Dark Matter

1 Oct

Back in the 1970s, there was some concern that radiation from “visual display units” might be damaging to health. Australian trade unionists at the time grabbed on to this as a negotiating point, and one went so far as to demand publicly that no radiation at all should be allowed from VDUs, in any part of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Apart from the sheer physical impossibility of such an object (even a disconnected VDU lost in the cold of inter-stellar space would radiate a small amount), the uselessness of an invisible visual display unit should have been obvious!

Forward to today, and there is some concern amongst publishers that legal deposit of non-print material might hurt their markets, and hence damage their profits. One response[1] has a similarly delightful idea of how their markets might be protected: “Any access must be limited to a single simultaneous access in any one of the legal deposit libraries. In other words, either access is provided via a stand-alone terminal from which no copying is technically possible, or access is limited to a print copy with no reproduction facilities in the reading room in question”[2].

Back to my invisible VDU… in the intervening years, physicists have discovered a rather large gap in some of their theories. To make things consistent again, some have postulated that most of the universe is filled with “dark matter”, which comprises the large part of the mass of the universe, but is otherwise un-detectable. They have even suggested a name for the particles comprising this dark matter: weakly-interacting massive particles, or WIMPs. Despite their best efforts (and those of elderly Australian trade unionists, no doubt), they have yet to find any solid evidence (sorry) for this stuff.

Fast forward to the near future, when the best dreams of the publishing industry have been realised in the legal deposit regulations. Imagine the British Library Legal Deposit Reading Room. Encased with a Faraday cage to prevent radiation escape (for publishers are also deeply worried about security), a small windowless room is entered via an antechamber where researchers are examined closely through more powerful versions of those X-ray scanners that so worry some travellers in displaying their nakedness alongside some possible hidden pens or paper. Perhaps a stripsearch will be necessary. Admitted to the Reading Room, you find a single VDU and keyboard, that allows you to search for, and feast your eyes on this precious legal deposit material. After reading feverishly for as long as your brain can accurately retain the material, you rush from the room into an external area, where your laptop awaits your trembling fingers, desperate to accurately transcribe the passage you noted. Alas, the person two before you in the queue has relieved you of that possibility, and your laptop into the bargain.

I sincerely hope that Her Majesty’s Civil Servants are not such wimps as to fall for this claptrap. If I had my way, they would refuse to consider any other aspects of any response that contained such ideas. Let us hope there are no wimps in DCMS.


[2] Ironically, the public servants who archived this response did so in such a way that no copying was technically possible, so I had to re-type the short quotation above, switching between Acrobat Read and my word processing program to do so. Any errors or omissions in the above are theirs, of course.

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