Lessons from a CD Rom

They were sitting at the very bottom of a drawer my mother had long begged me to empty. As I peeled away layers from my past – college t-shirts, a collection of very large earrings from the ’80s and some souvenirs from a European summer vacation – I rediscovered some old CD-Roms.

As CD-Roms still exist today, the outward appearance did not impress. A closer look revealed that I was holding a few serious digital artifacts: Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, The US Atlas, and The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog, all published around 1989-1990. At the time, the CD-Rom completely changed my life. The Whole Earth Catalog’s user manual summed up why:

“The electronic Whole Earth Catalogàputs you in touch with tools and information not easily found in our day-to-day world… You’ll find excellent sources of information about everything from building your own home, managing and operating a small business, sea kayaking and education to desktop publishing, digital electrons and city restoration. Each entry – whether a book, an organization, a tool or a mail-order source, – includes representative excerpts and up-to-date facts on how and where to get it.”

Additional benefits included sound, so that “instead of just reading about records or tapes you can actually listen to selections from more than 300 recordingsàand thanks to HyperCard and our powerful Quick Search feature you can move quickly and easily from subject to subject.”

It is easy to laugh at the past, but the attempt to aggregate and index the world’s information is timeless. The Royal Library of Alexandria is a perfect example, as is today’s search engine, which will undoubtedly be considered old-fashioned sometime in the future.

Yet, progress is clear on three accounts. First, publication is no longer restricted to formal organizations. While libraries remain the domain of ISBN numbers, the CD-Rom allowed novices to publish. The Web, and blogs in particular, was another giant step forward in content creation and distribution.

Secondly, the content itself, has moved from the physical, three dimensional world of printed content, to that of a digital content on a three dimensional disc to that of digital content on absolutely intangible thing called the Internet, save for all the cables, wires and hardwire it requires.

And finally, the indexing and searching of said content has evolved from lifting heavy volumes to learning the Dewey Decimal system to searching everything a spider can find by typing a word or two into a little box.

Despite all this progress, it occurred to me that one can only search that which exists and that even with a large population constantly churning out content, there will always be content that has not made its way into the index. The smell of fresh cut grass, the feeling of jumping off a dock into the lake, or my grandmother’s secret recipe all come to mind.

And while the impatient half of me attempts to fathom how this content will make it into the index, perhaps it is just as well that some things remain offline.

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