Monday, June 25, 2007

The BBC Archive

The other day I got my access to the semi-public (you had to fill in a questionnaire and fit the correct "profile") BBC Archive Trial. The sooner this archive becomes available to every telly-tax payer the better.

It uses a fairly straight forward programme catalogue, where you can browse by decade or by programme category. Programmes are streamed in a choice of Windows Media or Real Media - which means that the archive does work for Linux users (at least on x86, while I think Real can be used on different architectures, I haven't tried).

So far, I've watched/listened to some old (late 1950s, late 1970s and mid 1980s) TV and radio programmes on computers and technology. It's amazing to listen to people's fears of new technology, mostly focused on how no one would have jobs because of automation. One thing that was both chilling and darkly humourous (with the programmes from the 1970s) was their focus on factory workers - people who are now out of work (or at least, those manufacturing jobs) except that it wasn't automation that pushed them out. Another stark contrast with today is the importance of labour unions - one programme (Horizon, When the chips are down) had a round table discussion and one of the panel members was a labour union leader who was smoking a cigar - two things you would not see on a similar panel today. And the parade of Big British Companies that either no longer exist or have been merged in the intervening years (such GEC, Feranti, Plessy, Logica and ICL) is fascinating.

There was a particular question in "Analysis: Into the Eighties: What Sort of Society?" that was along the lines of "what happens in winter, when the power/telephone lines are down and I do all my shopping online?" (I forget the exact quote) - my immediate thought was "simple, use your mobile phone". Oddly, mobile phones were missed by every future technology programme I've watched/listened to so far. One other note about that into the 80s programme was the amount of society changing technology that while possible in the 80s (email, online shopping), didn't take off until the late 90s.

Robots seem to take a pre-eminent place in most of the programmes, with a belief that they would radically change society. While I know the robots are out there (I have a friend who works in the robotics industry), they didn't become the society changing devices that the programmes made them out to be (I only have one friend who works in the robotics industry). My guess is that's because manufacturing shifted to regions with cheap labour instead of shifting to full blown automation. I would guess that what manufacturing that's left in this country is fairly well automated (my friend has told me about robots in places where I wouldn't have expected them), but as manufacturing just isn't as prominent in today's society, any such automation largely goes unnoticed.

One thing that would be fun, especially once the Archive goes public, would be to make "director's commentary" podcasts for the programmes, looking at what the programmes got wrong and what they got right (similar to the Dr. Who commentaries the BBC has on their website).

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