The Whole Earth Catalog remembered

Plenty Magazine has a remembrance of the Whole Earth Catalog with comments by several who were involved or influenced. Whole Earth certainly influenced my evolution, in fact determined my career path.

The Plenty intro is inaccurate in that it mentions only on the Catalog’s “four year run,” but if Whole Earth had gone away after four years, the influence wouldn’t have been the same. Whole Earth’s life was extended many more years through the publication of Coevolution Quarterly, later renamed Whole Earth Review, then Whole Earth Magazine – now sadly defunct.

I wasn’t much into computers and technology until Whole Earth announced in 1985 that it was launching a BBS called the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) which was accessible from anywhere by modem. I bought a computer and modem and dialed in via long distance to Sausalito, and that was my first adoption of social technology. Via the WELL I connected with Whole Earth, met then-editor Howard Rheingold and past editor Kevin Kelly, established a relationship with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and got involved in the formation of EFF-Austin, became an associate editor of bOING bOING the ‘zine and book review editor for Factsheet Five, was involved in a private discussion with a group of people who were starting a magazine called Wired, connected with Wired’s HotWired online service and started the Electronic Frontiers Forum there, met Paco Nathan and formed FringeWare, Inc., found writers for Fringe Ware Review (which was incidentally modeled on Whole Earth Review), became part of Howard Rheingold’s Electric Minds, worked with Bruce Sterling on the Mirrorshades conference and later on Viridian Design, and became an early blogger, initially publishing via the public_html directory of my WELL account. Having met the Whole Earth crew, I did some writing for Whole Earth Review, including my global warming piece in the Sterling-edited last issue. I was editor of the Consciousness Subdomain of the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog – sort of a dream come true – and coordinated a Whole Earth party in Austin while the team was here (with Wavy Gravy along for the ride) for their publisher’s annual meeting. My bOING bOING colleague Mark Frauenfelder turned me onto blogger, and there was early back and forth with Mark and Cory Doctorow as the bOING bOING blog was evolving – and we were all using the Whole Earth format in blogging, where there was a review of something followed by quoted excerpts. Many bloggers adopted this format, probably because they used the popular bOING bOING blog as a model.

I’m pretty sure the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today if Whole Earth and the WELL had never existed. The influence was way more than a blog format. Those of us who read the Whole Earth publications were inspired to be eclectic and creative in our thinking, and to question everything, especially our own assumptions.

There’s more I could say, but I’ve run out of time. I wish Whole Earth Magazine was still around. The last issue, edited by Alex Steffen as a precursor to Worldchanging, was never published due to a lack of funds. Attempts to raise enough money to revive the publication failed, and it went away.

Time for a revival? Some things cycle out and can’t be revived, but Whole Earth could rise again, I think, with the right set of instigators.

What was your experience of the Whole Earth Catalog?

Not said in jest

That’s a photo of David Foster Wallace shot by Steve Rhodes. I can’t find the review of Infinite Jest that I wrote for Wired Magazine’s web site Hotwired, and I haven’t read Wallace (or much fiction, other than my unfinished but in-progress marathon read of Pynchon’s Against the Day, but I’m affected by his suicide, by the sense that that amazing aggregation of words and ideas and hot synapses could suddenly be still, just like that, and we’ll hear nothing more from him. Authors are smart and sensitive and vulnerable. The best think about everything and try to find, and tell, the truth. I wanted to be one of those but didn’t follow the discipline, and I clearly wasn’t prepared to suffer for my art, and it hadn’t sunk in that the suffering is there anyway, a condition of life. That’s not meant to be fatalistic, but I’m acknowledging the Buddhist sense of suffering as attachment. I’m not a great Buddhist, but I practice enough to have a sense of that attachment, what it means, why the Buddha connected attachment to suffering in expressing his Noble Truths. The attachment is as much as anything a grasping at words and ideas and concepts and supposed-but-not-really truths, all churning forth from some emptiness within. I can imagine any author, surfing the terrible waves of consciousness and trying to hold a vertical position against the forces of the universe, frustrated by grasping, unable to go with the flow, and ultimately considering that death might bring peace. That’s a terrible tragedy.

My editor at Hotwired wondered that I hadn’t mentioned the tennis in the book. The thousand plus pages has threads about tennis and about drug rehab. I recall that I as more interested in addiction than tennis at the time, but I suppose they could be the same thing (and related to the titular samizdat). I was sinking into the long lucid passages and losing their connection to the whole sometimes.

I knew I needed to go back and read it again with no rush against deadline, and I wanted to read Wallace’s other works. One of those things you put off. The books are still there to read, but I’ll never have a conversation with Wallace… it’s like finding out that Bill Hicks died after saying for so long that I’ll have to catch him sometime.

Speaking of comedy, Frank Bruni wrote of Wallace, in the New York Times Magazine in 1996, “Wallace is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to live comedy: a creator so maniacally energetic and amused with himself that he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all alone.”

In 2005, he gave a commencement address at Kenyon Collegein Ohio, saying that it “is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.” He went on to say that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

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Making it – our DIY future

I’m not exactly a maker – I don’t spend a lot of time building or deconstructing devices or hacking what I’ve bought. I’m not a regular reader of Make Magazine, though it’s edited by my friend and former bOING bOING colleague Mark Frauenfelder, and I’ve always appreciated his world view… Mark’s a mashup of wide-eyed innocent and wise sage, and his head’s all full of fascinating cartoons and futuristic visions. When I curated a digital convergence track for SXSW Interactive in 2006, I included a session on DIY and convergence and contacted Mark, who suggested Phil Torrone, who signed on and suggested Limor Fried and someone from Make’s sister magazine, Craft. It was a great session; the next year Phil and Limor keynoted to a packed room at the conference. I realized there was a huge DIY movement emerging and they were channeling those energies. Consider that the world of the future may not be a slick, standardized manufactured environment but a world of personal reconfigurable environments, highly individualized; a world where everyone’s expected to have gadget literacy and everything in our environment has an open, hackable architecture.

A couple of years ago, after the first Maker Faire in California, I emailed Mark and suggested they try it in Austin. They did, and as a result I found myself working an installation on the DIY Home of the Future based on Derek Woodgate’s research and Dave Demaris’s hard work, along with Bon Davis and several others. (Our Plutopia collective and annual party emerged from this endeavor – long story.) I wrote a couple of DIY home pieces for Worldchanging at the time, posted here and here. Derek had done a lot of thinking about the future of personal built environments, again highly reconfigurable by “the user.” This assumes a couple of things: 1) that we evolve the gadget literacy I mentioned earlier, and we see that in the DIY/Maker movement as early adopters on the today’s fringes, and 2) homes and gadgets and devices will be increasingly open, hackable, and reconfigurable. To that end, Make has published a Maker’s Bill of Rights, and Jeremy Faludi at Worldchanging riffs on the concept, discussing design for hackability as green design. Note that the Bill of Rights page at Make has a link to the Leatherman Squirt, aka “Warranty Voider.”