John Markoff, formerly technology reporter at the New York Times for nearly three decades, seems on paper like a good candidate. He has made himself a specialist in the confluence of Sixties counterculture and Silicon Valley tech culture; his book What the Dormouse Said, covering the birth of computer culture to the introduction of the Windows P.C., was met with modestly positive reviews. His latest effort, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, takes as its point of departure a man rather than a scene—the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, the godfather of New Urbanism, erstwhile advisor to Governor Moonbeam, a guru for two generations of futurists, an early theorist of the Internet, the man whose current occupations are building a clock that will run for ten thousand years and using dark genetic arts to revive the woolly mammoth.
Like nearly everyone under the age of fifty, I became aware of Brand via someone quoting Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford graduation speech. The Apple boss highlighted Brand’s signature project, the Catalog: a directory that sought to give any reader access to the tools he would need to do anything. “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” he had quoted approvingly from the book’s epilogue. A sort of pre-digital Google, he called it. Something I filed away in my head for later.
After the pandemic had become normal and I had a new job, a new house, and a new baby, I acquired a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog in a Taco Bell parking lot across the street from Andrews Air Force Base. “Norm,” the Craigs-list seller, had the air of an engineer—T-shirt tucked into cargo shorts, messy mustache, sensible Japanese S.U.V. He took cash and scolded me for letting the wind ruffle the pages of the Catalog while I fumbled my wallet out.
The Catalog—1971’s “Last,” intended to be the end of the project—is a handsome item, about the size of an atlas. On the first page, a statement of PURPOSE: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to a point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains 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. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.” After six months of pandemic response, I smiled at “gross defects”—but “We are as gods”? Sinister at best.
But the contents don’t disappoint. Reviews for peyote manuals and raw wood for pipe-making and boat-building cement, for machine-prototyping kits and knives and wine-making supplies, for cameras and Mennonite clothes and mechanical calculators. Reviews for books about macramé, urban design, what to do if you’re busted for drugs. Contributions from Wendell Berry on organic farming, Walter Carlos on synthesizers, Ken Kesey on whatever Ken Kesey is thinking about. And, on each page, one or two of the reviews in Brand’s light, humorous prose—a unifying spirit, a genius of the catalogue.
Markoff was given free rein of Brand’s personal papers and interviewed the man himself extensively; the product is an impressive chronicle of who met whom where and when, a verbal network chart of characters passing through the Bay Area in the middle of the last century. Berry and Kesey, but also Buckminster Fuller, Ram Dass, Paul Ehrlich, Jerry Garcia, Steve Wozniak—they’re all here, set mosaic-like into a detailed chronology of Acid Tests and Indian congresses and camping trips. We read about the paint jobs on Brand’s car and the steaks he fries on vacation; we read about flame wars on early internet forums and the models of computer used for typesetting the Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly.
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