Jason Scott saves the things people never think to save. Rather, he collects the things that you stash in the closet for a couple years and then throw in the trash once you decide they're obsolete. Old magazines, software catalogs, floppy discs containing productivity software, educational games, and dictionaries for the Apple II. Once, he went searching for every AOL free trial CD-ROM ever published.
"For some people, AOL is this joke, AOL CDs are a joke. It turned out people had collections," Scott told me. "I got an email from one of the most prominent CD-ROM companies in the world—this guy, he owned cdrom.com. He said 'I heard you're collecting CDs. I have CDs, do you want them?' So that's how I ended up with a massive back catalog of their old CDs."
Scott has become the go-to person for the archiving and preservation of rare technological ephemera. He gives wildly entertaining talks about archiving and historical preservation at conferences around the world, is an avid fan of the Apple II (which Apple discontinued in the early 1990s), and has become well-known for his work with a group of preservationists called Archive Team, which focuses on saving hard-to-save websites and online media. He also works at the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to archiving the entire internet.
"People with collections need an end to their story—'And then I gave it away to an archive, the end.'"
Recently, he's focused primarily on digitizing physical media—turning catalogs, magazines, and programs on floppy discs and CD ROMs into digital files.
"One of the attributes of human beings is they gather detritus that means something to them, and they assume at some point it will have some cultural or financial value," he said. "They keep it around as a talisman, and to let it go, they need a narrative to understand the journey they've had. People with collections like these need an end to their story—'And then I gave it away to an archive, the end.'"
Quantifying what Scott has saved—and his importance to the general concept of archiving online media and digitizing physical media—isn't easy to do. Is it important that he's helped to save and emulate 1980s-era spreadsheet software? For the 11 people that have viewed and used it, maybe. It's easier, for me at least, to look at something that hasn't been saved, and think about how I'd feel if I could no longer access it.
"The scary part of this online world is how fragile it is. It's relatively easy to make a perfect copy, but if you don't make that copy, it will be utterly lost."
A few years ago, I lost my GeoCities website. I downloaded a torrent that purported to archive the sites. It wasn't there. Several archivers tried to download as much as they could over the course of eight months, but Yahoo took the sites offline before it could all be saved and before best archiving practices were in place. Thousands upon thousands of pages were lost forever, because no one had properly saved the four or five terabytes of files that made up the entirety of every GeoCities site ever created.
"We were all there saying this is terrible, they shouldn't be doing this," Scott said. "It was a perfect storm of no one [at Yahoo] recognized the value, and then a year later, people started to recognize the value and it was too late."
Scott says that if it happened today, GeoCities would only take a couple weeks to archive. He's currently archiving FTP sites, game patches, and software update files, which he says are disappearing: "People don't even have it on their radar."
"I don't have an interest in personal belongings anymore."
"My parents got divorced when I was very young, and I got this lesson that nothing is permanent," he said. "I internalized it as, if I don't make an effort to save things, they'll disappear. The scary part of this online world is how fragile it is. It's relatively easy to make a perfect copy, but if you don't make that copy, it will be utterly lost. With physical things, you might walk into a thrift shop or a pawn dealer in 20 years and stumble upon it. With the internet, there's no middle ground."
Today, Scott lives in in modest house in upstate New York. He's got a 40-foot-long shipping container full of magazines, catalogs, floppy discs, CDs, and other physical media that he's slowly ingesting. He's saved an unfathomable amount of files and stuff—and yet, his room is almost empty save for the stuff he's actively scanning and ingesting.
"I don't have an interest in personal belongings anymore. When I was in my 20s, I never understood why a band would break up—you can always make great music. But I've had a couple partnerships in my life end and I can't believe we hate each other now," he said. "For many years I enjoyed having a lot of things, but now I think I prefer overseeing things, traveling, and having more experiences. We often forget we go through life only once—I don't want to die and leave a massive to-do list on someone's plate."
For the last few years, Scott has actively worked to make a copy of himself. Or at least, to pass his archiving knowledge to people who would be able to continue his work if he died. He's only 46, but earlier this year, Scott had a heart attack while on vacation with his fiancé in Australia.
"As somebody who had panic attacks about mortality on and off life, I was surprised about how placid I was," he said. "People like the idea of this maniac doing all sorts of crazy archiving and ingestion, but it was nothing like, 'I wish I had podcasted more,' or 'I wish the world had gotten to see this thing I was working on.' It would have been personal—'I wish I got to go back to Japan,' or go on more trips with this girl or watched that movie I'd never watched."
"Part of what I've been doing internally is trying to give away as much of my process and my thinking as possible," he added. "Because I know those people are out there. But now, I think maybe I've traveled on a zen path."