How the Whole Earth Catalog jumpstarted west coast publishing


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I was a devotee of the Whole Earth Catalog and have always wondered to what degree it inspired the web. It certainly pre-figured it. As a child I was fascinated by those mail-order catalogs that showed up now and then. page after page of stuff I had never seen before in my sheltered suburban existence. Then the Whole Earth Catalog comes along like a grown up version with actual worthwhile information instead of do-hickeys and useless gadgets. The web just seemed like a continuation of the improvement of that old idea. I’m still lost in there looking at stuff. (I have learned that looking is more fun than owning over the years. I just like knowing that things exist.)


TWEC showed that there was an actual world of alternative cultures with unique philosophies and knowledge, and wonderful stuff that wasn’t useless crap. The 'net hasn’t quite captured the depth of that experience. Books usually chronicle something grand, but most sites feel like they’re just commercials for what ought to be much better books that were never made. Part of that is modern illustration styles don’t capture the richness of line drawings. The net is like that satirical piece where The Gettysburg Address is done as a PowerPoint presentation.

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Was it really 48 years ago? Doesn’t seem possible; I spent hours immersed in the Whole Earth Catalog as a kid. I remember the slogan on the back: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” Andi I do think it prefigured the Internet; it was surfable, and had “postings” from identified people, and a hyper-texty quality. I miss it, and the Well (and yes I know the Well still exists but it’s not the same).

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I have two copies. I keep one at office, to remind me during the work day that there’s more to life than test cases.

From a review in The Last Whole Earth Catalog:

“We’re generally down on Utopian thinking around here, holding to a more evolutionary fiasco-by-fiasco approach to perfection.” – Stewart Brand

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