Reconstructing a digital world: Look around you

As I sit and reflect in my home one evening, thinking back to the day’s events and looking around me, I can begin to see a rich digital tapestry woven into my life. This is prompted by thinking about a conversation I was having with a colleague who was trying to understand an export he had relating to horse racing results and wondered if the data could be extracted to be of any potential use.

Looking around, I see my digital piano in the middle of the room and wonder, beyond the MIDI output I can capture, what exists within its ‘mechanics’ to enable the various functions it performs; I receive an email on my iPhone which I know is downloaded from my Gmail account which potentially means two different storage formats for that email; and I flick through the channels on my digital TV which makes me realise the data which allows me to see a seven-day electronic programme guide must actually be stored as a digital format or data structure within the box to allow it to be displayed and searched through.

Other formats that surround me in my daily life include my mp3 collection, GPS fitness information from cycle trips, and even my computer games and the data video games use, such as save files. Look around you, what formats do you see?

Look around you: How is digital woven into your daily life?

I mention video game save files purposefully. When Electronic Arts (EA) released Mass Effect 3 it was designed to be possible to use the save files from the previous instalment to modify the user’s experience of the game, which I find an ingenious way to add value for enthusiasts. It was discovered, however, that there was an issue preventing XBOX 360 users from importing their completed save files into the new game.

While this isn’t a digital preservation issue, more one to do with continuity and preserving compatibility, it prompted me to think about my computer games and save files and it highlighted to me that these, like games themselves, are digital files, and one day might have some relevance when studying our culture. While Mass Effect 2 files can be recovered and used on the XBOX 360, I have seen other save files corrupted and lost, and someone somewhere might want to take care to preserve this data going into the future.

Hexadecimal representation of a digital file

As mentioned in my blog article at the start of last week, The National Archives’ raison d’être is preserving a subset of the history of UK public records from our government departments, so many types of digital file are unlikely to cross our door. But this digital world, as with your own ‘personal’ digital world, will be interesting to researchers and historians of the future.

So, what if historians want to recreate your digital domestic or professional world and emergent worlds and ecosystems that appear from those reconstructions? What formats surround you? Some examples that I like and have helped to inspire my thinking behind this article include:

Music XML: Open format for exchanging digital sheet music

Digital Imaging and Communications in medicine (DICOM): Format for 2D and 3D imaging of the human body including X-Rays and Ultrasound

Comic Book Archive File:

LIDAR (Light detection and ranging) Data Exchange Format used in conjunction with Ground Penetrating Radar:

TZX Spectrum Tape Archive file: Archive file for audio originally used for distribution of games on the spectrum

GAR Farming Simulator Archive File:

Husqvarna Viking Embroidery File (SHV):

These formats and a plethora of others surround most of us in our daily lives. Some of them help shape what we do and how we interact with each other and the world. If preserved then, in future, we can piece together a picture of the world we currently live in. We can reflect back on this world, participate in it again, and historians and researchers can study it to understand how we once lived.

The challenge for digital preservation and for those archives and memory institutions that want to enable this to happen is to collect all of this data, store it and preserve the bit-stream. It is also important to ensure context is maintained that describes the relationship between the data and how it was used, and will include the relationship between interconnecting technologies such as the relationship that exists between a save file, the computer game it belongs to and the console that it might have been played on; the relationship between an electronic book and how we might have interacted with it; or how one interprets an embroidery file for use on a sewing machine.

There is a lot to think about but it isn’t beyond our capability; my main message today is really that our digital lives are rich beyond imagination. I find this quite exciting and I look forward to seeing them preserved to enrich future research. So look around you… What file formats do you see?

Additional reading:

Wikipedia: List of file formats

Listing of new formats entered into the PRONOM database via the PRONOM release notes Listing of file format extensions and file types

Wikipedia: Mass Effect 3



  1. Lee Durbin says:

    The range of data about our lives that could be made available for archiving via technology such as Google’s Project Glass is staggeringly vast: the unremarkable details of our everyday lives, from what we see to what we touch, stored away in files on a remote server. For future historians it makes possible investigations of the past hitherto unimagined, but in the present moment we’d be existing within a panopticon: observations about us recorded and remembered, collated into data that could raise or ruin the subject (as Leveson is making painfully clear).

    In order to preserve our data we must first relinquish it, but how and to what extent we do so might in itself prove to be an area of interest to those who explore it when we’re no longer around to explain our methodology.

  2. Andy Fetherston says:

    Glad to see LIDAR in this list of interesting formats

    There is a good article about LIDAR and its use and applications for archaeologists here, which might help explain a bit more about how it works in a practical sense:

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