Thursday, July 3, 2014

[Yasmin_discussions] Unauthorized preservation: the outer space edition

Crowdsourcing preservation is an important theme of Re-collection. As museum and library budgets have shrunk, the number of media formats has proliferated, with the consequence that it's extremely difficult for a single institution's staff to document and preserve all the works in its collection. A chapter called "Unreliable Archivists" examines the trend toward curatorial crowdsourcing, in everything from mounting photography shows to writing emulators for vintage games.

Just last week I heard of a particularly stunning success based on looking for help outside the walls--one that Roger may especially appreciate as a fellow astronomer. In 1978 the spacecraft ISEE-3 was sent into an orbit around the sun, and later became the first spacecraft to visit a comet. Although it once again approached the Earth in 2014, it received no hero's welcome, for NASA had abandoned the satellite in 1997 and had neither the budget nor time to recover a connection based on outdated software protocols.

That budget and time gap lead Randall Monroe, creator of the XKCD comic, to suggest that amateur astronomers might be able to reverse-engineer the signal processor on their own and re-establish contact with the errant spacecraft. As if in response to Monroe's appeal to the crowd, a few days ago one team of unofficial astrophysicists sent one of the most astonishing tweets I have ever read:

@agentGav: We Are Now In Command of the ISEE-3 Spacecraft

Today the team announced they had successfully fired the thrusters for the first time since 1987.

Jubilation that an important artifact has been saved from oblivion should probably be tempered by the realization that a private group has suddenly gained control of a government spacecraft. Should the owner or creator of a work--whether satellite or software art--fret when it is rescued by "unauthorized" citizens? In my last post I mentioned ReCode, an enthusiastic community dedicated to re-creating early works of computer art. I'm thrilled to be able to see these works reanimated in my browser, but I don't know the originals well enough to tell how faithful the re-creations are.

In the meantime, preservationists can take heart in the example of an unofficial team of Space Samaritans who crowdfunded time on dish antennas to reach across a million miles of emptiness and reanimate a 36-year-old software protocol. Suddenly saving a Flash-based work of Internet art doesn't sound so hard.

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