(Roughly) Daily

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it”*…

In 1968, Stewart Brand and small group of colleagues published the first Whole Earth Catalog, then followed it over the years with a series of updates, spin-offs, and sequels. An at-the-time unprecedented marriage of counterculture magazine and product catalog, it (and its successors) have been enormously influential. Now, as Long Now‘s Jacob Kupperman reports, the entire run of Whole Earth publications is freely available online…

When the Whole Earth Catalog arrived in the Fall of 01968, it came bearing a simple, epochal label: “Access to Tools.” As its editor and Long Now Co-founder Stewart Brand wrote in the introduction to that first edition, the goal was for the Catalog to serve as an “evaluation and access device” for tools that empowered its readers “to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”

The key word in all of that idealistic declaration of purpose was “access.” The Whole Earth Catalog did not intend to directly grant its readers this knowledge, wisdom, and mastery, but to provide a kaleidoscopic array of gateways from which they could attempt to find it themselves.

Yet for years, access to the Whole Earth Catalog itself has been difficult. 55 years on from the first publication of the Catalog, it mostly lives on in the interstices — as a symbol of a vibrant countercultural history and an inspiration for writers, designers, and technologists, but less so as an actual set of catalogs that you can read. The Catalog is not lost media per se — copies can be found in libraries, archives, and personal collections across the world — but accessing its trove of information is no longer as easy as it was in its heyday.

That is, until now.

on the 55th anniversary of the publication of the original Whole Earth Catalog, Gray Area and the Internet Archive have made the Catalog freely available online via the Whole Earth Index, a website bringing together more than 130 Whole Earth Catalog-related publications, ranging from some of the earliest Catalogs published in the late 01960s and early 01970s to 02002 issues of Whole Earth Magazine.

Within the site’s grid of publications rests a cornucopia of writing and curation, from in-depth looks at space colonies to ecological analyses of the insurance industry to reporting on the state of the global teenager at the turn of the 01990s. The Whole Earth Index is a work of love, a noncommercial enterprise designed, as project lead and Gray Area Executive Director Barry Threw told Long Now Ideas, to “allow us to reflect on how we got to where we are and regain some of that connection to the countercultural world” of the Bay Area of the 01960s and 01970s.

For the people who helped make the Whole Earth Catalog and its descendants, the Whole Earth Index is in many ways a dream come true. Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly, who wrote for, edited, and led the CoEvolution Quarterly, the Whole Earth Review, and later editions of the Whole Earth Catalog, told us that he found “the interface to this historic collection to be as good, maybe even better, as reading the original paper artifacts,” adding that he’d “been giddy with delight in how satisfying this archive is.”  The project’s model of “instant access from your home, for free!”, Kelly noted, was something that the team behind the Whole Earth Catalog could only dream of when they began their work.

The open-ended design of the Whole Earth Index is intended as a sort of provocation towards future works — a message and invitation in the spirit of the original catalog’s epochal claim that “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.” The tens of thousands of scanned pages will live on the servers of the Internet Archive — as good a place as any to try and stave off a Digital Dark Age — but the ideas of the Whole Earth Catalog and its heirs will always live among those of us who read it and access its tools. What will you do with them?

The Whole Earth Catalog and its descendants are newly available online through the Whole Earth Index: “The Lasting Whole Earth Catalog,” from @Jacobkupp and @longnow.

* Stewart Brand, in the “Statement of Purpose” in the first Whole Earth Catalog


As we treasure tools, we might spare a thought for a man whose work kicked in about the same time as the Whole Earth Catalog– and intersected with it in myriad ways (e.g., The WELL), Jon Postel; he died on this date in 1998. A computer scientist, he played a pivotal role in creating and administering the Internet. As a graduate student in the late 1960s, he was instrumental in developing ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet. He is known principally for being the Editor of the Request for Comment (RFC) document series from which internet standards emerged, for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and for founding and administering the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) until his death.

During his lifetime he was referred to as the “god of the Internet” for his comprehensive influence; Postel himself noted that this “compliment” came with a barb, the suggestion that he should be replaced by a “professional,” and responded with typical self-effacing matter-of-factness: “Of course, there isn’t any ‘God of the Internet.’ The Internet works because a lot of people cooperate to do things together.”


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