The Whole Earth Catalog, once cited by Apple CEO Steve Jobs as “Google in paperback form,” was a revolutionary predecessor of the Web search engine. The publication, in its heyday during the ’60s and ’70s, was known for propagating various ideologies and viewpoints, from environmental issues to counterculture.
On Wednesday, October 25 from 5:30-7 pm, Whole Earth, which was published biannually and then less frequently from 1968 to 1998, will be the subject of the final Action Speaks! discussion series of 2006. The series, presented by AS220 and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, takes place at AS220, 115 Empire St., Providence. (The Phoenix is a cosponsor.)
In advance of the discussion, Art Kleiner, a former Whole Earth editor, who will be joined by Simon Sadler, professor of architectural and urban history at the University of California-Davis, and Diana Leafe Christian, editor of Communities magazine, took part in an e-mail interview.
Why was Whole Earth a revolutionary publication?
Before the Internet, there was a quality of formalism that hobbled human endeavor. The Whole Earth Catalog, and its progeny, broke through that. It was a venue for expression of peoples’ actual experience — their thinking, tool-using, interaction, daily life. It elevated all of that into a roundtable of ideas, perceptions, and judgments — and in that way it anticipated what has since become the writing of the Internet.
How did Whole Earth address the topics of networks, self-help, and social promise?
[Whole Earth] started as a networking vehicle, connecting thousands of people who had gone to live in communes in the late 1960s. The original base was the “Whole Earth Truck Store” — literally a truck, packed with goods that [founder] Stewart [Brand] drove from commune to commune. It soon became clear that the information of the catalog was more important than the goods; people could get their own goods, but they needed reliable information on what to get.
Whole Earth [was] also an early user of computer networks — first the Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES), and then the WELL, which Stewart started with Larry Brilliant [now the head of the Google Foundation].
Self-help was built into the Whole Earth credo . . . Stewart wrote: “We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.” This was not just self-help, but mutual help, and it was in many respects his most revolutionary act: A statement of fierce meta-pragmatism, which took seriously not just human potential, but human capacity.
Do you see technology as being more beneficial or detrimental?
I think “technology” as a social force is the wrong unit of aggregation. I think there are vast systems of which technology is a part. I think they’re beneficial to the extent that their predispositions are well understood and designed for.
The Internet in some ways heralded the end of Whole Earth. With Wikipedia around, Whole Earth doesn’t really need to exist. And yet the voice of Whole Earth is very different from the voice of Wikipedia. Even Wikipedia has an editor; and the coherent voice of an editorial sensibility is extremely important. Harold Ross’s name, to my knowledge, never appeared on a New Yorker article — but his voice was the core of the magazine. And Stewart’s voice was the core of Whole Earth. Technology will never replace that.