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March 30, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

On the left, a cover from The Whole Earth Catalog, the ultimate expression of '60s hippie idealism. On the right, the cover of a recent issue of Cargo, a men's shopping magazine that might well be the ultimate expression of 21st-century-style consumerism.

Conceived of by Stewart Brand and kicked off in 1968, The Whole Earth Catalog wore the tagline "Access to Tools." It was issued semi-annually as a thick, oversize catalog, and embodied a granola-eco-communal/early-cyber-hippie ethos.

The WEC was an exhilarating (if often annoying) publication. The late '60s and early '70s were a great period for magazines generally, what with Evergreen, The New Yorker, Harper's, and Esquire roaring away at peak capacity. The New Journalism was fresh, and cultural critics sang like they never had before; writers like Mailer, Wolfe, Kael, Sontag were doing much of their best work in mainstream venues. Even some professors -- gasp -- were doing their best to communicate straightforwardly with the masses. It may be hard to believe, but this was an era when you might buy a magazine not because it was selling information about a hot new gadget or photographs of a sizzling starlet, but because it featured a new essay by a great writer.

Though The Whole Earth Catalog was one of these great '60s-'70 publishing projects, it came out of the San Francisco Bay Area and it had a very different approach and tone than the East Coast magazines did. The WEC didn't traffic in big intellectual egos trying to make sum-it-all-up, impose-a-point-of-view statements. In its pages you found a team of people. Bylines were present, but they were small, and the cast list was large. Everyone's entitled to have an opinion -- that was the message. Don't force anything on anybody, man; just make interesting "stuff" available. To my knowledge, the WEC was the first publication to use "stuff" in that now-familiar sense.

Encountering the WEC for the first time could be a startling experience. A catalog ... But not of products ... Well, OK, some products, if oddball ones ... But mainly what was being discussed were ideas and resources. You weren't submitting to gale-force brilliance, as you sometimes were when you read Mailer or Kael. Instead, you were joining a community of equals. Nothing ran too long. No voice was too forceful. For the hours you spent with The Whole Earth Catalog, you were a member of a commune that functioned.

The fact is that, looking through the WEC, you never felt any obligation to read anything, let alone read anything all the way through. Your main activity while in WEC-land wasn't reading; it was flipping-around. You weren't being driven through or steered along; it was up to you to put your own experience of the publication together for yourself. That was another of the WEC's implicit messages: Your life is your own to live.

(To get something out of the way: of course the WEC wasn't a magazine. At the same time, it was kinda like a magazine, and it spun a magazine off. For the sake of this blogposting, I'm discussing the whole WEC thang -- its concept, its impact, etc.)

What may have been most innovative and exciting about the WEC was the way it embraced the idea of browsing. If Esquire and The New Yorker turned you into a reader, the WEC turned you into a browser. Browsing was seen as easy, and because it was easy it was also seen as inferior. Much tended to be made at the time of the inherent superiority of "difficulty."

Turning browsing into a positive was was a piece of radical detournement. Aha, a word from the past! Detournement was a phrase much used circa 1970. It's French, and it literally means de-turning; what it was used to mean was taking something that was meant for one purpose and putting it to use for other purposes. The form of the catalogue, for instance. Catalogues were used to sell products. Stewart Brand and his associates took the catalogue idea and asked: Why not use a catalogue to make interesting stuff available? Why use the catalogue form to promote consumer crap? Why not deal in ideas instead?

This was a very West Coast move, and the WEC always represented a West Coast approach to publishing. (For many people, it was their first encounter with West Coast publishing.) From this point of view, being a reader in a traditional sense might be found oppressive. You were submitting to an author's voice and point of view; you were submitting to linearity.

"Reading" in the East Coast sense was a practice and an institution that could use some shaking-up, even some vaporizing. Perhaps we needed to be set free from the tyrrany of the word, of linearity, of grand narratives, of single points of view. Looking then could take its place alongside reading, and browsing could stand unashamedly alongside pedantic plowing-through. Our Inner Visionary might thereby be set free, and we'd become the gods we have it inside ourselves to be. There's room for everyone -- provided only that we're all egalitarian, eco-cyber, Gregory Bateson fans.

(Incidentally, this distinction between East Coast publishing and West Coast publishing continues today. New York-centric publishing continues to emphasize the author, the word, and linearity, while West Coast publishing continues to be more innovative, more about look-and-feel and informal elegance, and more about making-stuff-available.)

What a contrast between the Whole Earth Catalog and Cargo, eh? Where the WEC was a low-budget, idealist vision realized in black and white on cheap paper, Cargo is nothing if not commercial. It seems to consist of nothing but dancing graphics, poppy colors, slick paper, and grab-ya prose. Where the WEC delivered offbeat ideas, Cargo wants you to express yourself in the act of getting and spending. Where the WEC's implicit vision of bliss was West Coast Beat/hippie-Zen, Cargo's idea of heaven is a shopping mall that that's open 24/7. Where the WEC wants to open your mind, Cargo promotes button-pushing, metrosexual solipsism.

But, but, but ... I see a lot of continuity between the two publications too. Not in terms of their content or point of view, but in terms of their structure. They're both magazines-as-databases.

To pause for a sec to describe Cargo: it's a shopping magazine for men, and nothing but. (Lucky is the prototype of the shopping-mag form.) Cargo is made up of nothing but the bits and pieces of a traditional magazine -- the short items: the consumer-guides and grooming tips. In media terms, it's all canapes and junk food. Right when you expect the main course -- this would be the "longer editorial content" -- what you're brought instead is another serving of junk food. You wait for a main course in vain; there simply is no traditional, long editorial content in Cargo. It's a magazine that's all trimmings. In terms of cut-to-the-chase directness, Cargo makes Maxim and People look like magazines from some circumlocutious 19th century.

Cargo is the product of a reductionist approach to magazine-making. If magazines are -- as many people enjoy saying -- fundamentally vehicles for advertisers, well, then, let's toss out all the inessential in-between crap. Let's make it all about moving product. That's discussing magazines, of course, from the point of view of the advertiser. From a reader's (and even a browser's) point of view, a magazine might well represent a place to find editorial content, which is made possible by commercial support.

(There's a Larger Point to be made here about the collapse of traditional media values generally. Ad values -- popping out, breaking-in-on-your attention, commercial urgency, etc -- are all-triumphant these days. Traditional editorial values have collapsed entirely. Even magazines and TV shows that peddle substantial content are competing on ad-value terms. But that's for another posting.)

Buying and getting, and nothing but: Where's the magazine?

Cargo is a catalogue, in other words -- a catalogue of things you might want to buy, jammed together with a lot of ads. Talk about having trouble distinguishing the content from the ads.

What strikes me as I muse over these two publications is as much the connection between them as the contrast between them. How and where did a concept -- the magazine-as-catalogue -- that was dreamed up as a way of promoting eco-hippie values turn into a concept that's used instead to sell gizmos and grooming products?

Short answer: successful innovations that are conceived of by idealists are semi-inevitably taken over by commercial interests.

I'm a long way from being the first person to notice that '60s-hippie idealism has found its fullest expression in the cyber-universe. Leveling-out, egalitarianism, having-it-your-way, making-everything-available … When you use networked computers, the weightless, four-dimensional, where-do-you-want-to-go-today cosmos you enter is, in many ways, the utopia the hippies dreamed of.

It's a utopia that's as unlikely to work in real life as a hippie commune is. Gravity, age, competitiveness, status drives, money, etc, all doom it. Life overwhelms the ideal. Detached, on the other hand, from all those mundane concerns -- as well as pumped full of electricity, and maintained by an immense cultural will to serve-the-machines -- the hippie utopia is available to be enjoyed at the click of a mouse. The Whole Earth Catalog people were, not coincidentally, among the first to see the connections between hippie-style social change and computers.

So one connection between the WEC and Cargo is computers. The Whole Earth Catalog was based on a vision of accessible, networked databases and hyperlinks. Cargo isn't based on such a vision; it takes the existence of a hyperlinked electronic realm for granted. The WEC foresaw a day when magazines would consist of graphics, text boxes, and images, all working together symbiotically. These days, any magazine made on Quark or InDesign is necessarily such a creature.

Another connection: the have-it-your-way, put-it-together-for-yourself ethos that's being peddled. In the hippie days, this ethos was sold as liberation from oppressive structures. (Including, by the way, the rigidity and pomposity and one-size-fits-all nature of International Modernism.) These days, the hippie ethos -- "think your own thoughts, and thereby become who you are" -- has morphed into "buy whatever you want -- that's who you are."

Although the WEC was idealistically motivated and anti-hierarchical, and although it was anything but a giant moneymaker, it didn't take supersensitive antennae to pick up a lot of traditional, behind-the-scenes human drama. Some of the names that appeared in the publication seemed to belong to hippie-legends, while other names seemed to belong to wannabes. And the WEC clearly represented a scene of one sort or another. A reader -- er, make that a browser -- of the WEC couldn't help but wonder: what is this scene? How do people get into it? Who's the star of it? And who's at the fringes of it?

The WEC also imposed its own set of rules. Although "personal freedom for everyone" seemed to be a goal, that clearly didn't include the freedom to write forcefully, for one thing. The WEC promoted a distinctive prose style and voice: laid-back, helpful, even-handed, informal, slangy but not swinging … I often felt envious reading the prose in the WEC yet annoyed by it as well. I was envious because the writing was so placid and easygoing; I was annoyed because the placidity and ease were so self-conscious. While the WEC's surface looked stress-free, it wasn't hard to pick up a lot of beneath-the-surface stress. Spending time with the WEC, a picture took form in the mind of a bunch of hippies watching themselves reinvent the wheel. And, as sweetly earnest and mellow as the Whole Earthers often appeared to be, it was hard not to imagine how hysterical and cross they'd become if life stopped working out the way they wanted it to.

Well, the writing in Cargo isn't unrelated to the style kicked off by the WEC. It's slangy, easy, and informal. But it's bold and pushy too. Sales people can make use of what hippies came up with. Who knew? Actually, I did, and I'm sure many others did too. I shake my head now -- as I shook my head as a young person -- over the naivete of the Whole Earth Catalog. Even as I scribbled down the names of oddball books to look into, the main question the WEC made me think about was the same one that the hippie movement generally raised: namely, who's going to pay for all this?

(FYI, I was about five years too young to have taken part in the happenin'-est days of hippiedom. Me and my buds were the younger siblings of those who had a ball tearing existing structures down. Sitting on the sidelines -- and knowing damn well we'd be the ones pushing brooms to clean up after the party was over -- it seemed obvious that many hippies were spoiled kids acting out on Daddy's credit card.)

A question: if a movement's idealism is so strong that it changes society's fundamental structures, what happens when the idealistic drive runs out? Not the idealism, but the oomph behind it. Because, except in the rare case of saints, the idealistic oomph always does run out; at the very least, it recedes dramatically.

The idealist markets a theory of how things should be; he offers a structural solution to what's felt to be a problem. And, perhaps for a while, the solution seems to work. What the idealist seldom takes into account, though, is that one of the reasons why the new structure seems to work is the idealist's own drive. It keeps things moving along and hanging together.

And when that drive subsides? We're left with ... some idealist's leftover ideas and structures. Reality returns, and in reality stuff always has to be paid for. At that point -- when the gray light of morning takes the place of the night's hallucinations -- we almost always find that money and power interests have moved in.

How could it be otherwise? In the magazine-and-publishing world, The Whole Earth Catalog ceases publication, and eventually you wind up with Cargo -- as much a database of ideas and information as the Whole Earth Catalog ever was, after all. Cargo also makes "stuff" easy to find.

A traditionalist might flip through Cargo wondering, "Where's the magazine?" Which reminds me, by the way, of much post-'60s architecture. The goal of much post-'60s architecture has been to deconstruct and vaporize traditional structures. It can come as quite a surprise -- at least it can to someone who likes the idea of "a building" as something snug and solid -- how fervent architects can be about dematerialization. They want to replace "solid" with glinting, shifting, reflecting, twinkling, vaporous space and surfaces. You can look at their work and wonder, "Where's the building?"

Glass on glass: Where's the building?

Thumbing around the Whole Earth Catalog, a sympathetic skeptic might think: very nice, very provocative, very helpful. It's certainly an inspiration to take the form of a catalogue and put it to use for teaching and learning purposes -- to make a commercial vehicle function for a few minutes as a Force for the Good. But a sympathetic skeptic might also think: gee, isn't it a little wide-eyed to imagine that the magic of such a piece of detournement could last for long?

These days, databases rule. As far as cultural material goes, we've become so database-dependent that -- unless you're acting person-to-person, and handling handmade work -- you're stuck dealing on some level with electronic databases. You really have no choice about this.

Even a business as traditional-seeming as book publishing is database (and spreadsheet) dependent, and database-driven too. Pre-computers, the questions a publisher asked vis a vis a book project were usually, "Is it good enough for us to publish?" and "Is it our kind of book?" In the databased universe, the questions are more likely to be, "Does this project contribute to our business goal? And does it fit in with the rest of our product line?" In other words: your lovingly handmade book either finds a place in a publisher's database or it doesn't. In either case, the database is primary, not the book.

This isn't all for the bad, of course. A blog is a database of postings, and I certainly dig blogs. Arts and Letters Daily takes the database/linking thing and runs brilliantly with it -- ALD is one of the most brain-opening resources I've ever encountered. To be honest, I like ALD better than the Whole Earth Catalog. It's more raucous and rambunctious; it doesn't fret so much about being even-handed. But perhaps the WEC -- with all its naivete, self-consciousness, and suppressed hysteria -- helped make the free-swinging ALD a possibility.

To return to magazines: The Wife tells me that she barely looks at traditional women's magazines these days. The quality of their traditional content has nosedived, and the magazines themselves are commercially-driven while pretending otherwise. "Why do these magazines insult my intelligence by pretending to be something they're not?" she says. As a consequence, she finds browsing through Lucky more enjoyable than looking at Harper's Bazaar: "If the editors are going to treat me as nothing but a consumer-fantasist, then let's at least be upfront about that," she says. And, for what it is, Cargo strikes me as pretty darned good. It's professional, snappy, and lively. I tore a few of its recommendations and items out and put them on my pile of things to look into, just as I once tore recommendations and ideas out of the Whole Earth Catalog.

My general hunch: when a field gets databased and electronified, the field becomes much more efficient, and its products become much more available. At the same time, something else gets crunched out of existence -- or at least eludes the database. I propose thinking of that-which-escapes-the-database as "eros" (by contrast to mere sex), or maybe "substance" (by contrast to information), or maybe "meaning" (by contrast to convenience). In magazine terms, this missing matter is apparently what used to be known as "substantial editorial content."

While it can be great to have tools that enable you to pull it all together for yourself, no one's born knowing how to do that. What is your point of view, after all? And what are you really looking for? I certainly can't come up with decent answers to these questions all the time, or even much of the time. Often, I could use some help sorting these matters out. Where to turn for ideas, guidance, and examples? Left in the company of your gizmos and tools, the usual thing seems to be to revert to whimsical button-pushing -- which is another way of saying "living life as an entirely masturbatory thing." Wham, shazaam, bang! But, hey: maybe the best response to our new predicament is to embrace being shiney metal balls boinging around a virtual pinball machine.

Here's Wikipedia’s helpful entry on The Whole Earth Catalog. Here's the website of the Whole Earth magazine, which isn't currently publishing.

I know co-Blowhard Francis Morrone is fascinated by the Whole Earth Catalog too. I'm sure he has many musings and observations far more interesting than mine to share. I'm eager to hear them.

It's pretty apt that the computer tool we use for interacting with the Web is called a "browser," isn't it? The browser has become our primary means for interacting with the electronic-media universe. And god knows there's no escaping the browsing.



posted by Michael at March 30, 2005


... and surely it's worth noting, especially in this context, that the online world's first significant text-based "Virtual Community" emerged from the Whole Earth Catalog: The Well. Timeline here:

And The Well just celebrated its 20th anniversary. We'll have to see if Cargo makes it that far.

Posted by: George Hunka on March 31, 2005 12:43 PM


Have you been to a WTO demonstration? It's totally 60s. So is the revival of E.F.Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, Think Globally, Act Locally, etc.

There's a lot of the 60s coming back.


Posted by: john massengale on March 31, 2005 01:42 PM

and don't forget the Vietnam / Iraq comparisons.

Posted by: john massengale on March 31, 2005 01:44 PM

While it can be great to have tools that enable you to pull it all together for yourself, no one's born knowing how to do that. What is your point of view, after all? And what are you really looking for?

It's questions like these that keep me resisting new technologies for as long as possible. I didn't trade in my manual typewriter for a computer until 1999, and we resisted the Tivo until a couple of months ago. The utility of these inventions was always obvious to me; however, it just takes me years to find a reason to want something.

This is also why I never went to college. Browsing (appropriately) through the course catalogs - so many expensive goodies! - it seemed rediculous to invest in classes before I knew what I wanted them for. Sad (?) to say, I still don't.

Posted by: Nate on March 31, 2005 07:25 PM

As an aging preppy-dresser set in his ways I seldom (well, never) pay attention to any publication dealing with men's clothing aside from the Jos. Bank catalog. Ditto gadgety stuff a la Sharper Image, not to mention Financial Times ads for Swiss watches selling for as much as my Chrysler 300 (which not only has a clock, but does other useful stuff). So I'm not familiar with Cargo.

But I do know Forbes FYI, a bi-monthly that gets sent to Forbes magazine subscribers. When it first came out, I simply couldn't make sense of it. The editorial content seemed superfical with no real organizing theme. But there were lots of ads for "lifestyle" thingies such as those fancy watches and uber-fancy vacation venues. Under current editor Christopher Buckley (son of William F., writer of humor novels) its nature is more clear. The editorial hole seems even smaller, but it and those ads all deal with lifestyle goodies that maybe Steves Forbes himself might have to buy on time.

Speaking of Forbes, the mag got a redesign a couple years back, and they changed typography and layout so as to blur the visual distiction between editorial and advertising. I hate that: I like to be able to tell what's what at a glance.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 31, 2005 08:38 PM

..."blur the visual distinction between editorial and advertising".

The old carny bait and switch executed via the glossy page.

Pisses me off too, Donald.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on March 31, 2005 10:56 PM

Am I the only person who really doesn't view the Sixties as much of a repository of idealism? I knew lots of self-righteous people during the Sixties, and lots of people who parroted certain half-baked political ideas, but very, very few people who really struck me at the time as, um, idealistic (and the ones that did strike me as idealistic were mostly in the Boy Scouts). I mean, drug, sex, avoiding the much of that strikes you as motivated by idealism, exactly? (Well, if you except the ideal of self-indulgence, anyway)? If one excepts the people who were active in the Civil Rights movement (approximately one tenth of one percent of the Counterculture, if that), everybody else seemed to have pretty much a "what's in it for me?" attitude. And the whole counterculture thing sort of burped, lost buoyancy, and sank about five minutes after the draft was abolished.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 31, 2005 11:07 PM

I was going to say, reading that comment, that I'm old and cynical, but as I recall, I thought exactly the same thing at the time. Maybe I've just always been cynical.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 31, 2005 11:10 PM

re: the databasification of society :D

you might consult lev manovich's daatabase as symbolic form:


Posted by: snacknuts on March 31, 2005 11:12 PM

" much of that strikes you as motivated by idealism, exactly?"

Not to mention John-and -Yoko's going to bed for peace in Amsterdam and Toronto...

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 31, 2005 11:47 PM

re: " These days, the hippie ethos -- 'think your own thoughts, and thereby become who you are' -- has morphed into 'buy whatever you want -- that's who you are.' "

that's stepping perilously close to david brooks' schtick :D

i think it's evolved more into techno-utopian reciprocal libertarian communitarianism, eg exemplified by the eric raymond (ESR) and richard stallman (RMS) split :D and to a lesser extent (but more visible!) seen in the apple versus pc ethos' (pl?) that's recently resurged after laying dormant...

also see's cool tool & wired's test :D


Posted by: snacknuts on March 31, 2005 11:56 PM

Friedrich -- Sixties idealism and the Sixties in general is an extremely rich topic area and might make interesting grist for a "Blowhards Symposium" whereby the core Blowhard crew plus Faithful Readers who were at least of high school age during that era (actually, from mid-1964 to perhaps 1975 when Saigon fell) could contribute their experiences and reflections.

I turned 21 just in time (less than a week actually) before thw 1960 election and idealistically cast my first presidential vote for JFK. At the time, I knew I'd be in my 20s during the coming decade and had exaggerated hopes that it would be a wonderful time to be alive. Of course I was greatly disappointed and loathed the period 1964-75 for many reasons.

You are right about the effect of the ending of the draft. I have an interesting tale of the aftereffect of the Kent State shootings at the University of Washington, but I'll save that for the putative symposium or some other posting.

Whaddaya say, Michael?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 1, 2005 01:05 AM

"Not to mention John-and -Yoko's going to bed for peace in Amsterdam and Toronto..."

Yeah, I always thought the real meaning of that was "Look at me! I'm a rich white man sitting on my ass doing nothing while people die. And I'm flaunting it."

Posted by: lindsey on April 1, 2005 02:01 AM

Your description of "Cargo" reminds me of nothing so much as the various inhouse airline magazines. I don't think these are a new phenomenon; I seem to recall seeing them on airline flights in the '70s. Advertising, advice on buying products featured by advertisers, and advertising poorly disguised as articles.

It takes a certain sort of desperation to actually read these. As you might surmise from the above, I have been acquainted with this sort of desperation. Now I make sure to carry far too many books for any possible combination of flight and delays.

ps. While looking for names for these sorts of magazines, I found that there is an organization (the World Airline Entertainment Association) that gives awards for "excellence in inflight entertainment". (Who knew?) FWIW, the most recent Avion Award for the best inflight magazine apparently went to Air Canada.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 1, 2005 02:24 PM

George -- How could I have forgotten The Well? Thanks for the reminder. I'm amazed it still exists. I wonder what need there is for it still. Did you ever try it out? Or that NYC-Well-wannabe? What was it called? I found both 'way too clubby and inside for my tastes. Being a freelancer on the web suits me much better.

John -- Scary! I confess that I always liked "Small is Beautiful" (and had a big soft spot for Gregory Bateson too). I wonder if a fun posting might be made out of "zany '60s stuff we enjoyed and maybe even learned from anyway."

Nate -- That's a great way of putting it. I remember having a discussion once with someone who was going on about how great word processors are. (And they are, I agree!) I mentioned that it might not hurt to have something to say in addition to having the machine. And the guy gave me the strangest look ... It was like I was missing the whole point. I wonder if the "reason for doing it" question has become irrelevant ...

Donald -- I'm old enough to find many of the new media innovations and tendencies annoying myself. A lot of it seems to be churn for the sake of nothing but churn. Keep it new, striking, different! Stand out! And meanwhile I wish they'd cool it. I like a lot of the old understandings: clarity of presentation, clear hierarchies, etc. I wonder what people in their 80s, say, make of the direction things are taking. That's a great and interesting p-o-v on the '60s, and a great Symposium suggestion too. Any ideas about how to execute it?

Pattie -- It sometimes seems like the whole country has turned into a big, electronic bazaar, doesn't it? Full of flashing lights and carny barkers. I suppose it's someone's idea of fun. Or are we all just being hoodwinked?

FvB -- Oooh, that's harsh. But, like you, I experienced the '60s much more cynically than I guess we were supposed to have. I cut the WEC and Stewart Brand a little slack, I'm not sure why. Brand at least wrote a really fabulous book about buildings and architecture: How Buildings Learn. (It's on my personal "essential reading" list.) So he at least is on my good side.

Snacknuts -- Excellent links, many thanks. You sound like your mind runs along these tracks too! The Lev stuff is particularly good. We've gabbed about such matter a big on this blog too -- the new forms books and movies are taking, the particular properties of the digital image, etc. If you're curious, you'll find some of those postings in the "Best-Of" bar at the top of the blog. Do you find David Brooks totally off-target? I'm not a fan, but when I do pay attention I'm often surprised by what a shrewd pop sociologist he can be.

Lindsey -- You cynic!

Doug -- I've gotten fascinated by in-flight mags and catalogs too. And how about those in-flight catalogs that are meta-catalogs, catalogs-of-catalogs - the ones that feature selecctions from Sharper Image, J. Crew, and those outfits that sell motivational posters? Makes the mind boggle, or at least mine does. Some of the in-flight mags have been pretty good, or at least have had good stretches. "Excellence in in-flight entertainment" -- who knew? Priceless. I'd love to attend their annual convention. I wonder what they talk about?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2005 06:53 PM

Echo -- that's what the NYC Well-wannabe online-community was. Or is still, for all I know.

Relieved that my memory hasn't completely eroded ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2005 07:01 PM

Echo was founded by Stacy Horn (b. 1956) with whom I sang in the Grace Church Choral Society. She is obsessed with graveyards and other necro-hangouts, and has written a couple of execrable personal memoirs.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 1, 2005 07:30 PM

What I always found fascinating about Whole Earth Catalog was its political heterodoxy and its embrace of "alternative capitalism" (as opposed to any variant of Marxism or socialism) combined of course with a remarkable earnestness that it always seemed to me was deeply at odds with the prevalent cynical strain that was part of the "counterculture" of the sixties and seventies. In other words, the faddishly leftist college professor who became such a stock figure from the seventies onward has nothing, absolutely nothing, in common with the spirit of the WEC. In this respect, the Catalog reflected the personality of Stewart Brand, an enormously intriguing figure with whom most of us became familiar initially through "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which was one of my favorite books as a teenager. ("LSD causes chromosome damage? Brain damage is what we were after. Chromosome damage is just icing on the cake!")

The WEC began by promoting the ideas of Bucky Fuller, another of my teenage fascinations, and also of Marshall McLuhan. Fuller exerted an appeal among many conservatives, like Hugh Kenner, who wrote a fascinating book on Fuller, and also Guy Davenport. And McLuhan was, as few people seem to realize, a deeply conservative Roman Catholic (and in my opinion a deeply little-understood thinker, a subject for another day). In succeeding editions of the WEC, the hero roster altered somewhat to include Gregory Bateson (a not at all uninteresting character) and, especially, Chris Alexander, whom many of us first encountered throught the WEC. Jane Jacobs also rated high in the WEC universe, as did free-market thinkers like Milton Friedman, who was at least as characteristc a WEC-promoted figure as Schumacher.

A later edition still of the WEC gave spirited recommendations of readings across the political spectrum and even commended publications like National Review and the super-paleo-con Chronicles.

As Brand removed himself from the running of the enterprise, Kevin Kelly, a born-again Christian, took over, and lately sang the praises of Costco. Somehow not all of this squares with the hippie-dippy reputation of the WEC enterprise.

Brand himself wrote a book on architecture, "How Buildings Learn," that I think is an essential read. More recently, Brand & co.'s Global Business Network (GBN) determined that Jane Jacobs's "Systems of Survival" was one of the essential books of our time, which indeed it is.

The WEC is alive and well in the form of the GBN and Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools site. As for the Well (and Echo), I think they presaged the blog phenomenon to a certain extent.

Finally, I think the WEC helped to create the kind of intellectual environment in which Michael Blowhard, say, can blog one day about Jim Kalb, say, and the next day (or month or whatever) provide an analysis of a blowjob scene in "Brown Bunny." The remarkable and refreshing and enlivening heterodoxy of thought and politics of sites like 2Blowhards (and many others) was presaged and perhaps even made possible by the WEC, which requires a long chapter in the intellectual history of the late 20th century.


Posted by: Francis Morrone on April 2, 2005 01:42 AM

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