In the nineteenth century, the Sears Roebuck Catalog, for example, served as a centralized distribution point for mass-manufactured goods. The Whole Earth Catalog, on the other hand, served as a map of an emerging, geographically distributed community of consciousness. As readers wrote in, they made visible not only particular products, but their ideals, their tastes, and the new communities in which they lived. To buy the Whole Earth Catalog was not simply to buy a mechanism for identifying particular tools (though it was that too); it was to purchase a window on an alternative world.
NK: What would a Whole Earth Catalog for our time look like, if we learned from past failures?
FT: Yeah. Hm. Oh, boy. Well, if you ask some of the people associated with the actual Whole Earth Catalog, which I’ve done, they will tell you it would look like Google. It would be a global system for an individual to search out the things that individual needed to build a life on their own terms. I think that’s fine.
But I think that definition misses the key part of the Catalog, which is the way that it didn’t actually sell goods. It printed recommendations for goods.
The recommendation letters came from people living on communes at a time when the only way know what communes were out there in the world, was to get on the telephone, or use snail mail letters. The Catalog become one of the first representations of the commune world. It was a map. Embedded in all those products was a map of all the different communes that were using and recommending them.