Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Whole Earth Catalog Lives (and Why We Get Hippies Wrong)

While the term "hippy" carries a strong negative connotation these days, much of the hippy ethos was quite worthwhile and way ahead of its time. Things like environmentalism, yoga, disrespect for authority, premarital sex, and organic farming have been subsumed by mainstream culture, leaving hippies stripped down in the popular imagination to a cliche of long hair, granola, and body odor (actually, granola's now a burgeoning mainstream craze, so they'll be pulling that one out, as well). The reality is that the agenda hippies pushed for, against great resistance, has largely won. It's part of who and what we are.

Hippies, for one thing, invented online communities. The Well in San Francisco was the original, and communities like Chowhound would have arrived much later if the precedent hadn't been set way the hell back in 1985 by the Whole Earth Catalog folks (specifically, publisher Stewart Brand).

If you don't know about the Whole Earth Catalog, it was amazing. Along with Vonnegut and Salinger, it was one of my formative childhood influences. The catalog was an earnestly savvy mother lode of Good Stuff. "Tools" was their buzzword, encompassing tips for great chainsaws and potter wheels as well as radically thoughtful books, unconventional music, and amazing newsletters. Plus much more. This wasn't just a guide to empty consumption, but a meta-tool for sussing out ways to improve life and work in meaningful ways.

The people who ran it went on to become integral in the Internet and tech phenomena. In the popular imagination, credit for all that goes to geeks and nerds, but the groundwork was laid by hippies who either edited or loved the Whole Earth Catalog. Steve Jobs said, in his June 2005 Stanford University commencement speech:
"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." He was also fond of quoting the back cover of the 1974 edition of the catalog: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
The Whole Earth Catalog was succeeded by a magazine called CoEvolution Quarterly , which, in turn, gave rise to Whole Earth Review, which covered, along with composters and yoga books, impassioned tips and articles about computers and connectivity. And this was back in the 1980's!

I loved both magazines so much that, in the early 90's, I bought a full set of back issues. They, alas, didn't survive one of my many housing moves, and I've deeply regretted that loss. But, good news! They're digitizing the full runs of both magazines and offering them for free on the Whole Earth Catalog web site. If you missed it at the time, or were born too late, please, go dive in, and prepare to get very, very lost. It's like Chowhound for Everything.

They're also selling the final (1994) edition of the Whole Earth Catalog as a PDF for a mere $5. Go for it! Support a good thing! (Also, if you own back issues of the magazines, please consider contributing to their effort to scan in all of them.)

P.S. Last year, during the Japanese nuclear disaster, I noted that I'd turned pro-nuclear following the lead of Stewart Brand. I also expressed curiosity as to whether the Japanese catastrophe had affected Brand's outlook. The answer is no.

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