While clearing out some personal clutter recently, I came across an old CD-ROM, published in 1989, that I always assumed was of great cultural value. Of course, when I tried to play it I got nothing but error messages and I set about finding a way to make it work.
The CD-ROM is the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog, which consists of content from the Whole Earth Catalog, a so-called “counterculture” print publication filled with practical tools, ideas and information not usually found in mainstream media. Its effect on our culture – our awareness of how we live and how we can better our lives — has been quietly pervasive. Steve Jobs acknowledged its influence in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University by touting the Whole Earth Catalog and using its philosophy as a rallying cry.
So it was a significant milestone back in 1989 when the catalog was converted into an interactive CD-ROM. The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog contained 2,500 reviews, 4,000 pictures, 2,000 text excerpts and — a novelty at the time — 500 sounds, mostly music (linked to music reviews) and bird calls (linked to Audubon Society bird information). Everything was smartly organized and hyperlinked for users to explore.
I figured that my copy of the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog was the digital equivalent of a rare book, a cultural artifact from a pivotal intersection of culture and technology. An object of value. And even though the disk was over 20 years old, surely I could find something online that would enable me to play it.
The problem was not with the CD-ROM; after all it’s only the container in which the application resides. The problem was running the Hypercard application — or “stack” — that the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog was created in. (Hypercard enabled linking between metaphorical “cards” or screens and is arguably a forerunner of web browsers.) What the stack needs to run, according to the systems requirements, is a Mac Plus/SE/II with 1 megabyte of memory, Mac system software 4.2 and HyperCard 1.2. I had none of these and my 2009-era computer couldn’t accommodate the antiquated technology.
I had only a few options. I could track down and buy an old Mac with the appropriate operating system but that was impractical since I really had no use for it aside from looking at this and a few other old stacks. Instead I tried to find some website or software that could convert or emulate — mimic — the old Hypercard software and Macintosh operating system. I searched and searched but couldn’t find a simple tool to convert or run the application and the few tools did find required a bit of techno-jiggering that I didn’t have the time or patience for.
After mucking around online for far too long, I came across some screen shots of the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog as well as a working emulation of an old promotional music Hypercard stack by the group They Might Be Giants. And that’s when my enthusiasm for the project quickly faded.
The look and feel of the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog seemed dated, plain and unappealing. Big-pixel jagged black-and-white graphics. Click a button and display a card; click another button and play a sound. That’s it.
In the years since the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog’s release, the cells of high-tech innovation have rapidly divided and subdivided, one innovation begetting another, and our standards of “gee whiz” wonderment have evolved a lot. Just about any app on my smartphone is much cooler and more engaging than the Whole Earth CD-ROM. Which raised a few questions: If the catalog is available in book and PDF formats, why bother hacking this Hypercard stack? What’s the point of making it usable again aside from curiosity?
The same question could be asked of any other outdated software. Modern rendering engines are better than older ones, modern graphics are more lifelike, modern game response is faster and it’ll all keep evolving. Who really cares about reviving old applications?
For a while I considered throwing the CD-ROM away. After all, maybe it really was just a useless relic from some bygone era, one more thing that I was hanging onto for nostalgic reasons. Maybe, in the spirit of weeding out my possessions, it was time to let go and toss it.
In part 2 of this story, I’ll write about some of the observations and guidance offered to me by digital preservationists such as Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities; Geoffrey Brown, professor of computer science at Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing; and the Library of Congress’s esteemed Leslie Johnston and venerable Carl Fleischhauer.