stores of human knowledge from computers to paper/parchment/analog records, a discussion that I glossed over when I was younger and just reading for the dragons. That’s a lie. I didn’t gloss over it, it just didn’t seem relevant to my daily life.

Until I developed a desire to be an archivist. Well, a wanna-be archivist. I’m currently in a doctoral program in a school of information, focusing on game preservation and theories of preservation in general. And then I started thinking about digital preservation, and what the point of digital preservation is, and I began thinking about examples in books I’ve read where the answer is always in the archives and somehow, miraculously, old technology just needs to be dusted off before being ready for use. In Pern, it’s true, they abandon their computers for paper/musical records, and spend most centuries propagating a narrative history that speaks volumes about real life. Educators teach children songs about the dangers of life on Pern, or about the joys.

There’s this sense of forgotten history, pre-colonization, that lurks in the background of the series. Two thousand years post-colonization, the heroes from the first several novels go digging in the forsaken shadow of a volcano and find a computer system, AIVAS, that teaches them all about humanity’s lost past. It teaches them about all the technologies that their ancestors abandoned and forgot. And it teaches them how to go to the stars and beyond, and everything changes for the people of Pern.

But computers just don’t do that. They don’t go full-on Jurassic Park and revive themselves after centuries spent under volcanic dust. They don’t work perfectly and understand a language that has undergone some serious linguistic shift in the past two thousand years. They don’t last longer than paper and animal skin and myth.

I don’t believe in AIVAS. I think it’s a dangerous dream.