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Stewart Brand: “The Whole Earth Catalog”

Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University on June 14, 2005. In it, he told three stories. The first was how he dropped out of Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. The second was how a manager fired him from the company that he and Steve Wozniak had started in a garage.

The third story was about his pending death, due to a pancreatic cancer diagnosis a year before.

Then, after he finished the three stories, he said, “When I was young, there was an amazing publication called “The Whole Earth Catalog,” which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand, not far from here in Menlo Park, California.

“This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was made with typewriters, scissors, and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like [a search engine] in paperback form, 35 years before [a search engine] came along. It was overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

Now I wonder why Steve Jobs decided to attach those two paragraphs about a catalog from 1968, to his address to graduates at Stanford. Yet, I find Jobs’s quote most interesting.

I remember, when in high school in the late 1960’s, I glanced once or twice at “The Whole Earth Catalog,” but I never ordered anything from it. I do remember the distinctive picture of planet Earth on the catalog’s front cover, taken by an ATS-3 satellite, but I fail to remember any of the listings inside.

On the internet, in recent days, I found a copy of the first edition from 1968. Subtitled “Access to Tools,” it is 62 pages long, and is a cut and paste catalog. Each listing gives a picture of an item, its price, an address where a buyer can mail a check, plus a review of the listing.

For example, on page 5 is the book, Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. Priced at $3.75, the review says, “It is the bestseller of the Whole Earth Catalog.”

There are books on how to build a tipi, or a Japanese-styled house, or design Aladdin Kerosene lamps, set up bee-keeping, find mushrooms, perform yoga, play a game called Dr. Nim, or build computers. On page 55, a listing offers “700 Science Experiments for Everyone,” at a price of $4.00.

A buyer could buy catalogs that offer Brookstone Tools or Jensen Tools, plus a Miners Catalog, and a Blasters’ Handbook, and Glenn’s Auto Repair Manual, published by Chilton. There are listings on self-hypnotism, psycho-cybernetics, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge, etc. Something for everyone.

A free L.L. Bean Catalog is offered on pages 47-48. The reviewer says, “The Bean catalog is the model for the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.” Tandy Leather & Crafts Catalog is found on page 31.

The final listing is on page 61, and is “The I Ching, or the Book of Changes.”

Looking at it today, the “Whole Earth Catalog” resembles an on-paper form of the internet. At the time though it was “a counterculture magazine that stressed self-sufficiency, a do-it-yourself mindset, and alternative forms of education.” Hippies and flower children loved it.

Stewart Brand lives on. He is 83 years old, an old hippy who resides on California’s coast in a houseboat, and today he is found working on a “Clock of the Long Now,” a timepiece that will reside inside a cave within a mountain in southwest Texas. Its intent: track time for 10,000 years.

Brand shies away from the title of futurist. Instead, he moves and explores in terms of “long-term thinking.” He is “unwavering in his optimism about the future,” certain that “humanity’s future lies in our ability to develop technology.” “Progress,” he says, “consists of adding more options.”

Twenty years ago, Brand changed his mind about nuclear energy, after he discovered that some experts believed new nuclear technologies would be found to use what is now considered nuclear waste. That changed the way he thought about the future in general.”

Some time ago, Brand tweeted: “Interesting: how much bad news is anecdotal, and good news is statistical, and how invisible the statistical is.” I struggle with what he means, but I guess Brand intends to say that bad news is an anecdote, a recent news item that catches our attention and then fades away.

The good news though, he says, is buried unseen in the statistics, in the accumulation of multiple numbers of anecdotes that point upwards, indicating a positive human-benefiting trend. Hence, his healthy optimism about the future.

Steve Jobs dropped out of college, but he learned calligraphy there. He lost his job, but he met the love of his life, his wife, and he formed his own company that his previous company then bought. He was back. It was most misfortunate though that cancer ended his life on October 5, 2011.

At the end of his speech to Stanford’s graduates, Jobs said he remembers that on the back cover of the final issue of the “Whole Earth Catalog” there appeared the words, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Jobs says, “I have always wished that for myself, and now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.”