This essay below is an expanded version of the one currently running in The Digital Review, Issue 2: “Critical Making, Critical Design,” a journal edited by Will Luers. Grigar’s essay lays out the ethics underlying the work we do in the Electronic Literature Lab.


The Ethics of Digital Preservation: Obligation to Future Generations
By Dene Grigar

In When We Are No More, Abby Smith Rumsey argues that culture is a “a collective form of memory” and that memory impacts not only the survival of a species but of that species’ culture (my emphasis, 13).

Preserving the memory of digital culture, particularly the artistic output of that culture, involves a set of challenges indigenous to its materiality. The most obvious, of course, is maintaining digital artifacts that have been created for access on outmoded operating systems, such as Macintosh System 7-MacOS X 10.4 or with fragile software like Flash. Unfortunately, our capacity to save our cultural artifacts is, according to Rumsey, “falling dramatically behind our capacity to generate information” (1). Under these circumstances, the investment of resources required for digital preservation (i.e. the technology, trained labor, space, time) can be staggering. However, as cost is weighed against decisions of “what to keep and what to lose” (159), we need to acknowledge our “obligation to future generations” to ensure they have the opportunity to decide for themselves what is valuable” (176).

It is not nostalgia nor personal preferences that drives the preservation of digital literary art that we do in the Electronic Literature Lab, but rather this ethic Rumsey articulates. Our aim is to make as much digital literary art accessible to the public as possible so that future scholars can have the opportunity to study and make sense of it as individual examples of specific modes of human expression and collectively as works produced during the period Jay David Bolter has called “the late age of print” (1) and Paul Ceruzzi, “the digital information age” (xvi).

Richard Holeton’s hypertext novel Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, and Caitlin Fisher’s Flash net art narrative These Waves of Girls constitute two recent works the lab has saved within the parameters of this ethic.

Along with its irreverent tone and comical plot, Figurski is important in its reflection of 1990s counterculture and for its complex structure: Three characters search for a mechanical pig across three locations while under the influence of acid. A commune in Scotland and shower curtain (on which where Jesus has appeared) hanging in the bathroom of a double-wide in Florida figure into the story––along with cans of Spam––adding to the zaniness of the novel. Also of interest to scholars is Figurski’s location in the publication history of Eastgate Systems, Inc.: It is the 45th of 49 works published and distributed by the company, [1] beginning with Mark Bernstein and Erin Sweeney’s The Election of 1912in 1988, and among the seven released in the 2000s. [2]

Despite its relative youthfulness among Eastgate Systems, Inc.’s constellation of stars, Figurski has seen a long life of migration between mediums and platforms. It first appeared in 1996 on paper as “Streleski at Findhorn on Acid” as a 500-word short story published in Grain Poetry & Prose. Two years later Holeton reconceived the novel as a hypertext in Storyspace 1.3. That same year he submitted a version for both print and digital as his MFA thesis to San Francisco State University but continued to refine the digital version in Storyspace 2.0 until it was published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 2001 on that platform. With the release of Macintosh OS X 10.5 in 2007, an upgrade that dropped support for the Classic operating system, Figurski was rendered inaccessible. Undeterred, Holeton continued to update Figurski with Storyspace 3.0 but was never able to see the novel re-published in that format. In December 2020, Holeton, with Bernstein’s support, reached out to the lab to migrate it from Storyspace 2.0 to open web languages. From January to June 2021 members of the lab worked to reconceptualize the novel for a 21st century audience, devoting much energy to maintaining the sensibility of the 2001 version and translating 354 nodes of text and 2001 hypertext links to the web medium. [3]

Like Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, These Waves of Girls was also published in 2001. Hailed for “bring[ing] the human body into the digital space,” [4] the work won the Electronic Literature Organization’s (ELO) 2001 Award for Best Work of Fiction. Renowned literary critic Larry McCaffery announced the prize on May 18, 2001 from the podium of the Swayduck Auditorium at The New School in NYC, and effused:

Fisher . . . develops a structure that takes advantage of what web-based medium does best — i.e., Fisher creates an interconnected web of branching, narrative possibilities that evoke not just the girlhood of a single protagonist but a broader perspective of girlhood(s). [4]

The notoriety that came with this award and its connection to McCaffery raised the image of ELO nationally. Fisher was interviewed following the event on TechTV. Three years later, she was awarded the prestigious Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture at York University where she continues today to experiment with media and narrative forms.

The work, categorized as a “hypermedia novella,” [5] is built on the Flash platform. With Adobe ending its support of Flash on December 31, 2020, These Waves of Girls, like many works of electronic literature, was rendered inaccessible on contemporary browsers.

In mounting the first exhibition for the Electronic Literature Organization’s The NEXT––an exhibition of 48 works of Flash held within its 24 collections, entitled afterflash––we selected These Waves of Girls due to this status as the ELO’s first award-winning digital literary work of fiction. The story is structured into eight sections (“kissing girls,” “school tales,” “I want her,” “city,” “country,” “she was warned,” “dare,” “her collections”). Mousing over each evokes an image and text window corresponding to the suggested theme. Clicking on the section takes readers to a series of stories related to that theme. For example, “dare” evokes an image of a girl’s face and a text box that reads:

Fay Devlin and I are playing spin the bottle. She spins, but she trembles. By the time we get to Truth or Dare I have my lips on her nipple and I’ve made her do the asking.

This tale introduces readers to eight additional hypertextual stories that continue with the tale of the narrator’s awakening, both to her sexual orientation as well as the power of her womanhood.

In preserving These Waves of Girls, we first experimented with Ruffle, an open-source emulator for Flash built on Rust. While this method is relatively fast, easy, and inexpensive to implement, it does not generally function well for electronic literature with complex action scripting or that contains videos and sound. Needless to say, we were not surprised that it did not work for the media rich and complex These Waves of Girls. We turned next to Conifer. Conifer is the permanent instantiation of, long used and researched by Rhizome. It functions by emulating a legacy browser on which Flash can function. This means that digital preservationists do not need to modify the original files associated with a work, as they would need to do with Ruffle. A drawback to Conifer, however, is that visitors experience a wait time for accessing the remote server on which the work is hosted. To address this problem for the exhibition, we a leased dedicated server space from Rhizome. In the end, Conifer was successful in making Fisher’s work accessible, thus saving not only it but also the early history of ELO when in its formation made a splash with offering this prestigious prize.

An archive, as Gabriella Giannachi suggests in Archive Everything, is “’memory architecture’ within which we encounter and re-appropriate what is left of the past in the present and where we preserve the present as a future past” (60). With its fragile artistic artifacts, early digital culture can only survive to be studied in some distant present if we undertake the hard work to save its artifacts now. Moreover, because archives “cannot be read in isolation” but relationally (xvi), it is vital that we archive and document as much that we can in this present moment when the hardware and software are still able to be harnessed. Holeton’s Figurski at Findhorn on Acid and Fisher’s These Waves of Girls are but two examples of what we have preserved in the lab, but so much more is left to do to ensure we maintain our digital cultural history in order to meet our obligation to future generations.


[1] Christiane Paul’s Unreal City was not widely distributed following its publication in 1995. According to my records, it would bring the total number of works Eastgate Systems, Inc. published and distributed to 49.

[2] Works published in the first decade of the 2000s include M. D. Coverley’s Califia (2000), Rob Swigart’s Down Time(2000), Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley’s My Name is Captain, Captain (2002), Roderick Coover’s Culture in Webs (2003), Megan Heyward’s of day of night (2004). Mark Bernstein’s Those Trojan Girls followed 12 years later in 2016. For a complete list, see

[3] For more details about translating Figurski, see “Migration as Translation: Moving Figurski to the Web.”

[4] See the Electronic Literature Directory entry for These Waves of Girls written by Lizzy Pourmara.

[5] See


Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1991.

Ceruzzi, Paul. Computing: A Concise History. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

Giannachi, Gabriella. Archive Everything: Mapping the Everyday. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016.

Rumsey, Abby Smith. When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future. NY, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.