This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Domesday Reloaded, and Another "Reload" in the Offing?

Wednesday last week was an important anniversary for the BBC Micro project- it was 25 years since the publication of that platform's most famous application- the BBC Domesday Project.  Produced 900 years after the original Norman tome, it used then cutting edge technology to record a mixed media record of the nation as it was in 1981.  The techniques used were ingenious, pushing the very limits of tech for a very specific application.  Predictably perhaps few other uses for this blend of analogue video and digital text and graphics were forthcoming at that time, and the project has long been held up as a classic case of the difficulties of digital preservation.  It should be noted that at no time has it ever been impossible to access its content, and that today it has been ported to numerous platforms, including the world wide web, but the reputation persists.

At Bletchley Park on Wednesday though the latest porting was presented- a beautifully designed and executed multitouch table top application allowing access to at least half the content of the project, with zoomable maps and the original video footage.  Larger even that the biggest MS Surface tables, this is one of a pair of devices (the other in the BBC's Media City base in Salford) that are the physical world instantiations of the Domesday Reloaded Project.  I snuck along to the event at the behest of a couple of friends- David Allen, one of the original BBC reports authors and producer of many of the BBC's Micro associated programmes of the time, and Alex Mansfield who has been leading the Domesday Reloaded project inside BBC Learning over the last year or so.

Such events draw together an illustrious crowd (your author excepted).  I actually managed to tag along with the great Ian McNaught-Davis, mountaineer, broadcaster and digital pioneer, as we were shown around the National  Museum of Computing's exhibits, and it was a real pleasure to see him exploring the machines he's known- from Colossus to the ICL beast (ok, so he's not been around since Colossus, but still).

It was good to catch up with John Bevan too- he's working on a huge range of brilliant projects with ReWired State, and it looks like the next iteration of this outstanding group will be better than ever.

Intriguingly, as part of the speeches on the day, Howard Baker of the BBC Learning team, and inheritor of the mantle so ably worn buy George Auckland, make an impassioned plea for the ethos of the Micro to be taken up once again.  He highlighted the parallels between the late 1970s and today, times when advancing technology was threatening to sideline British industry and innovation, and when business itself was clamouring more better skills from the workforce emerging from schools and colleges.  He brought to mind that you can easily argue that the efforts and the impact of the Micro 25 plus years ago have been allowed to wane, that successive educational ministers and policy makers have been swayed by purveyors of 'educational software' into turning our classrooms into nothing more than training centres for obsolescent applications, feeding the juggernaut of passive technology consumption.

I've seen this too- it's why I looked at teaching IT in schools and decided that I couldn't waste my time on such a hopelessly empty exercise.  IT teaching in secondary schools in the UK is a shocking waste of the valueable time and energy of teachers and kids.  There's no point teaching people how to use applications that will be out of date by the time they leave the classroom.  No point either in giving them half hearted 'real world' context that teaches them nothing of design principles, user testing, iterative development.  We teach them to use poor tools badly, and wonder why we have the highest youth unemployment ever.  Teachers themselves are railing against this wanton waste- Alan O'Donohoe is perhaps the most vocal and imaginative of many teachers in this field who have had enough of the pointlessness of the centrally mandated curricula, and he and others are now striking out running fantastically creative and useful education efforts off the beaten track.

Howard made a call to arms, an impassioned plea for partners and visionaries in determining how as a society we can address this urgent challenge, and hinted perhaps at some very exciting news to come from his own team.  It's amazing to think that anything with the ambition and impact of the BBC Micro could be attempted again. But then, why not?  If ever "watch this space" was said with more anticipatory relish, I know not where!

Quite why I have never been to Bletchley before I can't really fathom- it is an extraordinarily wonderful place, full of amazing machines from an intense period of our technical history.  And better yet, it is staffed by the most wonderful, sharing and friendly people imaginable.  TNMOC is a true national treasure, and deserves a huge amount of support in it's stirling work.

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