In the wake of Verizon buying AOL, one man wants to make sure that the history of the once-dominant Internet service provider stays alive. Jason Scott wants you to send him all of your AOL CD-ROMs.
In which we talk with the brilliantly undefinable Merlin Mann for his amazing insight, advice, and dissection of the areas of productivity, motivation, and just trying to get there. As he tackles our questions, we get a dose of some classic Merlin-Maning.
[00:09:53] Right. Rick and I get along well.
Basically, Rick had been involved in a bunch of archiving products and projects and everything else. What got people interested in the Prelinger archives was, he turned around and started digitizing all of these government films he was getting that were just going to be thrown out.
So many times you walk into a place. I do it in my side. I keep bringing this back to software just because I happen to know it, but it’s the same exact theory. Just before we got on this conversation, somebody mailed and said, "You know, for a couple of years, I was doing a technical program. Over the years, I got hundreds of these educational software programs. Would you like that?" "Why, yes! Yes! Yes, we would like that! That would actually be very nice. Send it to us." Somebody saying, "Well, I have 3,000 newsletters from various user groups. Would that be interesting?" "Yes! Yes, that would be interesting!"
He was very good at getting into contact with groups and places that were going to get rid of films and saying, "I’ll do it. I’ll take the film." Then the value, once they became accessible, was just inherent. As soon as you could see these old videos.
I go to film festivals a lot. I watch mostly documentaries. It’s not out of control to say that maybe a third of the documentaries I see thank his archives. Because they’re like, "In the 30s, they used to…" and show a picture of cars going by. It’s like, "Yup. That’s from something that Rick digitized."
What’s fascinating to me about him — and I follow the same path — is that he’s actually kind of gotten away from those. Not in terms of, "I never did that. Don’t talk to me about it." Just in terms of, his big thing now is acquiring home movies. He’s really big on that. He gets people to send him home movies from the 30s onward. There are some real early adopters who did home movies in the 30s, and also the 50s and 60s. He’s digitizing them because they are, as he calls it, non-sponsored, non—scripted recordings of places.
He will have a family who will go up and down some part of San Francisco that nobody else recorded because, why would they do that? It’s kind of weird. From there, you can go, "Oh my god, that’s how the pier looked," or, "That’s the kind of cars they had," or, "That’s what that part of the area looked like before they developed it." He has this show, The Roadtrip Series. He will find family vacation footage.
I’m doing the same thing with software. I’m really getting big into having personal collections. Frankly, we’ve done a really good job of archiving Mario. I think Mario is going to hold out for the next century. [Jen laughs] We’re going to do really well with Sonic. We’re going to do pretty well with Crash Bandicoot. We’re going to do fantastic when it comes to things like Pac-Man. But there is software that people made for their little user groups in, like, the middle of Texas or Kansas. It might have had a certain bent or approach, and maybe only a couple dozen copies went out in the first place.
It’s funny how over time you follow this path of, "I must have everything." It’s like, some things have advocates already. I’ve stopped… this is… [pause] Before our interview started, I said I go off the rails all the time. [Jen laughs]
The thing is, I’m not as worried about gaming magazines. A lot of people played video games and, of course, they’ll digitize video game magazines. But I have a newsletter about an obscure word processing program. I’ve got six or seven issues of this handmade newsletter. That’s the stuff I want to scan because I’m afraid nobody will, because it’s too weird and boring and obscure.
The nice thing about the archive is that there’s room for all of that. It’s a weird, Willy Wonka factory. We have a new interface that’s come out called version 2. You can see, it says, "Try the new beta interface." It’s much easier to find things. But even I am sometimes surprised when I walk the stacks. I’ve tried to describe it to my coworkers. It’s like this endless room of drawers and you open one and it’s like, "Oh my god, it’s 1,000 glass eyeballs. What’s this one? Every hedgehog whisker from the past 100 years." It’s just this weird thing where you’ll find 50,000 manuals or you’ll find a full run of a video podcast series that somebody did about Burning Man.
Just weird, wonderful things that are all living in there and being saved. It’s a weird library. As time goes on, there’s an inherent hope and faith that computers will generally do metadata for us. Within the realm of the world, you know how it is from the outside, if you’re five feet away, you’re like, "Really? That’s a big fight?"
Within the librarian world, there is a fight over machine-assisted metadata and whether or not a machine could ever possibly do the job of a human. Nothing beats a person working on handcrafting better structured information about a range of data. John Henry aside, you’re going to end up with, "I didn’t incorporate these 40,000 manuals." Well, I can have a machine go through and reasonably tell you, "I think this is about a microwave." And do it very quickly. As opposed to a person going through, "This is a microwave. This is a certain kind of microwave." It’s actually a raging debate, whether or not machine-assisted metadata can go.
Meanwhile, Facebook is literally saying, "Do you want to be the friend that identifies this person in the photo who we know is in the photo?" It literally does that, right? "Alright, so we know this is Lynn. Do you want to tell us it’s Lynn? Or we’ll just ask one of Lynn’s 100 other friends. All it takes is one of you to agree." [Laughs] I think that’s the greatest example. It’s such a beautifully sociopathic company. [Jen laughs] It’s just funny how they do that.
The fact is, the facial recognition knows it’s you. Just like you can look at a photo in Apple and it will say, "I think this is a two person shot. This is a group shot. This is a portrait." Over time, we’re just going to see more and more… I mean, yes, we’re going to identify faces on garbage cans. That’s always going to be the case.
Our biggest problem, and it will always be our problem, is… look at this, somehow I led back to this [Jen laughs]… the hardest part is to have the data to work with, going forward.
This week Myke is joined by Merlin Mann. They talk about getting out of your comfort zone, starting new things, killing old things and how these topics apply to a new direction for this show.
The Talk Show
November 16, 2013
with Merlin Mann
Very special guest Merlin Mann joins John Gruber for an as-usual rambling discussion about presentation slides, the new iPads, the Major League Baseball schedule, and Malcolm Gladwell.
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Websites we mention:
Cabel Sasser’s talk at XOXO
Merlin’s talk, Scared Shitless, at Webstock
John at Webstock
“Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
The Schedule Makers
Gabe and Erik are joined by Merlin Mann to talk about starting over, what you really should be doing with your life, verbing, inventors, and emotional petshops.
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