Tech by VICE

Software Preservation Is a Job for the Government, UNESCO Says

Code is heritage.

by Jordan Pearson
Apr 5 2017, 2:00pm

Software has shaped our lives and culture for decades, and now the United Nations will make a push to get world governments to work toward preserving it.

On Monday, UNESCO, one of the founding agencies of the UN, announced a partnership with the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) to preserve every piece of software under the sun. Last year, INRIA kicked off its Software Heritage project with the mission of collecting software source code and ensuring it's never forgotten. The project has so far logged 58 million projects and billions of source files.

"We live in a digital world, but we don't know how it works—what's behind the machine? It's software," said Davide Storti, a UNESCO spokesperson, over the phone. "If you know how software works, you might better understand the world you live in. So, it's important for education, and that kids have access to this notion."

"It's something that governments should participate in," he said.

Read More: Programmers Are Racing to Save Apple II Software Before It Goes Extinct

Software preservation is a massive undertaking, especially outside of sought-after programs like video games, and one that requires a lot of collaboration and time. That's why, with the current partnership, UNESCO will strike up a conversation among its 195 member states about how they can work to preserve code-as-cultural-heritage.

"Member states might agree that they want to do this, but nothing will happen," Storti said. "So, we're partnering with a public institution that is doing this."

"[INRIA's] software is real, it's there, it contains millions of software projects, so it's thanks to our partner that we can bring value to the conversation," he continued.

There are a few software preservation projects out there right now, many of which are run by hobbyists, obsessives, and enthusiasts. For example, a group of hackers led by Jason Scott of the Internet Archive are currently on a mission to crack and preserve every piece of Apple II software before they're lost forever.

"It's important to not only discuss the preservation itself, but also how these small initiatives can talk to larger initiatives," Storti said. "As we see it, we look forward to organizing debates on exactly this kind of subject."

There's clearly a lot of firming-up to be done, but UNESCO is ready to start the conversations that may lead to government-led software preservation. And with the millions upon millions of programs out there—from text editors to homebrew experiments—the hobbyists of the world could use the help.

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