Nov 162008

In the year 1086, William the Conqueror ordered a survey of England. The result of this became known as the Domesday Book, a detailed account of the material wealth of England on that day of accounting, or reckoning, or doom (dom in Old English), i.e., on domesday.

900 years later, the BBC engaged in a cultural heritage project. The BBC Domesday Project was a multimedia survey of the United Kingdom, published using the latest technology: laser disc. Remember laser discs? Not compact discs, laser discs. 12 inches wide, big, shiny, designed originally to store near broadcast quality analog video.

The two Domesday discs contained professional video segments, numerous photographs encoded as single-frame analog video, along with a large amount of data (including geographic data and data from the 1981 census), as the discs could store about to 300 MB of digital data, a huge data capacity at the time.

All you needed to view the BBC Domesday disc was a specially manufactured laser disc player, along with an Acorn computer with specialized interface hardware.

Of course today it is a tad hard to find a laser disc player of any kind, never mind a specially manufactured model. As to the Acorn with the custom interface and coprocessor, good luck finding one on eBay!

The original creators of the BBC Domesday project knew about possible obsolescence; yet despite their efforts (they sent copies of everything to the UK National Data Archive, where apparently everything promptly disappeared) the data were almost lost.

Although it appears that the BBC Domesday project has been largely rescued, it highlights a bigger problem: what happens to our society’s written record if the medium on which it was written becomes obsolete? Some people speak of the digital dark ages, a period in history (i.e., the present) that will become inaccessible to future researchers, as our collective memory is written in a form that will not be compatible with the hardware of the future. Indeed, to some extent it has already happened… how many people have computers today that can read 5.25″ floppy disks, for instance? Or, what happens to Web sites when the people who maintain them are no longer around? Never mind 900 years, will any of our “domesday books” still be readable just 90 years from now?

 Posted by at 2:21 pm