Digital dust

“Be very careful about what you write on paper”, my primary school teacher warned us. “What you write will last. You’ll still be able to read what you’ve written in fifty years if you use a pencil. A century if you use a pen.”

A couple of decades on from his attempt to knock some writing style into a bunch of unruly ten year-olds, who’d rather throw ink cartridges at each other than ponder the Mabinogion, I realise two things. One, that whatever planet he was on when he got those timespans was an interesting one. Two, that he might have some very different things to say today.

Take these words that you’re reading now. Not that you’ll care about them past the end of the last paragraph (and even that’s a bit egotistically optimistic of me), but do you expect to be able to read them, if you wanted, on this server tomorrow? What about next week? Next month? Next year?

The children that contributed to the BBC’s Domesday project, a mere sixteen years ago, probably expected their work to last as long as their lifetimes. After all, this was an ambitious project. Not a patch on the original of course, but after gathering the help of thousands of schools across Britain to build a huge scrapbook of British life in the 1980s, you’d have thought that the writings, pressed onto two Laservision disc, would at least see out the millennium. As would the archive videos, images and maps also on the disc.

And the project was certainly impressive. It was genuinely interactive, and this a while before the advent of the web or the red button. You could click on maps and zoom into your village, then read what the local schoolchildren had to say about it, watch some videos of some news events, and maybe take a tour round somewhere like, say, Brecon. For 1986, this was almost revolutionary.

But despite its high profile (including a strange game show based around the disc: search in this page for Domesday), the project wasn’t actually that accessible, even at the time. Universities might have bought the disc – it probably contained enough census data to make it worth spending the £4000 on the system – and your local library might have had one too. If your school was lucky enough, they might have had the disc. But face it, chances are that they didn’t.

And in any case, by 1992 – the time most of the project’s contributors would have been doing their GCSEs – Domesday machines were already gathering dust.

A few years later, the Domesday machines might as well have been dust. The heavily mechanised hardware was dying, the programming language used to read the data was about as popular as Sigue Sigue Sputnik – for about the same length of time – and the effort of thousands of now twenty-somethings looked like being lost forever.

Not quite though. The Camileon project is coming to the rescue, little by little. The information will be reconstructed, in a matter of time.

But there is a lesson here for everyone using a computer to keep anything as a permanent record. The original eleventh-century Domesday book, provided you can decipher Old English, is readable almost a millennium later. If you’re prepared to go to Kew, you can have a look at it. if you want. But as for the 1986 Domesday disc, the uphill struggle continues. There is still a language problem (sprechen sie BCPL?), but this time it’s compounded by a technological one.

The battle will be won, of course. But it’s a salutary lesson, and one that we’re in danger of forgetting already. The majority of British schools these days have websites. How much invaluable information on everyday British life in 2002 will we have lost by this time next year, or even next month, as these sites are updated, overwritten or deleted?

Most of what we write is ephemeral, and for good reason. I’d probably cringe to read this in five years time. But there’ll always be stuff that we want to keep. And as our CD-ROMs degrade, and our hard discs develop their bad sectors, we should probably all remember who our masters are in this. Namely computers, the obsolescent, unreliable technology of today.

Let’s hope, then, that the silicon writings we care about today can be given some degree of permanency. If they aren’t, we might as well be writing them in the sand.

And I know my teacher would have something to say about that.

4 thoughts on “Digital dust

  1. Crikey! I contributed to that project. It meant getting out of doing something duller in geography class.

    Mind you, if it's of the same sort of quality as some still extant material I wrote a year later, it'd be better off left as it is.

    I like to write the word 'posterity' in sand.

  2. Very philosophical today, Mr Jones!

    I remember the Domesday project, I think I must have heard about it on tv. Glad they're rescuing it.

  3. You can't beat plain old ascii text files. Well, I suppose you could with paper and a pen. Or a sheet of metal and a scriber. Or stone and a chisel and hammer. Or … I'll stop there.

  4. And that's why XML documents tend to be better than Word's binary format for storing information that may need to be accessed again sometime in the future…

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