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“It’s Dead, Jim”: Resurrecting an Obsolete File, Part 1

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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.

Mac Classic
Macintosh Classic II. Photo by Danamania on

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.

Comments (8)

  1. Thank you for taking the time to right down your experience. I have lots of old media and software that I loved “back in the day” and that I hang onto with the intention of converting to a usable format someday. However, I have to agree that my perception of what is aww inducing has changed with the many advances in technology. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the reality that The Oregon Trail will never be as exciting for me as it was when I was a kid.

    Another interesting thought , I have lots of old magazines (an entire 60 yr collection of National Geographic) that perhaps I should think about downsizing. I’ve evolved to a technical person who really only appreciates having all my information and entertainment in the palm of my hand. Again, maybe it’s time to embrace my technical evolution and purchase the digital volumes rather than keep 16 boxes of magazines to trip over constantly…

  2. However, we need to be aware of past states of technology to understand the information available and the thought processes at different time periods. If you only know the current state of software/technolgy, how can you understand and appreciate past work? Going back further, pencil and paper calculations seem extremely dark ages, but knowing that that was the best available at the time, and knowing the limitations of those calculations, sheds light on the remnants of the past from that time. As an other example, poster design now vs. poster design 100 years ago, if you know the technology then, it all makes more sense. I look forward to part 2.

  3. This post piqued my interest as we make decisions on what to keep and what to cull in our little archive–well, little compared to LOC. The pdf of the Whole Earth catalog is fascinating as a time capsule, but I wonder if viewing the old CD is a unique experience. Does the CD-ROM as artifact have any intrinsic or evidential value?

    I’m looking forward to your Part 2.

  4. I love technology but still have my original Whole Earth Catalog and the New Whole Earth Catalog in paperback (huge) form. I still find the computer an amazing addition to my life but if the source of electricity is suspended it will be comforting to read something that does not need to be plugged in to enjoy.

  5. I have a copy of the same dusty document, and appreciate your thoughts on it, Mike. For those of us who had it when newly minted, this was an exciting advance. We replaced the turning of pages with a mouse click, which seemed such a modern gesture. And those sound files were a revelation. So looking at it now, holding that less-crystal-clear jewel case in our hand, it’s difficult to shed the lingering sense of wonderment that we felt then, and wonderment is a powerful, pleasing sensation. So this is why I have not thrown it out…

    It’s great to hear your thoughts, and I appreciate this piece’s wonderful title. I look forward to part 2 as well. A tip of the cap from one Whole Earther to another.

  6. Now, see, this is where you could use modern technology to help resurrect older technology: instead of buying a period-appropriate computer, why not use social networks / other parts of the Internet to find somebody who has a working ca. 1989 Mac SE and can help you? (I’ve got one, by the way, but I don’t have a CD drive for it.) One upside of the newer technologies is that they allow more people to find and use old technologies.

  7. Some enthusiasts tried to build a HyperCard savvy web player & stack creation engine years ago. The endavour was named TileStack. It seems they faced enormous pressure to stop -they left with a very enigmatic farewell message. . What a sad story.

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