IP, Technology & Data

Thanks to the wonders of my BT Vision box, I’ve been catching up on some old episodes from the latest series of the BBC’s excellent Who Do You Think You Are?.

The episode featuring Radio 1 DJ, Chris Moyles, was a particularly interesting, if sad, story (described to me by one person as being “irrepressibly grim”). As usual, historic records played a significant role in piecing together the story. However in addition to public records such as census data and entries in the records of births, deaths and marriages, archived records held by private entities also played a part – notably those of the biscuits manufacturer, Jacobs, which showed that one of Chris’ ancestors worked at Jacobs’ factory in Dublin.

This got me wondering whether programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? would be possible if data protection legislation had been in force one hundred years ago. Would those records have been retained or would they have been destroyed as part of good record-keeping practice once the employee had left and the company no longer had a legitimate need to retain them?

What will happen a hundred years from now when someone wants to research their ancestors? Will they be frustrated by a lack of information, or are we now in such an information-rich society that knowledge of the past will never be lost in the first place? Or will we find that the information that is retained is unreadable because it is in out-dated electronic formats (punch cards, magnetic tape, or even floppy disks) that can no longer be accessed? Bar flood, fire and dust mites, paper (even from the 16th century) will always be eye-readable, but electronic formats may not.

Perhaps this blog entry may be read by one of my descendants looking to find out what I was doing one Sunday afternoon in 2009. Provided, of course, that he or she can find one of those old fashioned computer things to read that antiquated HTML code on.

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