Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stewart Brand

Children of the Lens

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During World War II, as the use of radar became widespread in battle, the U.S. Navy introduced the Combat Information Center, a shipboard tactical room with maps, consoles, and screens of the kind that we’ve all seen in television and the movies. At the time, though, it was like something out of science fiction, and in fact, back in 1939, E.E. “Doc” Smith had described a very similar display in the serial Gray Lensman:

Red lights are fleets already in motion…Greens are fleets still at their bases. Ambers are the planets the greens took off from…The white star is us, the Directrix. That violet cross way over there is Jalte’s planet, our first objective. The pink comets are our free planets, their tails showing their intrinsic velocities.

After the war, in a letter dated June 11, 1947, the editor John W. Campbell told Smith that the similarity was more than just a coincidence. Claiming to have been approached “unofficially, and in confidence” by a naval officer who played an important role in developing the C.I.C., Campbell said:

The entire setup was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communications channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique, and proved how advantageous it could be…Sitting in Michigan, some years before Pearl Harbor, you played a large share in the greatest and most decisive naval action of the recent war!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. The naval officer in question, Cal Laning, was indeed a science fiction fan—he was close friends with Robert A. Heinlein—but any resemblance to the Directrix was coincidental, or, at best, an instance of convergence as fiction and reality addressed the same set of problems. (An excellent analysis of the situation can be found in Ed Wysocki’s very useful book An Astounding War.)

If Campbell was tempted to overstate Smith’s influence, this isn’t surprising—the editor was disappointed that science fiction hadn’t played the role that he had envisioned for it in the war, and this wasn’t the first or last time that he would gently exaggerate it. Fifteen years later, however, Smith’s fiction had a profound impact on a very different field. In 1962, Steve Russell of M.I.T. developed Spacewar, the first video game to be played on more than one computer, with two spaceships dueling with torpedoes in the gravity well of a star. In an article for Rolling Stone written by my hero Stewart Brand, Russell recalled:

We had this brand new PDP-1…It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display…Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships…

I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.

The “somebody” whom he mentions was Marvin Minsky, another science fiction fan, and Russell’s collaborator Martin Graetz elsewhere cited Smith’s earlier Skylark series as an influence on the game.

But the really strange thing is that Campbell, who had been eager to claim credit for Smith when it came to the C.I.C., never made this connection in print, at least not as far as I know, although he was hugely interested in Spacewar. In the July 1971 issue of Analog, he published an article on the game by Albert W. Kuhfeld, who had developed a variation of it at the University of Minnesota. Campbell wrote in his introductory note:

For nearly a dozen years I’ve been trying to get an article on the remarkable educational game invented at M.I.T. It’s a great game, involving genuine skill in solving velocity and angular relation problems—but I’m afraid it will never be widely popular. The playing “board” costs about a quarter of a megabuck!

Taken literally, the statement “nearly a dozen years” implies that the editor heard about Spacewar before it existed, but the evidence legitimately implies that he learned of it almost at once. Kuhfeld writes: “Although it uses a computer to handle orbital mechanics, physicists and mathematicians have no great playing advantage—John Campbell’s seventeen-year-old daughter beat her M.I.T. student-instructor on her third try—and thereafter.” Campbell’s daughter was born in 1945, which squares nicely with a visit around the time of the game’s first appearance. It isn’t implausible that Campbell would have seen and heard about it immediately—he had been close to the computer labs at Harvard and M.I.T. since the early fifties, and he made a point of dropping by once a year. If the Lensman series, the last three installments of which he published, had really been an influence on Spacewar, it seems inconceivable that nobody would have told him. For some reason, however, Campbell, who cheerfully promoted the genre’s impact on everything from the atomic bomb to the moon landing, didn’t seize the opportunity to do the same for video games, in an article that he badly wanted to publish. (In a letter to the manufacturers of the PDP-1, whom he had approached unsuccessfully for a writeup, he wrote: “I’ve tried for years to get a story on Spacewar, and I’ve repeatedly had people promise one…and not deliver.”)

So why didn’t he talk about it? The obvious answer is that he didn’t realize that Spacewar, which he thought would “never be widely popular,” was anything more than a curiosity, and if he had lived for another decade—he died just a few months after the article came out—he would have pushed the genre’s connection to video games as insistently as he did anything else. But there might have been another factor at play. For clues, we can turn to the article in Rolling Stone, in which Brand visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Annie Leibovitz, which is something that I wish I could have seen. Brand opens with the statement that computers are coming to the people, and he adds: “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” It’s a revealing comparison, and it indicates the extent to which the computing movement was moving away from everything that Campbell represented. A description of the group’s offices at Stanford includes a detail that, if Campbell had read it, would only have added insult to injury:

Posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer printout photos of girlfriends…and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script—the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

In the decade since the editor first encountered Spacewar, a lot had changed, and Campbell might have been reluctant to take much credit for it. The Analog article, which Brand mentions, saw the game as a way to teach people about orbital mechanics; Rolling Stone recognized it as a leading indicator of a development that was about to change the world. And even if he had lived, there might not have been room for Campbell. As Brand concludes:

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive…It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

The Book of McBees

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McBee cards

A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published an intriguing profile of Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, a librarian and food historian engaged in a decades-long attempt to catalog all the world’s recipes in a single database. The whole article—written appropriately enough, as we’ll soon find, by Bee Wilson—is fascinating, but this was the part that caught my eye:

In the 1970s Wheaton discovered McBee cards. They were a primitive data system, in which different pieces of information could be encoded by punching holes to designate broad categories (date, gender, country). “After the cards are properly punched, whole packs of them can be searched by running a knitting needle through the desired hole in the pack and lifting it up,” Wheaton explained in a talk last summer at a food symposium held at Oxford. “When, if one is lucky, gems of information will drop out.” McBee cards had obvious limitations, however. “My categories kept expanding, and the cards did not.” Wheaton tried to improve the cards by adding color-coded edges, but then she ran out of colors.

I was immediately captivated by the idea, and I soon found another article on the subject by Kevin Kelly, of Wired and Cool Tools fame. Back in the day, McBee cards came perforated on every edge by tiny holes, and the user employed a special tool to cut a notch—associated with a particular category—that allowed a card to fall out of the deck when the rest of the cards were skewered together. Given more than one needle, or successive selections, you had the equivalent of logical and and logical or functions. Kelly notes that the cards, sold under the brand name Indecks, were used to create the database of items at The Whole Earth Catalog, in which Stewart Brand wrote:

What do you have a lot of? Students, subscribers, notes, books, records, clients, projects? Once you’re past fifty or one hundred of whatever, it’s tough to keep track, time to externalize your store and retrieve system. One handy method this side of a high-rent computer is Indecks. It’s funky and functional: cards with a lot of holes in the edges, a long blunt needle, and a notcher. Run the needle through a hole in a bunch of cards, lift, and the cards notched in that hole don’t rise; they fall out. So you don’t have to keep the cards in order. You can sort them by feature, number, alphabetically or whatever; just poke, fan, lift and catch…They’ve meant the difference [at the Catalog] between partial and complete insanity.

McBee card and notcher

Reading over these descriptions, I began to wonder whether McBee cards would be useful as a writing tool, as a replacement or supplement to the index cards that many writers accumulate in such quantities. In some ways, a standard corkboard or separate stacks of conventional cards might seem preferable: they provide a necessary visual overview of the whole, rather than a single opaque deck, and the cards can be more easily recategorized and rearranged. (You can’t unnotch a McBee card.) But the McBee system offers some enticing advantages. For one thing, it’s portable: you can collapse the piles of cards that cover your desk into one rubber-banded deck, shuffle it, throw it into a backpack, and then easily restore the original order. Cards can also be sorted into more than one category, which is a genuinely useful feature. Let’s say you’re writing a novel like The Icon Thief, with multiple points of view, locations, and themes. Using the McBee system and some appropriate categories, you can quickly find all the scenes in which Maddy Blume appears, or the scenes set at Archvadze’s mansion, or the scenes in which the characters discuss the Rosicrucians—as well as any combination of the above. Instead of linearly categorizing each card only by where it appears in the book, you can “stack” cards across multiple dimensions with nothing but the thrust of a few needles. And I suspect that this method would yield connections and patterns that wouldn’t otherwise be visible.

Obviously, you can do much the same with a database or spreadsheet. But the tactile use of cards, as I’ve said elsewhere, confers other advantages: writing on physical cards with ink and manipulating them with your hands seems to yield insights and surprises that don’t appear when everything is in digital form. As a result, I’m seriously considering using McBee cards for my next big project—assuming that I can get my hands on some. As Kelly points out, there are “no sellers on eBay, no fan sites, no collector sites, no historical web pages, and no evidence that anyone is still using them. They are gone. Blasted out by the first computers.” But there might still be a place for them. They’d be particularly useful in applications in which the categories are clearly defined, as with Wheaton’s recipes, or with the bird or tree identification decks that are still gathering dust somewhere. Users could combine the easy searchability of a database with the rougher, more intuitive benefits that come from shuffling and stacking. (They’d also be a fantastic tool for tabletop games.) At least one writer has described making a deck at home, but the process seems unnecessarily laborious. They seem ideally suited for a modest Kickstarter campaign: all you’d need was a machine for punching the perforations, a supply of notching tools and knitting needles, and the cards themselves, presumably in colors and patterns cute enough to appeal to the hipster crowd. It’s a razor and blades model: once you sell someone a set, you can keep selling them the replacement decks, or starter kits with templates for recipes or other standard uses. If anyone reading this is an entrepreneur looking for an idea, consider this a freebie. I’d buy one in a second, and for a lot of other writers, I think they’d be the bee’s knees.

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2015 at 8:55 am

My great books #8: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his coauthors didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to the next president to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the work, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

My great books #6: The Whole Earth Catalog

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The Whole Earth Catalog—or, as Steve Jobs famously called it, “Google in book form”—was a product of a time and place that is close to my heart: the Bay Area of the late sixties and early seventies, centered in particular on Berkeley and Sausalito. Stewart Brand conceived of it as a book, modeled on the L.L. Bean catalog, that would provide resources for exploring a range of issues that remain relevant today, notably sustainable living, simplicity, and ecology in its original sense, which spans everything from planetary environmentalism to the humblest forms of home economics. In its book recommendations, accompanied by a running commentary that articulated an entire theory of civilization, it gave readers the tools to investigate space exploration, personal computing, art, literature, anthropology, architecture, health, backpacking, mysticism, and much more. As a work that unfolds endlessly onto others, it’s been the most influential book in my life by far. Of the five titles that I mentioned here last week, I owe my discovery of three of them to browsing in the Catalog, while a fourth, The Complete Walker, features prominently in its pages. (Strangely enough, Brand and his colleagues never seem to have taken any notice of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which played much the same role in the seventeenth century that the Catalog did in the twentieth, as a kind of clearinghouse of ideas and excerpts for curious readers.)

Taken simply as a guide to the world’s greatest bookstore, it’s an essential part of anyone’s reading life. (The edition to get is The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which is so massive and packed with information that leafing through its pages feels like an adventure in itself.) But its larger vision is what lingers. The Catalog is both a guide to good reading and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. In its physical format, with double spreads on everything from computers to ceramics, it naturally emphasizes the connections between disciplines, and the result is an atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. Its intended readers, both then and now, are resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of enabling choices; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next. Browsing through it even for a few minutes is enough to rekindle your belief in serendipity and the possibilities that the world presents, and although it has inspired a number of worthy successors, notably Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, the original remains irreplaceable. It turned me, for better or worse, into a generalist. And it’s still the model I try to follow whenever I wonder what my life should be.

Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

Four ways of looking at simplicity

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Carlos Castaneda

A man of knowledge needed frugality because the majority of the obligatory acts [for acquiring knowledge] dealt with instances or with elements that were either outside the boundaries of ordinary everyday life, or were not customary in ordinary activity, and the man who had to act in accordance with them needed an extraordinary effort every time he took action. It was implicit that one could have been capable of such an extraordinary effort only by being frugal with every other activity that did not deal directly with such predetermined actions.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Stewart Brand

Personally I don’t like the term [voluntary simplicity]…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

Stewart Brand, The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition. Confucius says rightly,

I know why men do not walk in the Way: the clever go beyond it, the stupid do not reach to it. I know why men do not understand the Way: the virtuous exceed it, the vicious fall below it.

But actually the sweetness and light of the Way of the Mean comes from complete, absolute poverty, for as Milton says in Samson Agonistes,

What boots it at one gate to make defense,
And at another let in the foe?

Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.

R.H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Cool tools and hot ideas

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

In 1968, in a garage in Menlo Park, California, a remarkable publication was born. It was laid out with an IBM Selectric typewriter and a Polaroid industrial camera, in an office furnished with scrap doors and plywood, and printed cheaply on rough paper. Modeled after the L.L. Bean catalog, it opened with Buckminster Fuller, ended with the I Ching, and included listings for portable sawmills, kits for geodesic domes, and books on everything from astronomy to beekeeping to graphic design, interspersed with a running commentary that cheerfully articulated an entire theory of civilization. The result was the original manual of soft innovation, a celebration of human ingenuity that sold millions of copies while retaining an endearing funkiness, and it profoundly influenced subcultures as different as the environmental movement and Silicon Valley. As I’ve said before, the Whole Earth Catalog is both a guide to good reading and living and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. Its intended readers, both then and now, are ambitious, but resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of greater personal freedom; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Catalog founder Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next.

And it had an enormous impact on my own life. I grew up in the Bay Area, not far from where the Catalog was born, and I’ve been fascinated by it for over twenty years. Leafing through its oversized pages was like browsing through the world’s greatest bookstore, and as I photocopied my favorite sections and slowly acquired the works it recommended, it subtly guided my own reading and thinking. In its physical format, with its double spreads on subjects from computers to ceramics, it emphasized the connections between disciplines, and the result was a kind of atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. I became a novelist because it seemed like the best way of living as a generalist, tackling big concepts, and studying larger patterns. It provided me with an alternative curriculum that took up where my university education left off, an array of tools for addressing my own personal and professional challenges. Looking at my bookshelves now, the number of books whose presence in my life I owe to the Catalog is staggering: A Pattern Language, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, On Growth and Form, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, and countless others.

Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly

The Catalog has been out of print for a long time, and although the older editions are still available in PDF form online, I’ve often wished for an updated version that could survey the range of books and tools that have appeared in the fifteen years since the last installment was published. Much to my delight, I’ve recently discovered that such a work exists, in a somewhat different form. Kevin Kelly, a former Brand protégé who later became the executive editor of Wired, once wrote: “It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.” It seems that Kelly has slightly modified his point of view, because last year he released Cool Tools, an oversized, self-published overview of hardware, gadgets, books, and software that comes as close as anything in decades to recapturing the spirit of the Catalog itself. Cool Tools originally appeared as a series of reviews on Kelly’s blog, but in book form, it gains a critical sense of serendipity: you’re constantly exposed to ideas that you never knew you needed. I’ve been browsing through it happily for days, and I’ve already found countless books that I can’t believe I didn’t know about before: Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, Richard D. Pepperman’s The Eye is Quicker, James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, and many more.

I can quibble with Cool Tools in small ways. Personally, I’d prefer to see more books and fewer gadgets, and I especially wish that Kelly hadn’t confined himself to works that were still in print: some of the most exciting, interesting ideas can be found in authors that have fallen off the radar, and with used copies so easily accessible online, there’s no reason not to point readers in their direction. And we get only glimpses of the overarching philosophy of life that was so great a part of the original Catalog‘s appeal. But I’m still profoundly grateful that it exists. It serves as a kind of sanity check, or a course correction, and I’m gratified whenever I see something in its pages that I’ve independently discovered on my own. My favorite entry may be for the Honda Fit, my own first car, because it sits next to a parallel entry for the blue Volvo 240 station wagon—”the cheapest reliable used car”—that my parents owned when I was growing up in the East Bay. I spent a lot of time in both vehicles, which serves as a reminder that who I am and what I might become is inextricably tied into the culture from which the Catalog emerged. Cool Tools probably won’t have the cultural impact of its predecessors, but it’s going to change more than a few lives, especially if it falls into the hands of bright, curious kids. And that’s more than enough.

Written by nevalalee

April 21, 2014 at 9:39 am

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