Whole Earth Catalog as early blog

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Geodesic Domes, in the Updated Last Whole Earth Catalog, 1975

Kevin Kelly, who was editor-in-chief at Whole Earth was looking at an old Whole Earth Catalog came to the realization that it was a 1970s version of a blog.

As I read the dense, long reviews and letters explaining the merits of this or that tool, it all seemed comfortably familiar. Then I realized why. These missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly "post" them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog's publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included. The opportunity of the catalog's 400 pages of how-to-do it information attracted not only millions of readers but thousands of Makers of the world, the proto-alpha geeks, the true fans, the nerds, the DIYers, the avid know-it-alls, and the tens of thousands wannabe bloggers who had no where else to inform the world of their passions and knowledge. So they wrote Whole Earth in that intense conversational style, looking the reader right in the eye and holding nothing back: "Here's the straight dope, kid." New York was not publishing this stuff. The Catalog editors (like myself) would sort through this surplus of enthusiasm, try to index it, and make it useful without the benefit of hyperlinks or tags. Using analog personal publishing technology as close to the instant power of InDesign and html as one could get in the 1970s and 80s (IBM Selectric, Polaroids, Lettraset) we slapped the postings down on the wide screens of newsprint, and hit the publish button.

This I am sure about: it is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

The Whole Earth Blogalog

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  1. The WEC may be an early blog for sure, but it kinda reminds me of a zine. I especially love how it was printed on cheap newsprint. Hand drawn graphics and even some calligraphy in there. Its cool.

    Sorry for an earlier post saying it was pre-computer. I hate it when my ignorance shows.

  2. That makes Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism even more convincing.

  3. I grew up on Whole Earth – it informed the way I see the world. I now live minutes away from a major wind farm, something that I knew with certainty was coming in “the future” because of Whole Earth… even if it did take about 20 years longer than I expected.

  4. I collected every publication I could find by these folks because it represented not just information about tools and ecologically sound, well designed products but also a way of thinking about ourselves, our culture, our country, and our world. The whole-systems based approach to knowing was a revelation to me and I devoured those publications for a world view I found nowhere else.

    After 36 years, I still have a box full of those catalogs and other related publications. I don’t read them any more, and I sometimes think about selling them, but the influence those catalogs and their writers have had on me is profound and I am grateful to have had them in my life.

  5. Using a similar retrospective analyisis of old tech, one can see the roots of 21st Century cinema in the work of William Shakespeare. Like movies of today, the author’s plays had “scenes” in which action took place and featured “characters” reciting pre-scripted lines of dialogue. Although editing did not exist in the modern sense, the closure of a “curtain” indicated to the audience a chnage of time frame or location. I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare had some prescient foresite into the development of the cinema some hundreds of years into the future, but when we look back we can see that the Elizabethan Theatre was just like a movie except, you know, different…

  6. The concept of movies sprang into full existence immediately with the invention of photography. It took some time, nevertheless, to actually get to them.
    But yes Shapesphere is filmic, no two ways about that.

  7. Arthur Frommer’s Europe On Five Dollars A Day was very similar in the early to mid-1960s. It took a hands on approach, and it had lots of user recommendations for cheap hotels, meals, tours and the like. It also had great packing advice that was revolutionary back then, but is conventional wisdom these days.

    I went to Europe on five dollars a day way back when I was a kid, and it was quite an adventure. I recently found an old copy of the guide and was quite impressed with its spirit and tone. I posted a review at Amazon, but they are selling a reprint of the original edition. I don’t know how much feedback was in there.

  8. One winter I was struggling with a cast iron kitchen range in a cabin on Vancouver Island, and I wrote WE about whether there was a book on the care and cleaning of wood-burning cook stoves; and if there wasn’t, well shouldn’t there be? Not wanting to take without giving something in return, I added as a P.S. that if an axe’s head is loosening up and you need it the next day, stick it overnight in a bucket of water.

    They printed the letter.

  9. When I was a kid, I owned the Kids’ Whole Future Catalog: http://www.paleofuture.com/2007/04/kids-whole-future-catalog-1982.html

    That thing had loads of futuristic and completely possible technologies, ideas, and dreams. It also had a fair amount of BS. But I loved it, and most of my love came from staring at the cover.

    It ended up at a garage sale, but I ended up buying a replacement this year. I’m in love with the future all over again.

    /thanks to Paleo-future, I was able to remember the name and order it!

  10. Cinemajay…that does look like a cool book. I’m going to look for that. The cover is very beautiful in the 1980’s pastel enlightenment kind of way.

    And I’m really going to look for that whole earth catalog. I’m jealous of all you folks who got to see it/contribute to it. It’s inspiring.

  11. #10, hilarious! I couldn’t stop laughing and was shocked that no one else laughed about your post. It was totally brilliant.

    You know what else is eerily prescient of blogs? Hanging out in Old West Saloons, except instead of flame wars, they shoot you. Otherwise, it’s the same as a blog.

    rlly cnnt blv nyn wld b s gnrnt s t cll th Whl rth Ctlg blg-lk. Dd, tk clss n lngstcs r cmmnctns.

  12. #10 and Willy the Shake was just refining the conventions of the Greeks who in turn just knew a good tribal story when they heard it!

  13. I owned a series of WECs in the 70s. They were actually full of wisdom (but also nonsense), and were another way to transmit information past the newspapers and TV networks of the day. Very like a blog, but the paper yellowed and weakened after a year or two. I don’t have those books anymore.

  14. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that this was the most influential book (and its several incarnations) of my generation. It might matter that it came near the end of an era of mammoth retail catalogs which were free, but became to expensive to print and distribute. My elders used to call them “wish books”, because they were always open, and studied. One could learn from them. So at a time when young people are beginning to question materialism as a path to happiness, here comes a “wish book” that emphasized ideas over merchandise. The things you could buy (the catalog didn’t actually sell those things — it just provided “links”) were seen as tools for developing ideas, rather than just stuff to get for whatever.

    I don’t see it as a “blog” at all, but I do see it as something that I reached for, for the same reason I go online today. One would “surf” the WEC, just open it anywhere, and there was something different. Yet all these unrelated ideas were tied together. A genius of organization.

    I first became aware of computers you could finally, actully have your own computer. In the WEC.

    I see a definite lineage from the WEC to the internet as we know it. It’s impossible to overestimate the contribution it’s made.

    Thank you Stuart, and all.

    BTW, there was a clone/ripoff of the WEC in the early seventies. Similar black cover and newsprint pages, form, content… Can’t remember the name.

  15. JG, thanks dude. Calling a book like the WEC a blog on paper is just a silly, historically unaware and temporally biased view. The WEC makes complete sense when seen in the context of the late-60s/early 70s free press movement and the anything-goes attitude of publishers utterly unconcerned with the commercial considerations of “professional” magazines, papers etc. That to me is the spirit that still continues today in a new form [albeit only when blogs are at their best] but there are no meaningful connections beyond that.

  16. I’ve got this last Whole Earth Catalog, and every once in awhile I thumb through it and sigh, missing the good old days. A lot. Holding a copy of such a useful and radical publication, knowing it’ll be a year before it’s updated, is just different than skimming through your favorite blogs every day. Even boingboing.

    I’ve got their Domebook, too, which is in the same format but it’s all domes, all the time. Classic.

  17. Are there any online or PDF versions of these. I’ve read about them since the Mondo 2000 days, and I have always wanted to read them?

  18. The names of the individual editions were cool. The first one (large format but not as many pages and bound like a magazine with staples) was simply called “The Whole Earth Catalog”. Then came the “New”, and the “Last”. Was there one between the “New” and the “Last”? I don’t know, but I felt sorta let down when the “Last” appeared. Aw, no more? Then the “Next” came out. Finally, there was a “Millenium” catalog with a white cover that came out around 1999. Between the 70’s and the Millinium edition, there was the Whole Earth Review (AKA Evolution) a smaller format quarterly issue, with a topical theme and excellent articles. So it wasn’t like the catalog disappeared, it just became a quarterly magazine.

  19. Another thing the WEC was good at is selling stuff. Most of those articles pointed to sources (like the WEC Truck Store) and moved goods. Most blogs haven’t gotten that far.

    I was never one to mail-order much, but can remember trying: chair-caning supplies, genuine kinnikinnick, Mother Earth magazine, and a bunch of build-your-own books. Probably there was a lot more – it was cool stuff TO DO you couldn’t buy into in your local Ace Hardware or Woolworth’s or smalltown bookstore.

    Which brings up the alternaculture economy, co-op food stores, diggers, and alla other good stuff that got squashed like a bug after we all became good shoppers and borrowers for 25 years instead. Almost all that is.

  20. Point taken about the similarities between blogs and the WEC. But there’s an important difference – the Catalog was not quite as ephemeral. It was reading material that you could get lost in for days, and that sparked imaginings and doings.

    I’ve actually been thinking a lot lately about how we need a New New Whole Earth Catalog – because people need actual good information about how to save the earth (reduce emissions, use low energy devices, etc.). Yes, one could look all this up on the web, and bookmark it, or print it out, or save it on your computer. But wouldn’t it be nice if someone (SB, KK?) gathered together the best of the best, along with the same kind of writing by real people, and put it all together into a handbook for the new (and hopefully not last) millenium?

    (from one of the many who “posted” a blurb in the Catalog, in my case, about Benoit Mandelbrot and fractals)

  21. We have all the Whole Earth catalogs, except the first one. Somewhere along life’s line some red wine was spilled on it, and it was thrown out thinking it could be replaced. Then life happened and here I am looking at the other catalogs across the room and wondered where the years went.

    I went to our large used book store here in Tucson last year and asked them if they had any Whole Earth Catalogs – all I got back from these usually knowledgeable people were blank stares. “What’s that?” they said. “Never heard of it.”

    Man, did I feel old!

    Thank you Steward Brand and Kevin Kelly and all the rest who made my early life so wondrous and optimistic!

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