The following started out as an announcement of a new partnership between between Boing Boing and Cool Tools, which was founded by my friend Kevin Kelly. It turned out to be a much longer story about the origin of Boing Boing, Kevin's important role in it, and why it is only natural that we are going to start running Cool Tools reviews on Boing Boing.
"There are many ways to change the world but I think the most direct way ... is to adopt new tools." Kevin Kelly, The Whole Earth Review, Winter 2000
2008 marked the 40th anniversary of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog. To commemorate the event, Stanford University held a panel with Brand and two former Whole Earth Review editors, Kevin Kelly and Howard Rheingold. Early in the session, the moderator asked Kevin to describe what the catalog had meant to him:
I was in high school and I was hitching around the summertime, and I was in a bookstore in Woodstock, New York, and I saw this thing. I can only recall the quote from Annie Dillard: 'I felt as if I was a bell that had been struck.' And this was the clapper that was ringing me. It was instant grokking because I was interested in science and art and making stuff, big things and little things and it seemed to be speaking directly to me. I got the implicit idea that I did not have to go to college -- and that changed my life.
Twenty years after Stewart Brand struck Kevin's bell, Kevin struck mine. He was the editor of the Whole Earth Review at the time and the Winter 1987 issue was themed "Signal," and I am certain that if I had not encountered that issue (a friend showed it to me when I went to his place for dinner), my life would be utterly different today. (You can read an electronic copy of the Signal issue here. Kevin's introduction to the issue, written years before the Internet became a household word, is stunningly prescient. It's easy to see how this issue of the Whole Earth Review, complete with the day-glo orange cover, was a big inspiration for Wired.)
The issue had articles about pirate radio, desktop publishing, MIT's Media Lab, "information highways," homegrown music, DIY TV, Xerox art, memetics, smart drugs, hypertext, bulletin boards, "the computer network as an electronic watering hole," software piracy, and more. But the clapper that really rang my bell was an article about the world of zines (self published magazines produced mainly by individuals using personal computers and the ubiquitous Kinko's copy shops).
The author of the zines article, Jeanne Carstsensen wrote:
So start your own magazine. Engage the best writers and artists (you and your friends) and distribute it to the most influential opinion leaders (you and your friends). Exercise your right to rave. After all, that's what professional writers do. They just get paid for it. You can do it too. "'Zines" are wildly partisan small magazines of the fanatic, or devoted, depending on your view of the subject matter. They're unabashedly noncommercial - true labors of love and don't seem to conform to any standard of quality except their own. 'Zines rave about special interests: hobbies like play-by-mail games, science fiction, "fringe" political groups. punk bands, comics, mail and xerox art, underground cassette music distribution , or that most special of special interests - the writing and art of one editor/writer/artist/designer.
I was living in Santa Clara, working as an engineer at Memorex at the time. I didn't like my job -- designing components for mainframe-size hard disk drives -- and I read the article and studied the photographs of the different zines reviewed in that issue with rapt attention. The prospect of self-producing a periodical was more exciting to me than just about anything I could think of.
It didn't take long for me to come up with a zine of my own. After a couple of false starts (two issues of a mini-comic called Toilet Devil and a zine about fringe science called The Important Science Journal), my wife Carla and I started putting together a zine about comic books, cyberpunk science fiction, unusual travel experiences, true-life stories, consciousness altering technologies, and interviews with our favorite authors. We called it bOING bOING, because we wanted to convey the idea of bouncing from one interesting idea to another. Much of the contents and format were influenced by the Whole Earth Review and Kevin's brand of relentless curiosity.
We made the first issue of bOING bOING using crude desktop publishing software and lots of rubber cement. The photocopied print run for the first issue was 100. I sent in a copy to Factsheet Five, a zine that reviewed zines (it was like the Google of zines). Publisher Mike Gunderloy reviewed it in issue #33 (1989):
BOING BOING #1
A delightful new zine for the neophiliac. Mark apparently was influenced by a lot of the same subversive literature that shaped my life, and now he's done something about it. The first issue features an interview with Robert Anton Wilson, book, zine and software reviews, wild predictions, comics, and much more. Nanotechnology, comics, libertarianism, drugs and sibling rivalry all play a part. An enjoyable romp through memespace.
Thanks to this review the issue sold out in a couple of weeks. An independent magazine distributor in New York wrote and asked to carry bOING bOING. For the second issue, we photocopied 200 copies. It, too, sold out. I was hooked on do-it-yourself media. I loved every step of the process -- writing the articles, drawing the illustrations, using the desktop publishing software, pasting up the camera-ready pages, photocopying the print run, and using a long-reach stapler to bind each copy, and sending them out to people who sent in their $3 cash. As the print run continued to grow (it was about 500 copies for issue number 4), I had to stop photocopying the issues and used a printshop instead.
I had been sending issues to Kevin Kelly all along, and after a couple of issues, he asked if I'd like to trade subscriptions. I was thrilled at this.
The same year that the first issue of bOING bOING was published, I joined The Well, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, a national online bulletin board system co-founded by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985. Users accessed The Well (based in Sausalito, California) by using dial-up modems. Once online, they could participate in a large number of conferences on different subjects: science, politics, drugs, music, art, technology, etc. Kevin and Howard and a number of other authors and Whole Earth Review folks I admired were active on The Well, and I quickly dove in and joined lots of conversations.
It wasn't long before I started a conference about bOING bOING, where modem-owning subscribers and contributors could hang out, discuss articles in the magazine, and submit ideas for future issues. The combination of the print zine and the Well worked together in a positive way, and set me going in a direction I've moved in for the last 20 years. By 1991, bOING bOING circulation was about 5,000 or so. While it was barely making any money, it was growing fast enough to give me the courage to quit my engineering job, sell our house, and move to Los Angeles, where Carla and I set up headquarters.
In 1992 Kevin left Whole Earth Review and became a co-founder of Wired. He called me and asked if I would be interested in working there. So in 1993 Carla and I moved back to northern California, and Kevin put me to work as the editor of Street Cred, the reviews section of Wired, which had a distinct Whole Earth flavor. It was great fun working on the section and Kevin and I became friends.
Kevin and I no longer work at Wired, but we stay in touch and talk to each other about the things we are working on and thinking about. I'm actually surprised that we hadn't thought of joining forces with Boing Boing and Cool Tools earlier, but here we are, teaming up again. As Kevin wrote in his announcement on Cool Tools:
"...in a kind of lopsided circle, we've gone from Whole Earth, to bOING bOING on paper, to Wired, to Cool Tools, to Boing Boing blog, to Cool Tools blog, and now back to Boing Boing and Cool Tools... At its simplest Cool Tools is a venue for fans to rave about their favorite tools, tips, and gadgets (in the broadest sense of utility). We only run -- and will only run -- great reviews about great stuff (why waste your time on anything else?). The items we run have been used by real folks with real experience, vetted by editors, and presented in an easy-to-digest one item per day. This formula has worked for ten years. I think it can go another ten years."
Here's to ten more years of cool stuff!
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.