Computing History Records and Preservation


Its the new year and christmas is over. Quite often, people go back to visit their parents and family at Christmas and this year was no exception. This prompted a bit of a trip down memory lane and on this trip, I discovered something amusing; an old VHS Tape of "The Net" - A BBC2 Program from the nineties.

Watching all the episodes I realised that many of the issues in computing we are still facing. One of these things is the recording of our digital heritage. I've become more aware of the goings on inside museums, thanks to the girlfriend mostly, but also in my own work. 20 years ago or more, I was writing code and now I can't find it. I know there is a CD somewhere but will it still work?

Deluxe Paint

Before Mr Hockney's iPad paintings were cool, both my mother and sister were working with digital mediums to create art. My mother is a professional painter and even as early as GEM and the IBM 8088, she was creating rather stunning works. Fortunately, my father, in his wisdom, preserved the floppy disks and we now have access to a few of these images. Probably we don't have them all.

The common misconception is we are all great at saving stuff. Surely, with all the disks, floppies, SSDs, etc, we never lose a single thing. Wrong. We create so much stuff we are losing even more. For example, no-one knows what the first tweet was. There is no record of this. What about the first SMS message (I believe we do have this actually, we probably got lucky).

The funny thing is, people were talkig about simulation and storage of data at least 20 years ago now. What have we done since? Honestly, I don't know. Its hard enough with personal data, let alone data that is relevent to an entire people.

But lets assume, for a minute, that we have all the data and simulations and machines. How do we display these things in a museum? Katie and I recently visited the Computng History Museum in Palo Alto, California. As layout's go, it was rather good. They had exhibits like the original Utah Teapot!

Utah Teapot

The problem at this museum, and in general, is the focus on objects and hardware. The section on computer graphics was poor in my estimation. Sure, its my specialism and that makes me more prone to criticism but even so, they did a bad job of charting progress in graphics. But software isn't an object; you cant put it in a glass case for all to see. So what do you do?

The Victoria and Albert Musuem (V&A) had an interesting take in their last exhibition, The Best of British Design. One section was given over completely to computer games (and rightly so! The UK was heavily involved in the early scene). Their presentation, I thought, was particularly good. A company called Soda developed the screens and display for Lemmings. It was quite innovative and presented the design of the characters very well.

Some might say that preserving code and data is something that museums haven't warmed to yet. There is a resistance to putting collections online (which is also irrational). When I used to teach at Central St Martins, I used and the internet way-back machine to show students the design for the original Google. It always gets a good laugh.

So basically, this is a problem and it will be interesting to see where it goes from there.