2 The Whole Earth Catalog and Spin-offs

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Preliminary note: This website is based on the philosophy of Ivan Illich, but it was inspired to an equal if not greater extent by the Whole Earth Catalog (WEC). The first Whole Earth Catalog was published in 1968, five years before the publication of Illich’s "Tools for Conviviality." Illich must have known about the Catalog, and it probably influenced his outlook on tools. However Illich probably also knew E.F. Schumachers’s articles on Appropriate Technology, which likewise appeared in the late 1960s. It is unclear what relative weight these two separate influences had on Illich.

A counter-cultural forerunner of the search engine

The Whole Earth Catalog (WEC) was a sizeable catalog published twice a year from 1968 to 1972, ending with the massive self-proclaimed "Last Whole Earth Catalog" in 1972. However, new versions of the catalog were published from time to time thereafter, up to the 30th Anniversary Celebration WEC in 1998.

The principal creator of the Whole Earth Catalog was Stewart Brand. The title of the catalog derived from one of Brand’s previous projects: In 1966 he initiated a public campaign to pressure NASA to release the then-rumored satellite image of the sphere of the Earth as seen from space, distributing buttons that read, "Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" A NASA snapshot of the Earth seen from space traditionally adorned the cover of each edition of the Catalog.

The Whole Earth Catalog brought together many of the themes that had been developed throughout 1960s, such as natural lifestyle, counterculture, ecology and the importance of looking at the big picture. Brand believed that there was a groundswell of commitment to thoroughly renovating American industrial society along ecologically and socially just lines. But Brand thought such renovation would come through changes in lifestyle rather than through leftist political action. Looking back in 1998, he wrote: “At a time when the New Left was calling for grass-roots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grass-roots direct power-tools and skills.” [1]

J. Baldwin, then a young instructor of design at a couple of colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, later described the manner in which Brand initially formulated his project:

    Stewart Brand came to me because he had heard that I read catalogues. He said, "I want to make this thing called a Whole Earth Catalog so that anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything. ...That’s my goal." [2]

In its ambition to provide "complete information on anything", the Catalog can be viewed as a forerunner of the Internet, today’s global information source. As stated by Apple Computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs:

    When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation.... It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions. [3]

The 1968 Whole Earth Catalog

Using the most basic of typesetting and page-layout tools, Brand and colleagues created issue number one of The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. The first issue and all following editions had outsize pages measuring 11x14 inches (28x36 cm). The earliest editions of the catalog were published by the Portola Institute, headed by Richard Raymond. [4]

The 1968 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog began with the following statement of purpose:

    We are as gods and might as well get used to it. So far, remotely done power and glory - as via government, big business, formal education, church - has succeeded to the point where gross obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing - power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog.

This edition began with the following dedication: "The insights of Buckminster Fuller are what initiated this catalog." The next several pages presented excerpts from Buckminster Fuller’s books. The Catalog’s earliest editions strongly reflected Fuller’s teachings about "whole systems," "synergetics," and reduction of waste.

The Whole Earth Catalog and Access to Tools

The Catalog’s proclaimed purpose was to provide "access to tools," expressing a "do it yourself" and "hands-on" attitude associated with the "counterculture." It was divided into seven broad sections:

  • Understanding Whole Systems
  • Shelter and Land Use
  • Industry and Craft
  • Communications
  • Community
  • Nomadics
  • Learning

Within each section, the best tools and books the editors could find were collected and listed, along with images, reviews, prices, and suppliers. The reader was in some cases also able to order tools directly through the Catalog.

The Catalog presented a wide range of specialized technical tools, such as garden tools, carpenter’s and mason’s tools, welding equipment, chainsaws, fiberglass materials, tents, hiking shoes, potter’s wheels, even early synthesizers and personal computers.

But the Catalog used a broad definition of the term "tools," including notably informational tools, such as books, maps, professional journals, courses and classes. The majority of the entries in fact concerned books rather than physical tools.

The 1972 "Last" Whole Earth Catalog

Despite popular and critical success, the Catalog was intended to continue publication only long enough for the editors to complete a good overview of the available tools and resources, and to get word out to everyone who might need the same. Thus in 1972 was published the "Last Whole Earth Catalog", the title of which announced the intention of discontinuing the series.

The 1972 "Last Whole Earth Catalog" was the culminating point of the development of the original Whole Earth Catalog. It was nearly an inch thick. It won the National Book Award, the first time a catalog had ever won such an award.

By this time Brand and colleagues had decided that the earlier Catalogs had placed too much emphasis on individualism, under the influence of Fuller’s anthropocentric viewpoint. The Last Catalog was instead dedicated to Gregory Bateson, whose book "Towards an Ecology of Mind" was felt to better reflect the Catalog’s orientation towards community and ecology.

Another new influence on the 1972 was the Buddhist economics viewpoint of E.F. Schumacher. Later still, the initial engineering efficiency tone inspired by Fuller was further tempered by the amiable-architecture ideas of Christopher Alexander and the community-planning ideas of Peter Calthorpe.

Versions of the Whole Earth Catalog published after 1972

Updated editions of the Last Whole Earth Catalog appeared periodically in the 1970s, including:

  • The Whole Earth Epilog in 1974.
  • The Next Whole Earth Catalog in 1980. It was so well received that an updated second edition was published in 1981.
  • The Essential Whole Earth Catalog in 1986.
  • The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, the last ’full’ WEC, in 1994.
  • The 30th Anniversary Celebration WEC in 1998.

The 30th Anniversary WEC was a slender but still A3-sized Catalog published as part of Issue 95 of the Whole Earth magazine. It was comprised half of old material and half of brand-new material. In this final WEC all access information was placed at the back of the Catalog, because "Publishers begged [Whole Earth] not to reprint ... their names anywhere near books they no longer carry." This placement hampered a valuable function of the WEC, which was to provoke readers to urge publishers to get seminal works back into print.

In 1989 the WEC was published on CD-ROM using an early version of hypertext.

Whole Earth Catalogs on special subjects

Two editions of the Whole Earth Software Catalog were published in the 1980s.

A Whole Earth Catalog dedicated to Communications Tools was published in the late 1980s (or in 1990).

A Whole Earth Ecolog, devoted exclusively to environmental topics, was published in 1990.

Around this time appeared other special WECs on specific topics, for instance "The Fringes of Reason."

CoEvolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Magazine

From 1974 to 2003, the Whole Earth crowd published a magazine, known originally as CoEvolution Quarterly.

In the early 1980s was published a Whole Earth Software Review, which was short-lived.

In 1985 the Whole Earth Review was formed by merging the Whole Earth Software Review with CoEvolution Quarterly. The Whole Earth Review, later called Whole Earth Magazine and finally just Whole Earth, was edited at different points by Jay Kinney, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold. The last issue, number 111 edited by Alex Steffen, was meant to be published in Spring 2003, but funds ran out. The Point Foundation, which owned Whole Earth, closed its doors later that year.

As of 2007, the Whole Earth magazine website still exists, but it does not appear to have been updated since 2003.

Publications by other groups inspired by the WEC

The book Domebook One was a direct spin-off of the WEC. Lloyd Kahn, who edited the Shelter section of WEC, borrowed WEC production equipment for a week in 1970 and produced the first book on building geodesic domes. In 1971 Kahn again borrowed WEC production equipment and produced Domebook 2. With Domebook 2 Kahn and his company Shelter Publications followed Stewart Brand’s move to nation-wide distribution by Random House, and Domebook 2 went on to 165,000 copies.

Groups in several developing countries developed WEC-style catalogs of development tools, based on their perceptions of topics relevant in their countries. Some of these efforts were weakened because political correctness made it difficult to use the "free thinking" approach of the WEC. One particularly excellent developing country adaptation was a version of the WEC developed and published in Papua New Guinea in the late 1970s, called the "Liklik Buk. In 1982 it was enlarged, updated, and translated into the Pijin language used throughout Melanesia (with the translated title "Save Na Mekem"). Updates of the English "Liklik Buk" were published in 1986 and 2003.

The Whole Internet User’s Guide & Catalog, by Ed Krol, was published in 1992 by O’Reilly. It was one of the first popular user’s guide to the history and use of the Internet. The title was a direct reference to the Whole Earth Catalog.

The organisation Worldchanging published in 2006 a 600-page compendium of solutions called "Worldchanging: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century." In an article in the New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben called it "The Whole Earth Catalog retooled for the iPod generation." The editor of Worldchanging has acknowledged the Catalog as a prime inspiration.

Whole Earth Retail Outlets

In the early 1970’s the Whole Earth Truck Store was opened in Menlo Park, California. This small store sold a variety of books described in the Whole Earth Catalog, as well as hard-to-find household goods, tools, and other items.

In the 1980’s the Whole Earth Access store opened in Berkeley, California. It sold a variety of products including tools, furniture, cameras, electronic devices and clothing. Branch stores in San Mateo and San Jose soon followed. This business thrived into the 1990’s but eventually succumbed to competition from more specialized retailers, established department stores, and national chains of discount stores.

The website for Whole Earth Access still offers a few items for sale directly over the internet but is apparently unmaintained.

The Whole Earth Provision Company, based on the Whole Earth Catalog, was founded in 1970 in Texas and now has six locations, in Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. It also has a web site wholeearthprovision.com.

Other WEC spin-offs: the Well and Wired Magazine

The Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, also called The WELL, is one of the oldest virtual communities in continuous operation. It was started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, and the name is partially a reference to the Whole Earth Catalog. It began as a dial-up bulletin board service (BBS), became one of the original dial-up Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the early 1990s when commercial traffic was first allowed, and changed into its current form as the Internet and web technology evolved. It is best known for its Internet forums, but also provides email, shell accounts, and web pages. From 1994 to 1999 the WELL was owned by Bruce Katz, founder of Rockport, a manufacturer of walking shoes. Since April 1999 it has been owned by Salon.com, several of whose founders such as Scott Rosenberg had previously been regular participants. It currently has about 4,000 members.