Of Hitchhikers, Hard Drives, and Happenstance

Imagine that, since childhood, you’ve been a fan of a now-obscure genre of computer games called interactive fiction. Imagine that, since 1999, you’ve kept a weblog.

Imagine that, since 2003, you’ve taught journalism and new media courses, in which you have introduced students to weblogs and interactive fiction (among other topics, of course).

Recently, after about five years of on-and-off research, you published an article that included archival material about the first interactive fiction game, Colossal Cave Adventure.  Thanks to the kindness of innumerable e-mail contacts, you have been able to study the source code — recovered from a 30-year-old backup tape — that had been considered lost.

Imagine that you’re now in the middle of teaching a unit on the materiality and persistence of digital culture, to a class that consists mostly of upper-level journalism students who have been blogging academically for years.  You’ve recently assigned Espen Aarseth’s close reading of Infocom’s interactive fiction work Deadline, and you just finished going through Matt Kirchenbaum’s detailed forensic analysis of a 5 1/4 floppy disk containing the interactive fiction game Mystery House.

And imagine that someone (not you) gets ahold of some archival material from Infocom. More than just some archival material, a complete copy of the company’s networked hard drive, bristling with e-mails, production notes, source code, and demo files.

And imagine that the someone (who is not you) knows it would be a bad idea to publish the whole archive, since it doubtless contains sensitive private information.  But imagine that the someone is very excited to learn details about a canceled sequel to the immensely popular Douglas Adams game “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”  So excited, in fact, that despite admitting he knows better, he can’t resist posting some private e-mails from the archive, in the guise of news reporting.

Imagine that the former Infocom employees find about this pretty quickly.  Imagine that some of them are not at all happy that their private e-mails were publicized in this manner.  Imagine a conversation thread with over a hundred posts that raise questions about journalistic ethics, the persistence of digital memory, the cultural significance of this particular genre of computer game, the importance of contextualizing evidence, and the public nature of a weblog.

In short, imagine that — unfolding in real time — you find a perfect real-world example that, with eerie clarity, embodies almost all the concepts you’ve devoted yourself to teaching and studying in the past ten or so years.

For obvious reasons, I can’t share the whole Infocom Drive. But I have to share some of the best parts. It’s just too good. — Andy Baio, “Milliways: Infocom’s Unreleased Sequel to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (Waxy.org)

Imagine that, unfortunately, all this breaks the same week that your students have been hit with 1) spring weather, 2) the full force of impending term paper assignments and final projects, and 3) for the graduating seniors, the day they were to have submitted their final portfolios.

Imagine asking your students to find some time — somewhere, somehow — to take a look at this fascinating and complex issue.

  • Can a blogger be a journalist?  Is this particular blogger a journalist? Who decides?
  • Is it journalism if it relies wholly on archival material?
  • Is it reliable reporting of any kind if it depends on anonymous sources (in this case, the unnamed source who provided the author with the Infocom archives)?
  • Is it journalism if there is no editorial oversight — nobody to say “Woah, there, are you sure you should be publishing the full text of e-mails that were sent from one private individual to another?” [Update, April 19: …and nobody to say “Woah, why did you call him Andy Baio in two different blog entries, but Scott Baio in this one?  Nobody but Andy Baio himself, that is.]
  • Was the information pressing enough, or of sufficient news value, to justify a “publish first and ask questions later” attitude?
  • Is it journalism if the author offers to de-publish text that the original authors don’t want published?
  • What opportunity for insight and subtlety was lost when the author chose to publish without checking with the sources?