The intersection of mammoth and passenger pigeon had a quirky ring the first time I read about it. Stewart Brand, mentioned plenty previously in our pages, is a kind of genius of quirk, and deserves more attention. Not to pin present problems on him, but to understand the legacy of his masterpiece. I count myself an admirer. But an admirer with deep concern, not unlike what I feel about this other genius. Anna Wiener’s Letter from Silicon Valley, titled The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” provides a perspective on Brand and his Catalog that captures my own concerns about the spawn of his quirk:
In the fall of 1968, the Portola Institute, an education nonprofit in Menlo Park, California, published the first edition of the “Whole Earth Catalog”: a compendium of product listings, how-to diagrams, and educational ephemera intended for communards and other participants in the back-to-the-land movement. The catalogue’s founder, Stewart Brand––a photographer, writer, former army lieutenant, impresario, and consummate networker––had spent part of the summer driving a pickup truck to intentional communities in Colorado and New Mexico and selling camping equipment, books, tools, and supplies to the residents. Brand returned to the Portola Institute (a gathering place and incubator of sorts for computer researchers, academics, career engineers, hobbyists, and members of the counterculture), hired a teen-age artist to handle layout, and began production on the catalogue’s first edition.
At the height of the civil-rights movement and the war in Vietnam, the “Whole Earth Catalog” offered a vision for a new social order—one that eschewed institutions in favor of individual empowerment, achieved through the acquisition of skills and tools. The latter category included agricultural equipment, weaving kits, mechanical devices, books like “Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia,” and digital technologies and related theoretical texts, such as Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics” and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, a programmable calculator. “We are as gods and might as well get used to it” read the first catalogue’s statement of purpose. “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.”
The communes eventually collapsed, for the usual reasons, which included poor resource management, factionalism, and financial limitations. But the “Whole Earth Catalog,” which published quarterly through 1971 and sporadically thereafter, garnered a cult following that included founders of Airbnb and Stripe and also early employees of Facebook. Brand went on to work as a journalist, documenting the burgeoning hacker culture, and co-founded a small galaxy of publications and companies. Among them were CoEvolution Quarterly, a journal focussed on environmentalism; the “Whole Earth Software Catalog,” a digitally oriented update to the original; the Hackers Conference; the well, one of the earliest online communities; and a corporate-consulting outfit, the Global Business Network, that emphasized scenario-planning with a dash of optimistic futurism.
Brand doesn’t have much to do with the current startup ecosystem, but younger entrepreneurs regularly reach out to him, perhaps in search of a sense of continuity or simply out of curiosity about the industry’s origins. The spirit of the catalogue—its irreverence toward institutions, its emphasis on autodidacticism, and its sunny view of computers as tools for personal liberation––appeals to a younger generation of technologists. Brand himself has become a regional icon, a sort of human Venn diagram, celebrated for bridging the hippie counterculture and the nascent personal-computer industry. In a 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs described the “Whole Earth Catalog” as “Google in paperback form, thirty-five years before Google came along.” Brand’s centrality to Silicon Valley history was cemented, in 2006, with the publication of Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.” A biography is in the works, as is a documentary film.
Last month, on a brisk and blindingly sunny Saturday, over a hundred alumni of the “Whole Earth Catalog” network—Merry Pranksters, communards, hippies, hackers, entrepreneurs, journalists, and futurists—gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication, and, per the invitation, to come together “one last time.” The event was held at the San Francisco Art Institute, a renovated wharf warehouse with vaulted ceilings, views of Alcatraz, and the cool sterility of an empty art gallery. A number of early-Internet architects, including Larry Brilliant, Lee Felsenstein, and Ted Nelson, floated around the room. Several alumni had scribbled their well usernames onto their badges. One man was wearing a red “Make Earth Cool Again” hat, swag from a recent climate-change-themed dinner co-hosted by Alice Waters; another wore a baseball cap advertising Tysabri, a prescription medication that treats multiple sclerosis. Hugh Romney, the activist and performance artist known as Wavy Gravy, wore a tie-dyed sweatsuit, a red foam nose, and a button that read “We must be in heaven, man!” He leaned on a thin opera cane; a small plastic pig dangled from the handle.
The day’s agenda included a series of lightning talks and roundtable conversations on themes like climate change and the environment, a cocktail hour, and a buffet dinner; that evening, a slate of conversations among scientists, entrepreneurs, and tech luminaries would be held in a theatre attached to the atrium. The alumni, however, mostly seemed excited to catch up with one another and reminisce. Some stood in front of an “In Memoriam” wall and remarked on lost friends; others perused a minimalist exhibit of a hundred and forty-two publications, above which were printed, in serif typeface, various mottos of the “Whole Earth Catalog”: “Access to Tools” and “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” In a small, cool gallery, a forty-minute slide show of Whole Earth “flashbacks” played on a loop, set to the gentle plunks of a contemporary jam band. “I’m getting chills,” one attendee said to another…
Read the whole letter here.