Stefan Höltgen, "Open History: The Archaeology of Retrocomputing" (Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2021)

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Today I talked to Stefan Höltgen about his book Open History: The Archaeology of Retrocomputing (Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2021).

How can historical computers be described properly from the viewpoint of computer science? By considering media archaeology’s theory of operative and thus a-historical media computer archaeology combines an interdisciplinary set of theories and methods to answer this question. At first, the problems of computer historiography (technical inaccuracy, inconsistency, and idiosyncrasy) will be deconstructed with the help of history criticism (H. Whyte, R. G. Collingwood), discourse archaeology (M. Foucault), and media archaeology (W. Ernst). Following that, technology–oriented tools and methods are gathered for describing ‘old’ computers within an ‘archaeography’ and analyzing them within a mid-range theory. Methods of computer science (from theoretical, practical, and technical c.s.), electronics, logics, mathematics, and diagrammatics supersede hermeneutical methods of historiography. Additional tools (re-enactment, demonstration, computer philology) from media science and other disciplines complement this set of methods. The objects of the following analyzation are early microcomputers (1975-95).

Retro computing, that has been practiced for decades as a hobbyistic way of computer archaeology, sets the frame for four computer archaeological projects that had been implemented within media scientific seminars (and other occasions): 1. a computer philological analysis of a ‘traditional’ computer demo (simulating a jumping ball) on different platforms and in different programming languages since the 1960s; 2. the development of a “Game of Life” on an 8-bit platform to examine the didactical and ‘historiographical’ potentialities of cellular automata; 3. the development of a new computer game for a 1978 gaming console to examine the differences between software emulation and material hardware; 4. the reparation of an 8-bit computer from 1976 done by a hardware hacker to analyze the tools, methods and knowledge-gaining process of such a non-professional approach.

These projects are discussed afterwards to gain the specific didactical modus operandi of retro computing hobbyists. Just like historical home computing (starting from the late 1970s) retro computing autodidactically gathers theoretical, historical, and practical knowledge by trial and error, gamification, and e-learning through a “learning by doing” procedure. The confrontation of three historical examples with three actual retro computing projects will prove this. The didactical reflection of retro computing projects describes a ‘retro didactic’ that would be useful for a broad application of historic sensitive, computer scientific knowledge with the help of less complex systems (like early microcomputers are).

Rudolf Inderst is a professor of Game Design with a focus on Digital Game Studies at the IU International University of Applied Science and editor of “Game Studies Watchlist”, a weekly messenger newsletter about Game Culture.

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