Historical legacy

As we came in to land, the pilot requested that passengers return to their seats and fasten their seat belts. He added that we should remain seated until the seat belt signs were switched off. This was important to allow the cabin crew to do the safety checks unimpeded once the plane had come to a stop. The head steward reiterated this request as she prepared to do the safety checks. The seat belt signs remained on, yet there were some people who knew better than the pilot and the head steward: they had to stand up straight away, get their luggage down from the overhead locker and be prepared to leave the plane as quickly as possible. It did not matter that there were 30 passengers between them and the exit door, that they would have to queue through passport control and, as this was a holiday flight, the majority would have to wait to collect their luggage. Forget health & safety, they ignored all the warnings for the sake of a few extra seconds: a prime example of short-term thinking, about which more later.

One thing I am struggling with at the moment is to declutter the accumulation of material I have built up both at home and at work. When removing some documents from my cupboard at work, a VHS tape fell out onto the floor. This prompted my colleague to comment that his young daughter would not know what a video cassette was and this led to a discussion about the changes in both technology and storage media over the course of my career. At university, the input to the computer was through punched cards and the output was printed. Subsequently, on larger computers storage was performed on reels of tape, while the floppy disk was developed for smaller computers, starting at 8", progressing to 5¼" and finally 3½". The pace of change, as you all know, sped up and went from cassettes of different forms to CDs, DVDs, hard discs of increasing capacity, USBs and the current use of the cloud. What is next?

I have been watching David Attenborough’s latest natural history series on the TV (yes, still using old technology) and in it they show 60,000-year-old rock paintings of the Tasmanian devil, which is nearing extinction, and a thylacine, a marsupial wolf, which became extinct in the 1930s. Another programme on human evolution also showed rock art, this time 28,000 years old, drawn by Neanderthals. It is amazing that we can still see these images, or data in today’s vernacular, after so many years. Technology progressed to writing on papyrus and parchment and then on to paper and the invention of the printing press. We are still able to read documents written hundreds of years ago. What about the media we have today? I am still able to access the VHS tapes because I have kept a player and have software available to transfer it to present day media, but it is not easy as the software is constantly superseded by changes in operating systems. However, other media has been destroyed because there is no longer the means to access the data on it.

Developments in technology potentially offer the benefit of helping us to carry out current work more efficiently. In the rush to realise these benefits, to achieve short-term gains, we run the risk of storing up difficulties that will surface in the future. I have mentioned previously that easy internet searches have led to older, offline, harder-to-access paper-based information being ignored, with the consequence that work is unnecessarily repeated. This illustrates the potential perils that lie ahead.

NDT data is often part of the lifetime records for plants that will operate for tens of years. It is imperative to be able to have continued access to this data. Last month, I described how curation is being used on this problem of future access to company information on digital media, so there is some recognition of the problem at hand. Is it enough? Is there more we should be doing? As an industry? As companies? There is a temptation to do what certain passengers on the plane did and just have a single-minded focus on a short-term benefit, irrespective of requests and warnings from others about potential consequences.

On a more personal level, it is worth considering: is there anything I am not addressing now in my personal life, society, my career or work, that I should be? This is the right time of year to do so. I wish you all a happy New Year and send you my best wishes for 2020.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath@woodplc.com

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