The Legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog

Stewart Brand sent out a notice about an upcoming event that looks fascinating: From Counterculture to Cyberculture: The Legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog, a symposium featuring Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold and Fred Turner, Thursday, November 9 from 7:00 to 8:30 PM, at Cubberly Auditorium, Stanford University.

In the fall of 1968, Stewart Brand published a 61-page miscellany of hand tools, books, and other gear. A generation of long-hairs was heading “back to the land” and Brand aimed to give them the tools they’d need to get there. While most rural communes soon failed, the ideals and the social networks Brand and his colleagues built up around the Catalog would last a lifetime. Over the next forty years, they transformed American notions of technology and particularly, of computers. They shaped the defining notions of our digital world, including “personal” computing, virtual community, and the vision of cyberspace as an electronic frontier. They helped give rise to such influential venues as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (or WELL) and Wired magazine. And in the process, they transformed the ideals of the generation of 1968 into a deeply optimistic vision of the social potential of digital technologies.

I’ll add myself to their legacy. I didn’t get to know Stewart till long afterwards, when O’Reilly was already a household name among geeks, but I nonetheless consider him one of my earliest and most important mentors. My first attempts to get published, right out of college, were some small articles that I sent to CoEvolution Quarterly, Stewart’s successor to the Whole Earth Catalog. (A couple of them were accepted, but never published.) We shamelessly copied the name of the Whole Earth Catalog for our groundbreaking Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, but that’s the least of our debts to Stewart and crew. A huge amount of the O’Reilly sensibility, a mix of practicality and idealism, was learned from the Whole Earth Catalog. And of course, the Whole Earth Catalog is one of the wellsprings of the modern DIY movement, for which Make: magazine is now carrying the torch.