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.
Today, 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.
Threw noted that the initial impetus for bringing the Whole Earth Index online was more personal. While researching the 60s countercultural theorist Gene Youngblood, Threw came across a citation for a piece that Youngblood wrote for the CoEvolution Quarterly, a journal on environmental science and technology published by Stewart Brand and the Point Foundation in the decade following the release of the Last Whole Earth Catalog. The piece itself (found in the Winter 01977 edition of the Quarterly) proved hard to locate, but as Threw paged through old editions of Point Foundation publications, he began to realize what a treasure trove was hidden in the archives.
As Threw recounts, he asked himself “Why isn't this stuff available? Am I just missing it? Or does this literally not exist anywhere on the internet?” After consulting with Stewart Brand, Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly, and other figures who had been involved with the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog and its intellectual descendants, Threw realized that there was an opportunity to make these publications available once more for a new generation of readers and creators who knew of the Catalog’s “ethos” but regarded the Catalog itself as a certain mythic artifact — spoken of in reverent tones but not actually readable.
The work of designing and developing the Whole Earth Index was entrusted to Mindy Seu and Jon Gacnik, who previously worked together on projects that made path-breaking countercultural publisher Ralph Ginzburg’s magazines Eros, Fact, and Avant Garde available online. To Seu, it “felt right” that the Whole Earth Catalog would come next, seeing the publications in a certain shared lineage of counterculture publications that she had become fascinated with while she was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. When Threw reached out in advance of the 55th anniversary to gauge Seu’s interest in working on the project, she said “absolutely,” — and brought Gacnik in shortly after as a collaborator.
Yet putting together the Whole Earth Index was easier said than done. One quirk of the project was the sheer number of pages involved. Gacnik estimates that the index as a whole contains 20,000 pages, each individually uploaded to the Internet Archive and then presented on the site in high resolution. It’s an overwhelming display: a tide of information-rich images that’s easy to get lost in. Seu and Gacnik’s goal was to create an “interface” that made grappling with the 35 years worth of publications tractable without adding too many additional layers of editorializing or guidance. They wanted to make sure, as Seu puts it, that “the design of the container didn't actually compete with the design of the publications.” Or, as Gacnik asked, “how can the interface get out of the way?”
As Hannah Scott, a Researcher at Gray Area who assisted with the Whole Earth Index project notes, such an approach was in line with the Catalog’s ethos of “assembling all this information and throwing it on the page in this very chaotic, everything-all-at-once manner.” The original Catalogs were stuffed to the brim with material, with different perspectives captured on the page vividly. Threw found that the Catalogs and subsequent magazines were full of “long running and heated arguments” that included opinions sharply disagreeing with Stewart Brand’s own stances, capturing a broad swathe of the contemporary discourse in their pages.
Yet, as Seu reflected, the project also helps shed light on the limitations of the Whole Earth Catalog and its descendants. As pointed out by scholars like Fred Turner, who wrote From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the definitive academic text on the Whole Earth Catalog’s legacy within the history of technology, the Catalog was slow to incorporate serious discussion of feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Seu highlights Kirsten Grimstad and Susan Rennie’s The New Woman’s Survival Catalog as an under-discussed counterpart to the Whole Earth Catalog. Marketed upon its release in 01973 as the “feminist Whole Earth Catalog,” it provided the same kind of access to work by second-wave feminists, including information about activism, healthcare, parenting, independent presses and bookstores, rape crisis centers, and legal resources. In place of the godlike individualism of early editions of the Whole Earth Catalog, the focus here was on collectivist feminist survival.
The goal, Seu says, was to recontextualize the Catalog, moving it from a mythic past and into a present context where she could “make it feel more reflective of the community that I was part of.”
A key part of that process, noted by everyone involved with the production of the Whole Earth Index, is that the site contains not just the original run of the Whole Earth Catalog and its supplements from the late 01960s and early 01970s but its many descendants: the CoEvolution Quarterly, the Whole Earth Software Review, The Whole Earth Review, Whole Earth, and a few other miscellaneous publications from the Point Foundation, which stewarded these efforts for decades. Tracing the changes in the publications — some subtle, some not, Scott said, was “fascinating [in that it] went through a lot of different hands too as it grew and evolved,” with the core idea of Access to Tools expanding to incorporate Access to Ideas and Access to Practices in different iterations. In those changing currents lie many insights that seem resonant even today. Seu quoted a piece by Howard Rheingold from the Fall 01993 edition of the Whole Earth Review that to her encapsulated the idiosyncratic wisdom of the Whole Earth milieu:
“If you are fortunate enough to share a neighborhood with a leafy elm, a gnarly oak, a soaring redwood, take another look at its silhouette against the sky. That self-similar 4-D explosion of branching branches is a clue to a cosmic riddle or two, and a key concept in fields as unrelated as vascular surgery and software design.”
The sheer scope of the publications surprised the site’s designers, with Gacnik noting that he often caught himself “getting lost” in the depth of the archives while working on the site. While the Whole Earth Catalog itself is the “champion,” the progenitor that allowed for all of these subsequent publications to exist, Seu made it clear that an intentional point of design on the site was to add a grid at the very top of the site with the “six logos of the six publications, in order to show that there were many publications and spinoffs,” each with an “unique point of view.”
For multiple generations of readers, the Whole Earth Catalog is a fuzzily remembered historical symbol, invoked by Steve Jobs in speeches and regarded with “almost cultish” devotion in certain Web3 communities. What’s perhaps most exciting to the researchers and designers behind the Whole Earth Index is the opportunity to bring the Catalog and its descendants to that audience, making the mythic into the real. For Threw, having the catalogs available is a way to spark a “primary source look at a history of intellectual discourse and countercultural thinking in the Bay Area, which includes cultural expressions that I think that we've lost.”
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?
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