The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” | The New Yorker
At the height of the civil-rights movement and the war in Vietnam, the “Whole Earth Catalog” offered a vision for a new social order—one that eschewed institutions in favor of individual empowerment, achieved through the acquisition of skills and tools. The latter category included agricultural equipment, weaving kits, mechanical devices, books like “Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia,” and digital technologies and related theoretical texts, such as Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics” and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, a programmable calculator. “We are as gods and might as well get used to it” read the first catalogue’s statement of purpose. “A realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”
The communes eventually collapsed, for the usual reasons, which included poor resource management, factionalism, and financial limitations. But the “Whole Earth Catalog,” which published quarterly through 1971 and sporadically thereafter, garnered a cult following that included founders of Airbnb and Stripe and also early employees of Facebook.
Last month, on a brisk and blindingly sunny Saturday, over a hundred alumni of the “Whole Earth Catalog” network—Merry Pranksters, communards, hippies, hackers, entrepreneurs, journalists, and futurists—gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication, and, per the invitation, to come together “one last time.” The event was held at the San Francisco Art Institute, a renovated wharf warehouse with vaulted ceilings, views of Alcatraz, and the cool sterility of an empty art gallery. A number of early-Internet architects, including Larry Brilliant, Lee Felsenstein, and Ted Nelson, floated around the room. Several alumni had scribbled their well usernames onto their badges.
A week after the reunion, Brand and I spoke over the phone, and he emphasized that he had little nostalgia for “Whole Earth.” “ ‘The Whole Earth Catalog’ is well and truly obsolete and extinct,” he said. “There’s this sort of abiding interest in it, or what it was involved in, back in the day, and so the reunion was a way for the perpetrators to get together and have a drink and piss on the grave.” Brand continued, “There’s pieces being written on the East Coast about how I’m to blame for everything,” from sexism in the back-to-the-land communes to the monopolies of Google, Amazon, and Apple. “The people who are using my name as a source of good or ill things going on in cyberspace, most of them don’t know me at all,” he said. “They’re just using a shorthand. You know, magical realism: Borges. You mention a few names so you don’t have to go down the whole list. It’s a cognitive shortcut.”
Brand now describes himself as “post-libertarian,” a shift he attributes to a brief stint working with Jerry Brown, during his first term as California’s governor, in the nineteen-seventies, and to books like Michael Lewis’s “The Fifth Risk,” which describes the Trump Administration’s damage to vital federal agencies. “ ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ was very libertarian, but that’s because it was about people in their twenties, and everybody then was reading Robert Heinlein and asserting themselves and all that stuff,” Brand said. “We didn’t know what government did. The whole government apparatus is quite wonderful, and quite crucial. [It] makes me frantic, that it’s being taken away.” A few weeks after our conversation, Brand spoke at a conference, in Prague, hosted by the Ethereum Foundation, which supports an eponymous, open-source, blockchain-based computing platform and cryptocurrency. In his address, he apologized for over-valorizing hackers. “Frankly,” he said, “most of the real engineering was done by people with narrow ties who worked nine to five, often with federal money.”
While antagonism between millennials and boomers is a Freudian trope, Brand’s generation will leave behind a frightening, if unintentional, inheritance. My generation, and those after us, are staring down a ravaged environment, eviscerated institutions, and the increasing erosion of democracy. In this context, the long-term view is as seductive as the apolitical, inward turn of the communards from the nineteen-sixties. What a luxury it is to be released from politics––to picture it all panning out.