“The catalog of the entire Earth”, the revolutionary book that inspired Steve Jobs and other internet pioneers – La Opinion

“The catalog of the entire Earth”, the revolutionary book that inspired Steve Jobs and other internet pioneers – La Opinion

“When I was young, there was an amazing publication called ‘The Whole Earth Catalog‘, which was one of the bibles of my generation,” said Steve Jobs in his emblematic speech at Stanford University, California, in 2005..

“It was like Google on paper, 35 years before Google arrived: it was idealistic, full of well-designed tools and great ideas,” added the admired co-founder of Apple Inc. and pioneer of the era of personal computing.

Eminent epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who is also a technology expert and philanthropist, had his life changed when he read it in the late 1960s.

“The Internet for us in those days, before the Internet existed, was ‘The Whole Earth Catalog‘” he told the BBC.

Brilliant was a fledgling doctor from Detroit when he arrived in California in 1967, and was swept up in the wave of political activism and then the so-called “Summer of Love” in San Francisco.

She met Steve Jobs at age 19 in an Indian ashram and they became lifelong friends. He was arrested alongside Martin Luther King while marching for civil rights. He also helped cure smallpox with the World Health Organization.

Everywhere around them, people were talking about revolution and hippies were experimenting with communal living.

But there was a big problemwhich counterculture icon Stewart Brand detected.

He had been living in one of the communes, where the aspiration was “to reinvent civilization, which was bold and admirable,” Brand recalled in an interview with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

But no one “knew how to do anything, grow a garden or build a house…nothing at all.”

Brand wanted to help those idealistic hippies.

“Since I had been trained as a scientist, my perspective was to try to bring to that movement the respect for doing things.”

“We are like gods”

Steward Brand
Getty Images
Steward Brand, here in 1975, is a biologist, military man, photographer, technologist, lecturer, businessman, environmentalist… and icon.

Brand spent years traveling the country collecting information that could help those communes, and he put it all together in a book written on a typewriter and patched together with scissors and glue.

“The Whole Earth Catalog” was part instruction manual, part encyclopedia for the counterculture.

On the cover, in addition to the subtitle “Access to Tools,” there was an image of the Earth, the result of a campaign Brand had run in 1966 to get NASA to publish a photo of the entire planet seen from space.

Inside, the introduction began by saying: “We are like gods and we better do it right”.

From then on, a collection of reviews, practical guides and manuals on anarchic libertarianism, cultural analysis and sarcastic commentary, all printed on densely packed pages.

But why was it so important?

“It was important because we didn’t have internet. We didn’t have access to the great books. We didn’t have access to things that were outside of our local community. We didn’t have contact with that many people,” explains Brilliant.

The catalog brought us together and was essentially a consumer guide to the best tools for living, empowering, and being a part of something..

“If you wanted to know which was the best Swiss army knife or which was the best tool for digging latrines if you were going to be in the forest for a long time, you consulted him.

“It was like Google, but without the search engine part, so you had to laboriously go through it.”

Screenshot of the site showing two pages
Whole Earth Index
Recently, the San Francisco art collective Gray Area, in partnership with the cultural organization Long Now Foundation and the Internet Archive, put almost all editions of the catalog on the Wholeearth.info website.

He is credited with uniting the hippie movement of the 1960s with the computer revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. counterculture with cyberculture.

For a generation of people growing up in California in the 1960s, who would become the pioneers of modern computing, it was the most important book they had read.

People like Jobs, whose message stuck with him: it wouldn’t be protests, or politics, or lobbying that would change the world. It would be access to information.

Back then, the idea that information could be unleashed to empower people was revolutionary.

When Jobs launched the first personal computer to the mass market in 1984, he told Brilliant that this was the new counterculture.

“Once, jokingly, I asked him if by entering the computer world he was abandoning the values ​​we had had in the ’60s and ’70s, the movement toward equality,” Brilliant recalls.

“He told me: ‘While many people raise their fists and shout, ‘Power to the people,’ I develop an Apple – or in those days Macintosh – and put it on their desks at an affordable price; This is how I am literally giving power to people.

“He really believed that was the case.”

The hole

Larry Brilliant
Getty Images
Brilliant used one of the first Apple computers given to him by his friend Steve Jobs to host what was perhaps the world’s first online teleconference, to resolve a WHO crisis.

By then, hippie idealism had evaporated, but Brilliant wondered if the strange new machines Jobs and others were making were the missing piece in Stewart Brand’s vision..

He “Whole Earth Catalog” could only reach a limited group of people.

What if computers could connect us all, give us access to tools, and turn us into gods?

He called Brand, who initially hesitated.

“This was a business and none of us had really run a business. But over lunch we came up with the idea of ​​bringing together people who had been fascinated by the catalog online.”

Brilliant had been intrigued by what he had seen in the few virtual communities that existed at the time.

“Some of those first conversations were magical: people knew each other and didn’t know if the person they were talking to was black or white, male or female, tall or short, American or foreign…”

It was like what Martin Luther King said about people being known not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. “That happened when you couldn’t see the other person.”

The Well was born (The hole). It stood for Whole Earth’ Electronic Link, the digital twin of Brand’s book.

Call to foolishness

Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005
Getty Images
Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005.

By the mid-1990s, The Well had become the most important place on the internet. Hardly anyone was online then, but those who were, knew about The Well.

“It immediately became the place to go if you wanted to have an interesting conversation.

“We were very lucky that (the rock band) Grateful Dead was a part of our world because at one point 30% to 40% of our income came from (their fans) Deadheads trying to get tickets,” he jokes.

The Well brought together hackers, hippies and writers from across the San Francisco Bay Area in an online conversation about everything from technology and politics to the meaning of life.

After meeting online, they ended up having parties; an early sign that the real and virtual worlds could merge.

“Unlike Facebook, we knew each other online before we met face to face,” Howard Rheingold, the writer who first coined the term virtual community and an influential Well member.

“A lot of the face-to-face communications turned into relationships. “People met and married, and marriages broke up, when people got sick they got support, when people died they got help,” Rheingold told the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones in 2011.

The website and the book shared a radical vision.

The old hierarchies controlled information: powerful television and newspaper magnates decided what ordinary people read and watched. Knowledge was locked away in dusty old libraries. People from outside your neighborhood were considered aliens.

Brand’s book had tried to change that. Internet would complete the mission.

The Well is, for many, the world’s first social network. The direct ancestor of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok.

It wasn’t just a technology, it was a social revolution built on a crazy idea: that we should have access to everything and everyone, all the time.

Its paper counterpart had ceased publication in 1972.

On the cover of the latest edition, a photograph taken by Apollo 4, showing the Earth in partial shadow.

On the back cover, “his farewell message: ‘Stay hungry. Stay crazy’“Steve Jobs quoted at the end of his speech at Stanford.

I’ve always wanted that for myself“, he claimed.

*This article is largely adapted from the episode “We are as Gods” from the BBC series “The Gatekeepers”, by technology writer Jamie Bartlett, produced by Caitlin Smith.


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