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Anniversaries to come: Prolog

I sit at my editor's window watching deer eating fallen rosehips on the disabled-access ramp to our office. Last night, a homeless woman told Board member Diana Hadley about poachers who were roaming Falkirk Park and smothering deer with plastic bags. I keep track of the small herd and only the bucks may be gone. In this urban fringe, they could have wandered anywhere. But, to Sonya, being homeless and a bit possessed, poaching is a gut metaphor: the world holds ominous disharmonies. Obtaining food is dangerous. She might become dangerous. Events are veering out of control.

In 1968, a similar gut feeling—the world is one holy mess—rumbled in neighborhoods. Institutions—from family to business to government—seemed out-of-date, ignorant, muddling along, responding without skill, spewing anger. Czech students firebombed Soviet tanks. Mexican federates, French gendarmes, and German politzei killed their nations' students. The Tet offensive media coverage (or lack of coverage) challenged the veracity of the American government and media. Nixon became President after riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy stunned. With so much death so close to home, taken-for-granted assumptions about how our nation-state operates, organizes itself, and lives with diversity had to be re-thought. How edited are information flows? Just what is democracy? What we knew and what we had learned did not seem very useful.

In this same year, Stewart Brand and a small group of cohorts published the first Whole Earth Catalog. In retrospect, Whole Earth was not the only small group dreaming up new media. Sesame Street and Sixty Minutes also started in 1968. And, at the Stanford Research Institute, Doug Engelbart and his friends assembled the first mouse and computer interface, the embryo of the Web.

What was unique to the Catalog was how it fed a deep hunger in America—a hunger to know new stuff not taught in schools. The Catalog loaded up on interesting info and, contrary to the possessive attitudes of acade-mia, offered to share as much information and knowledge as it could, and welcomed any person to send in more. Later, Stewart would coin the phrase: "Information wants to be free." To be interesting, a tool or book had to answer two simple questions: Was it the best around? Was it useful to living? Compared to standard practices among existing publications, to review only excellent stuff, and let the poor stuff die its own death, was radical.

Readers have told and retold their first encounters with the Catalog. Most readers still assume that the first Catalog they discovered was the first edition and they still have it. But, usually it's a second or tenth edition. We've only been able to find two copies of the 1968 edition: one owned by J. Baldwin and the other by Lloyd Kahn. That's a major reason why we've reprinted the real first edition here. The impact of first encounter (in memory, at least) was a sigh of relief. Learning is not for grades. Mistakes are a fine part of learning. The doctor doesn't always have to be the authority. You can help yourself heal. Sometimes it's best to think not what your philosophy is, but how what you think or feel fits into a bigger, more voluminous system: a shelter in its environment, an ecology of mind, a new techno-tool in a nation's economy. Through the Catalog, livelihood became clearly differentiated from career; money turned into a tool, not an end in itself. It's hard to conjure up how foreign these simple thoughts appeared in 1968.

Whole Earth refused to become one more pedantic lecturer or one more ideologue for the single path. In the fruitful tradition of American magazines that had been forums for the debates over slavery or women's votes, Whole Earth presented a contest of ideas. Equal page space to those for or against space colonies; sex lite or sex bold; the metric or English system; the empowering or disempowering impacts of TV and computers; global or local printing of money; Aldo Leopold and Herman Kahn. By allowing for openness, Stewart and the staff created a sense of belonging for readers (who were also participants) in "unedited" conversations found nowhere else.

Readers couldn't quite figure the first edition out. On the cover, our planet floated on an unreal homogeneous black background. Inside, is this a Farmer's Almanac! An LL Bean Catalog7. Not since the Jeffersonian period had any catalog published a mix of knowledge from both rural and urban settlements. In the next few editions, it added wilderness. Rural know-how (how to do stuff) collaged with adventurous intellect.

Other media reported the news. Whole Earth scouted the fringes and reported mindful and manual experiments, books, and tools that might alter future large-scale history. The Gaia hypothesis, voluntary simplicity, virtual communities, negawatts, watershed restoration, hacking computer codes, etc. etc. People, anywhere, trying stuff out. Some believed we were prophets.

But, the first Catalog shunned the business of prophesy. In 1968, gay/lesbian acceptance, single-parent families, industrial poisons, global teenagers, holistic health, nanotechnology, soybean products as an alternative to meat, biotechnology, bioregions, and cultural survival had not yet registered clearly even on Whole Earth's antennas. The Catalog had to wait to become an active, participatory network with passionate outside contributors before these livelihoods and technologies could saunter front and center.

To celebrate, we have combined the first Catalog with the winter issue of Whole Earth (the magazine some still call CoEvolution Quarterly). Here are about forty short essays by friends. It's a continuation of the old theme: what's a difference that might most make a difference, a difference close to your heart or mind?

Today, our readership contemplates a boastful techno-economic system which appears to ignore thermodynamics, if not the entire configuration of the planet's intricate webbing. Once again, students, governments, workers, and citizens wonder if they could be hit by a drunken world spinning out-of-control. And Whole Earth's talents still seem robust and resilient (to use the new lingo of ecology) in navigating through contemporary history. Experimental and fun; a scout for depth and fringes; intimate and pragmatic; soulful but not sentimental; a sleuth of intelligent crafting; open to new voices; and, thank you, a community of goodwill.