Retro collectors are uncovering hoards of old data

In May, Sean Malseed hauled the latest addition to his computer collection into his Philadelphia home. The bespectacled software developer and YouTuber had acquired a sought-after specimen: the PowerComputing PowerWave 604/150, a Macintosh clone sold over just five months between 1995 and 1996. “I turned it on and the first thing I saw on the desktop was a file called ‘infectious diarrhoea’,” he says. 

Malseed had inadvertently acquired the former workstation of a medical scientist. With its contents fully intact, the hard drive provided a candid insight into the former owner’s life. “I poked around a little bit because I wanted to see if there was any rare software or something. It was filled with the person’s work and personal stuff,” he says. “There was software on it for DNA sequencing and all kinds of medical and scientific information. It also had all sorts of personal files, like tax records and letters to mom.”

Malseed is a high-profile figure in the retrocomputing community. His ActionRetro YouTube channel, where he documents his latest projects, has amassed over two million views and nearly 30,000 subscribers. Like other enthusiasts, he regards vintage hardware not as something to be discarded, but rather historical artefacts worthy of preservation. This includes both the underlying hardware, as well as the files stored on their ageing mechanical hard drives.

Much like baking and crocheting, interest in retrocomputing soared during the pandemic, as the tedium of lockdown forced people to channel their frustrations into creative pursuits. Sales of vintage machines proliferated during the period, and many of these collectors have unsuspectingly amassed vast troves of sensitive personal and information. This presents a challenge, not just for the corporations affected, but for those forced to determine what to do with them.

John Bumstead, the owner of Minnesota-based computer restoration shop RDKL, INC, is no newcomer to the scene. For over a decade, he has earned a living from buying, repairing, and eventually reselling broken Apple laptops. His inventory primarily comes from two sources: recyclers, where the machines arrive pre-wiped, and individuals looking to offload their unwanted hardware.

“There are cases where I’ll buy a collection of Amigas or Commodores and they’ll come with hundreds of floppy disks. There’ll be lots of alternate operating systems (OSs) and utilities that change the look of the OS. Each one represents not just a person’s stuff, but also their conception of what the OS could look like.”

“It’s fascinating too, because there’s often no way to recreate that from scratch. These disks may have served a purpose that no longer exists. They might be setting up a bulletin board, or dial-up software to interact with some system that existed then, but doesn’t now,” he says.

Enthusiasts face a difficult ethical dilemma. The retrocomputing community is motivated, at least partially, by a desire to preserve computing history, of which software is a major component. However, this often clashes with the previous owner’s right to privacy, and, in the case of former corporate machines, security.

“If you’re interested in vintage computers, you’re always a bit curious. They’re like a snapshot in time. You’re interested in what the person used the computer for. What’s the story behind the machine? What life did it live? It’s very tempting to poke around, although I try not to do that anymore, because it feels invasive,” Malseed says.

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