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December 2013

Whole Earth Catalog

By | Lost treasures | No Comments

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Some time ago, during a visit to “The Book Stop” in Tucson (AZ) an oversized magazine caught my eye. At first sight, the content seemed to consist of hundreds of totally different elements not related in context, also the visual style was more a collage type of thing rather than the homogeneous graphic style you would expect today. For only $5 for 450 pages (matching the original price of more than 40 years ago) it seemed to be a good deal, although the condition is far from perfect – my copy is pictured above.

The “Whole Earth Catalog – access to tools” has its origins in the Sixties counterculture. In 1966, founder Steward Brand (born 1938) initiated a public campaign and sold button badgets which read “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the Whole Earth yet?”, because rumours occured that the first ever image of the whole earth had been taken by a NASA satellite, but remained unissued to the public. Lots of the covers of the Whole Earth Catalog show the earth as viewed from outer space.

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The WEC was published regularly by Brand between 1968 and 1972, in the years thereafter some more issues and updates followed, but only intermittently. He is cited on the Whole Earth Catalog’s website in an article from the first issue in 1968: “At a time when the New Left was calling for grass-roots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grassroots direct power – tools and skills”.

“At a time when New Age hippies were deploring the intellectual world of arid abstractions, Whole Earth pushed science, intellectual endeavor, and new technology as well as old. As a result, when the most empowering tool of the century came along – personal computers (resisted by the New Left and despised by the New Age) – Whole Earth was in the thick of the development from the beginning.”

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The WEC can be seen as an evaluation and access device. The items listed in the catalog had to meet the following standards:
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1. Useful as a tool
2. Relevant to independent education
3. High quality or low cost
4. Not already common knowledge
5. Easily available by mail
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As the founders/publishers of the Whole Earth Catalog themselves didn’t sell any of the products but listed all items along with vendors and prices, the catalog needed to be updated frequently – 17 issues alone saw the light of day between 1968 and 1971.
The impact of this publication was immense. Also Steve Jobs was aware of the WEC, in his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech he compared the Catalog to an Internet search engine:

“When I was young, there was an amazing publication calles The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Steward Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960s, 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- Steward and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off.”

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copyright of all original iamges: Portola Institute, 1971