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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Being a squirrel
There's gold in them there hard drives...
What value all that information accrued over the years - all those emails, documents, lists and programs? Peter Cochrane wondered just that after several decades at the tech coal face, and now he has a vision...

After 38 years in my previous company, I left with a large collection of boxes containing artefacts of all kinds, reflecting a lifetime's scientific and engineering effort. Over a year later my garage still has a large number of these boxes but I am systematically sorting through them and throwing away things I can part with, mothballing things I can't.

Probably one of the most surprising outcomes from this archaeological dig has been the amount of software on floppies and CDs I've accumulated. I was sorely tempted to destroy the entire collection out of hand, on the basis that I just don't have the time to trawl through and see if there are any interesting gems hidden among the mass of detritus. But looking at this pile, I had to relent.

The first surprise was I no longer have a floppy drive with which to read most of the material so I had to search out an old piece of technology to gain access. I then employed my son who systematically transferred the materials from floppy to hard drive so we could access and sort.

During this protracted exercise came shrieks of delight as he discovered some of the software is older then he is and some of the applications he now uses were present in their original form. For example, one floppy disc contained Microsoft Word and Excel and another more minor application. Power Point 1 was also found to require less than a single floppy. But along with these well known applications were many others I'd not seen for years.

As we got into the documents, it became increasingly difficult to open files. The further back in time we went the worse it got. Many of the applications seem to have long gone, some were unidentifiable and an extended amount of detective work was necessary to dig down and eventually open every one.

One of the key things I was prompted to do by this exercise was to create a museum of software applications on all my machines. A small space on each of my hard drives now contains applications consigned to history and forgotten by many people routinely using computers, never heard of by the vast majority.

I suspect that in the not too distant future the need to open old files will be on a par with our current need to be able to read manuscripts from ancient civilizations. Buried in these files among the majority of the information - which is probably worthless - will be gems we should keep for historical and cultural reasons.

The second phase of this exercise was to pull out documents from the past, clean them up and save them in a modern format. To say the least this turned out to be rewarding and a reminder of just how long it takes R&D to make it to the market place.

Among the many gems, which I had largely forgotten, was optical fibre with intelligence where signal processing by photons instead of electrons could be contained in a length of stranded glass. Almost within a week, out of the blue and coincidentally I received a project proposal from a company embarking on the commercialisation of such technology and they were focusing on the new and novel nature of their ideas - which turn out, by my record at least, to be over 15 years old!

I have long held that the speed-up of technology and the rapid change within companies has seen the accelerating death of the corporate memory. Organisations can no longer remember what was done five years ago, let alone 15 years ago, and as our IT accelerates the process even further this has to be some cause for concern. Perhaps we should contemplate caching all our documents from all companies so we can search by word, topic, date and people to ensure that human effort is not squandered at an increasing rate.

After several days of effort by my son and many hours of work by myself, 38 years of my past have been reduced to a small number of files. Many of these may not be of any direct application in my present or future life but as an historical record they at least make interesting reading.

I can see an end point coming where every hard drive on the planet becomes Napsterised so we may make available complete works and thoughts to a much broader audience than just ourselves. I would like to make a percentage of every hard drive I own available to the rest of humanity and I would like them to reciprocate.

While the Napster model for music has created tremendous legal problems, I think it has also opened the door to a new paradigm that automatically guards against the widespread loss of information in the future.

This column was typed on my laptop and sent from a Strasbourg hotel where I had to connect to the public telephone network using a nail file, tweezers and a pair of crocodile/alligator clips.