The Whole Earth was a catalog published biannually between 1968 and 1972 -also occasionally from 1972 to 1998- with an independent and counterculture ethos that tried to offer education and access, through a listing of resources and tools, to an ecological and critical vision of the Land and the future of humanity.
The cover Fall issue from 1969 of The Whole Earth Catalog shows a photo of the land and the moon as seen from space. Under the catalog title, was just one line of text, in lower-case letters: “Access to tools”.
This cover synthesizes the philosophy of the catalog: a manual with an artisanal and independent spirit that allows any interested individual to reduce her environmental impact.
The Earth was, as shown by the photograph from the space that NASA had released to Stewart Brand, the driving force of the catalog, a small full star of life among a paralysis of inert darkness, a peculiarity that humans had the responsibility to protect.
“Stay hungry, stay foolish” (final phrase from the back cover of the 1974 edition of the catalog)
The Whole Earth Catalog, that won the National Book Award in 1972 (the only time that a catalog has earned this esteemed literary prize), became a sales success in environmental circles and was quickly associated to the alternative movement with its epicenter in the San Francisco Bay Area (California).
Its production and commercial sale were coordinated by an energetic group of founders, headed by Stewart Brand and his family.
The first editions of the catalog, published by the Portola Institute, directed by Richard Raymond, spread many of the ideas currently associated with the counterculture and ecological movements of the sixties and seventies.
Subsequent editions and related publications, also coordinated by Brand, such as the Whole Earth Review, have disseminated numerous innovative ideas from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Precursor of the Internet
The value of the Whole Earth Catalog can be seen only in a historical context without the existence of a decentralized medium with international scope like the Internet; the Whole Earth Catalog constituted an artisanal and independent index with alternative innovations and visions from different disciplines, as much scientific as everyday, during a time still dominated by mass media.
Toward the end of the sixties, Brand, a young biologist educated at Stanford, one of the epicenters of the American counterculture movement, believed it necessary to renew the American industrial society with socially just and ecological standards (whichever of these they ended up being).
From there the catalog’s first edition was born, concocted with rudimentary layout and printing tools and with the help of a handful of friends.
Brand had explained the idea to J. Baldwin, to enlist his help in the design of the catalog, in these terms: “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.'”
For influential personalities in the technological change toward personal computing and the Internet, like the co-founder and current CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, they believe that The Whole Earth Catalog is a conceptual precursor of the search engines born with the Internet.
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.”
Function and purpose
The first page of the Whole Earth Catalog from Fall of 1969 synthesized the function and purpose of the guide.
From the catalogue:
The WHOLE EARTH CATALOG functions as an evaluation and access device. With it, the user should know better what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting.
An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:
1. Useful as a tool,
2. Relevant to independent education,
3. High quality or low cost,
4. Easily available by mail.
CATALOG listings are continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of CATALOG users and staff.
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory — as via government, big business, formal education, church — has succeeded to the point where gross defects 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.
The catalog was divided into seven sections:
- Understanding Whole Systems.
- Shelter and Land Use.
- Industry and Craft.
Each section included the best tools, books and documentation that the editors were capable of compiling and listed, besides images, reviews, uses, prices and suppliers. The reader was able, in some cases, to order products directly through the catalogue.
The first issues of the catalog and its successors used an inclusive definition of “tools”: the term could refer to information tools -books, maps, professional publications, short courses, classes, and the like-; and to specialized tools, such as materials for gardening, carpentry, bricklaying and welding, chainsaws, fiberglass material, tents, shoes, potter’s wheels… Even synthesizers and personal computers in an original moment for personal data processing.
The publication of the catalog was carried out in a context of social experimentation, the breaking of conventions and an independent attitude associated with the counterculture, and it appealed as much to the intelligentsia of this social movement as to its pragmatic, artisanal and more creative side: not only theory, but practical work.