Having encountered this book from Trebor’s reading seminar, I found a used copy (of course) from Amazon for about $8 (including shipping).
So what’s this about?
Think of a time after the world had its first taste of the Internet, but before a time when search engines like Google had come around. Now imagine an intellectual populace gathered online, trying to make sense of all the knowledge they’ve shared in one form or another. I think it must have been a monumental mess.
That’s where the Whole Earth Catalog came in.
This compendium is an artifact from our cyberpioneers, which means that it should be in the library of every cybergeek out there. Its importance was highlighted in a Stanford University commencement address by Steve Jobs, delivered on June 12, 2005:
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 created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. 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.
While many might consider The Whole Earth Catalog as early instance of search engine, it is that and much more since it gives us netizens the visceral ability to passively browse for inspiration to living. Holding this mighty book in my hands feels like a hardcopy of Wikipedia, except that it is prettier and quirkier to read. BTW, the only instance of a printed Wikipedia is in Germany. Heck, they even have a DVD version.
According to Wikipedians, the Whole Earth Catalog was a sizeable catalog published twice a year from 1968 to 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998. Its purposes were to provide education and “access to tools” in order that the reader could “find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”
What’s actually in this particular “millennium” catalog?
As seen in the table of contents, a whole lot! As a guide, it includes Whole Systems, Biodiversity, Sustainability, Community (Howard’s earliest mention of Virtual Community!), Household (lots and lots of tools), Health (neat self-helps), Sex (e.g. different ways to masturbate), Family, Taming Technology (e.g. what is the Internet?), Communications, Political Tools (e.g. how to organize grassroots action), Livelihood (e.g. managing money), Normadics (i.e. travel tips), and Learning (e.g. how to homeschool). No wonder it’s so huge!
Owning a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog feels like you’re owning a piece of Internet history, but if old stinky books aren’t your cup of tea, consider some of the free and modern day versions available today. Opening my catalog at work called for a mini-fanfare, eliciting the interests of my Facebook-profiled colleagues as we peered into the print, with the wonder of examining ancient text.
One of my colleague, a social documentarian named Gautam , revealed how he has been tracking the phenomena of textual guides to forms of social activism. He noted some similar places we should check out, including:
1. The CoEvolution Quarterly (1970s) – Stewart Brand’s precursor to The Whole Earth Catalog?
2. The Whole Internet User’s Guide & Catalog (1992) – available as a downloadable eBook!
3. The Whole Other World Catalog (2006) – a geo-centric guide requiring Google Earth
4. Worldchanging (2007) – A beautiful catalog of tools, models and idea for building a better future.
Of all the references, Worldchanging seems to be a modern day version of what The Whole Earth catalog was suppose to be:
1. Useful as a tool
2. Relevant to independent education
3. High quality or low cost
4. Easily available by mail
Priced at $24.75 on Amazon, I’d say this 600 page compendium of how-tos is a steal. Alternatively, if you’re a cyberculture geek like me, consider getting the original Whole Earth Catalog. Peek at some pages I’ve photographed over here…