The Last Whole Earth Catalog

Democratization of information has taken many forms over the last couple centuries, but none more dramatic than the digital revolution we’ve been witness to. And the internet is so expansive in its content and reach, it’s easy to forget how, in the not-too-distant past, people had to work substantially harder to get access to the information they sought out. And by work hard, I mean stand up from their desk, detach their grey matter from the digital control module and actually go out into the world. Did the cynicism come through okay in that last sentence?

An easy line to draw in this revolution is between traditional, historic reference guides in print form (think, encyclopedias) and similar digital information troves we all flock to now (think, Wiki-anything). My first few experiences with the world wide web were just exactly that; waiting in line for my crack at one of two computers crammed into a utility closet in my high school’s library, pecking away at the keys in search of information to support some English class research paper I put off until the last minute and probably got a shitty grade on. Such is life.

But take a step back and there’s a whole slew of information we used to have to work for before the internet tapped us on the shoulder and got us hooked on the sweet nectar of convenience. And yes, a lot can be said for immediate, low-cost access to information most of us have the pleasure of dialing up on our smart phones, but consider this: what have we sacrificed in terms of our own personal growth, knowledge and reward by not having to work as hard to seek something out?

This question has been eating at me recently, in no small part because I’ve found myself going back to older, print forms of reference guides for a number of reasons. And I’ll be the first to admit – part of this (a big part in fact) is the experience. I’d much rather flip through a large format book, gleaning information from the pages within, than click through search results on my computer with all kinds of unrelated bullshit on the page fighting for my attention. But I’ve also found that certain bits of information I’m seeking either don’t exist online or exist in a format that, well, just is a total headache to use in a lot of cases.

First example is a personal favorite of mine. Steve Jobs called it, “Sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.” My father in law called it, “The Stoner’s Bible.” But for the general public, it’s known as The Last Whole Earth Catalog (WEC).

This dense, oversized catalog had a somewhat short run, available as successive issues only from 1968 – 1972. But despite that, WEC had a dramatic impact on accessibility of information for people interested in the counter-culture movement, grouping everything those freewheeling hippies needed to know about living a self-sufficient lifestyle, all within one tome. This catalog has sections dedicated to almost every aspect of human life, with a distinct DIY approach. From the straightforward sections offering information regarding geodesic domes and other built structures, farming techniques and power generation to the more obscure chapters outlining mathematically inspired artwork and building your own instrument amplifiers, the WEC touched on almost every aspect of human existence one could imagine.

The thing I find beautiful about these catalogs, aside from the visually rich layouts and witty charm captured within its prose, is that the real information people are searching isn’t actually within its pages. Instead, The Whole Earth Catalog points the reader towards a handful of other books, guides, manuals and tool companies to continue their search for specific information. This actually creates a reference guide that is infinitely more useful because it acts as a compass, pointing the reader directly toward the end goal without using valuable page space to spell everything out for them.

The second reference guide I’ll offer up is a new addition to my own personal library, but one that has already paid itself off ten-fold. The tried-and-true mechanics Service Manual for a late 70’s Saab model 99. Automobiles are obviously complex machines, so when it comes to describing a system in great detail, nothing holds a candle to these service manuals. The level of detail within the imagery and copy is beyond impressive, and show it to anyone younger than 30 and they seriously can’t believe a human being took the time to draw each pen and ink illustration by hand.

Think about that example for a second. In just a couple decades, we’ve managed to drastically reduce the time it takes to create a three-dimensional replica of anything, but at the same time have sacrificed some of the artistic value that used to exist in those drawings. I remember listening to a college professor of mine explain drafting, by hand, every technical model of every product he had designed as a professional up until the late 90’s.

But that footnote aside, look up information online for even simple procedures and it’s like wading through a shit swamp of incomplete instructions and lousy advice. But despite this, I’m sure there are hundreds of people at this exact moment with their laptop open, balancing that hunk of aluminum, silica and glass precariously on the edge of their hood, scrolling through how-to videos and DIY hack sites while trying to decipher just how the hell they’re going to swap out that timing belt. I wonder, do many of these people even realize a better option like old service manuals even exists? (This is, of course, assuming these people have older vehicles and actually work on it themselves).

Stepping off my soapbox, I’ll leave you with this parting thought: the future holds many promises of progress, but is what’s new always best? Do we as a population sometimes discard something that is a great, time-tested solution at the first promise of something better, even if it’s unproven?