A Primer for a sustainable future

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we need to reinvent something like The Whole Earth Catalog.

The Whole Earth Catalog is an ancient thing. Initiated by Stewart Brand in 1968 as a response to the communard movement that followed the summer of love. During the autumn and winter of 1967/1968, more than 30.000 hippies sought to make true on the idealistic promises of the 1960s counter culture, and moved back-to-the-land and into communes throughout the US southwest.

The first Whole Earth Catalog was a 64-page catalog that provided “access to tools” with which to build the new and better world envisioned by the communards. In addition to providing information on how to order material goods (mostly books), the Catalog, and to an even greater extent, the Whole Earth Supplement that subscribers would receive in-between new versions of the catalog, provided a forum where the communards could share information and reach out to one another. As Stewart Brand explains:

If [the commune dwellers] were going to go back to basics, they needed to know where the basics were. And I didn’t either. But I set a thing in motion a thing by which by purveying the stuff, and being a node of a network of people purveying it to each other… I would get to learn whatever the network was learning.

The Catalog and the supplement became looking glasses through which to peer down and see a reflection of an emerging world and, at the same time, spot doorways through which newcomers could enter that world.

Inspired by his own experiences of environmental biology and the works of Buckminster Fuller, Brand sought to develop this fledgling network into what he hoped would become a self-sustaining system. As he put it,

What you’re trying to do is nourish and design an organism which can learn and stay alive while it’s learning. Once that process has its stride, don’t tinker with it, let it work for you.

Indeed, the Whole Earth Catalog inspired a whole generation of communards, free-thinkers, activists and dreamers to think of computers, cybernetics, ecology, Buckminster Fuller, geodesic domes, and lots more.
One of the key design principles of this information eco-system was juxtaposition. Brand juxtaposed radically different topics in order to help the reader to win new perspectives. As he put it,

How you get energy is, you take polarities and slap them next to one another. If you get into Cybernetics and your head is just a minute ago full of organic gardening and ecology, then cybernetics starts to come alive for you in a different way.

Little wonder that the Whole Earth Catalog inspired long-haired computer programmers as they imagined how a computer would handle and juxtapose information. As Alan Kay (the man who first envisioned the laptop computer) said, “We thought of the Whole Earth Catalog as a print version of what the Internet was going to be.”

And that is what the Internet – and especially the World Wide Web – has become. It is the ultimate information eco-system – the ultimate juxtaposition of human knowledge. Everything is just a click a way. But that also means that it is too big to know. With Google, you can find anything that you know to seek, but you rarely come across that which you did not expect to find. You tend skim along, never focusing, never allowing the energy of the juxtapositions to hit home.

I find myself lacking the carefully curated, annotated and juxtaposed mix of inspiration, ideas, and tools that the Whole Earth Catalog offered. Tools gathered with a specific purpose and audience in mind. Just like the Whole Earth Catalog was a primer for the hippies, the communards, and the computer geeks, we need a primer for young people today.

Such a primer should provide tools and inspire conversations and everyday action towards the sustainable, open, free and shared future we know we need to build.

If you know of something like that that already exists, or if you want to help make one, get in touch.

(PS: All of the quotes above are taken from Fred Turner’s excellent book “From Counter Culture to Cyberculture and the related panel discussion at Stanford University)

Leave a Reply