Whole Earth Index by Barry Threw & others

The kind of agglutinative, fisheye, Golden Record approach of The Whole Earth Catalog is probably impossible in the presence of the internet, which does more freely with hypertext what WEC did on paper. And it was a powerful influence on the ethos (and esthetic) of the early to middle internet. But because of its eclecticism, it’s hard to say what WEC was or what it did to our culture. People certainly try. Some of them explain it as a sort of Gandalf-like supernatural catalyst of good in the world; others are certain that it embodied a hippie-to-yuppie pipeline that debased the highest ideals of the ’60s counterculture into smug consumerism. I think it was both those things and at least a few others as well. That’s why it’s still interesting (and not merely important) two generations later.

Some contradictions in the project, brilliantly resolved or tragically un-, are visible from across the room. They’re in the layout. The Arts and Crafts movement had many children, and The Whole Earth Catalog seems to be throwing a family reunion. The text type is Adrian Frutiger’s Univers, a postwar revision of the stark sans fonts of the neue typographie of Weimar Germany – the ink form of the Bauhaus. Stylistically, the neue typographie’s asymmetric, diagrammatic pages, full of photos and whitespace, were the opposite of what the Doves and Kelmscott Presses were doing. But philosophically, it was a faithful extension of the same core ideas. William Morris was a primary influence on Walter Gropius. Taking them as opposites is like thinking of Ursula K. Le Guin as Tolkien’s opposite because she mentioned spaceships: the connection is much stronger than the surface difference. Morris probably would have made a sound like a stew boiling over if he’d seen Univers, but its underlying ideals of beauty in utility, attention to actual handcraft, and a widely useful product that is neither disposable nor luxurious – these are squarely Arts and Crafts motivations.

And then the titling typeface is Windsor, the one famous for its a. I can’t say for sure, but I think this use on the cover of The Whole Earth Catalog is what gave it legs through the ’70s. Windsor’s creation is obscure. It’s usually credited to Eleisha Pechey, but he died in 1902 and it was released in ’04 or ’05, so there’s an argument that it was mostly done by others in his workshop. It sits a third of the way from the Arts and Crafts Golden Type toward the Art Nouveau Böcklin. It’s about as flowing as roman letterforms can get while plausibly denying that the wiggles are just for the sake of wiggles. (J. T. Welsch’s summary covers Windsor’s origin mystery; on its use today, see Bethany Heck’s very polite technical review and Sophie Kemp’s broader take.) Windsor’s style is plainly influenced by Arts and Crafts, even if Univers is the closer child philosophically. It’s a mechanical thing in a pseudo-handmade form.

On the pages of The Whole Earth Catalog, divergent branches of Arts and Crafts thought, now almost mutually unintelligible, are pulled back together. It is in fact pretty whole. It’s ugly, in my opinion, but it’s good design. As design and as writing it has the kind of headlong commitment to purpose that forgives whole categories of problems at once. And there is much to be forgiven here: in places, certainly more than I can stand. You could take some scissors through this archive and make quite a scrapbook of things no one should ever have written.

Well, my first reaction here – what got me thinking about William Morris – was: Wow, that Univers looks really square. Its first connotation for me is a kind of postwar American ideal of manly pragmatism. It’s homebuilt aircraft ads in Popular mechanics, the covers of Heinlein paperbacks, and disposing of your used motor oil in a hole in the yard. Buffalo plaid shirts and so on. But that squareness was not a solid object. An awful lot of them turned out to be about three tokes of terrible weed away from recording a prog or psychedelic folk album with a questionably focused photo of like half a dozen different regrettable hairstyles next to a gnarly tree on its cover. They might have been switched on but they were still the same people. We’re drawing an X here. Univers is conceptually grounded in Morris’s medieval-revivalist anarcho-eco-socialism, but it’s becoming one of the main typefaces of a clean, mass-produced, alienated-on-purpose high modernism. Heading in the other direction are a bunch of kids going to college and learning about Albert Hofmann and Abbie Hoffman. The Whole Earth Catalog is at the center of this X.

So a lot of this is, for me, about the contingency, mutability, and impurity of everything. It’s a reminder that the hippies were, on average, apolitical libertarians with hearts tangled in sexism and racism. Today we understand these things better than the hippies did – partly from watching what happened to them. (Some of the stories I could tell about growing up in the ’90s surrounded by these people, including some named in this archive, as they aged: you’d gasp.) Theories of change, accountability, what it means to be apolitical, how to spot a cult, spiritual bypassing, psychedelics, conspiratorial thinking, what makes capitalism resilient, implicit biases, the dynamics of protest, kindness, Buddhism, what makes a community last, geodesic domes, mass communication, microeconomics, overpopulation, and so on: there’s a lot we know more about than the 1968ers did. One way to read the archive is gloatingly. More productive, I think, is with a sense that in among all this there might yet be a few things we ought to remember. Perhaps enough time has finally passed that we can lift a few necessities without falling into maudlin boomer nostalgia. There’s a sense of hope and potential here that is not entirely naïve nor irrelevant to our time.

I don’t know whether there are really cycles to culture or whether stuff just happens to return sometimes when conditions are right. Perhaps it’s only a fun coincidence that a lot of the most interesting culture in the ’70s was working with ideas from fifty years or two generations before, in the ’20s, and here we are again. The one thing everyone can agree on about The Whole Earth Catalog is that it was super influential. Its branches are far apart now. Maybe we will see some of them intersect as clearly again.