the Whole Earth Catalog and the WELL: back to the future

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These two resources, read in parallel, offer a fascinating read. I have mentioned the Whole Earth Catalog before when discussing ecological architecture, but up to now I hadn’t quite investigated what it was about. Fred Turner’s article ‘Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy’ discusses the Whole Earth catalog in detail and how Stewart Brand -the catalog’s master mind- sought to establish a common ground for all dispersed individuals living in communals in the 1960’s by offering a venue where they could communicate and form a single social network. These individuals had stepped away from agonistic politics and the bureaucratic myth of ‘objective consciousness’ and sought to change the world by establishing exemplary communities and change the consciousness of individuals.

The catalog presented reviews of hand tools, books and magazines arrayed in categories (..) It also established a relationship between informational technology, economic activity and alternative forms of community that would outlast the counterculture itself and become a key feature of the digital world

The catalog aimed at creating ‘a countercultural style of consumerism’ by making product suggestions but also to ways of thinking and speaking; a transformation of the self. Personal power believed Brand, develops from the power of the individual to conduct his own education and environment.

After the significant success of WEC (the catalog was fully operational for ten years after which Brand continued to publish additional versions), back in the 1980’s when Brand was approached by Larry Brilliant (founder of Network Technologies International) to help him promote computer conferencing systems, Brand came up with the idea of WELL. By now an online platform (a bulletin-board system then), WELL is based on the countercultural conception of community to create a network forum.

Brand wanted The Well to appeal not just to the Whole Earth crowd but to a wider audience: he wanted hackers, he wanted journalists (…) At the same time, he had a hunch that, in addition to electronic dialog, there should be a strong face-to-face element to The Well (…) He sensed that the most interesting possibility to arise from knitting electronic dialog into the fabric of everyday life would lie not in championing either the virtual or the human-contact model but rather in finding the place where they overlapped (…) But probably the most important of Brand’s early convictions for The Well was that people should take responsibility for what they said

For many members of the WELL, on-line collaboration offered a chance to revivify the spirit of the counterculture farms while also establishing and supporting a new type of individual professional, one that cultivated professional and interpersonal networks and key sources for future employment. The latter was directly related to the changes in 1980’s company culture and the dismantling of hierarchical systems towards the formation of corporations. WELL technology and thematics supported this new type of individual. Interactivity was instantaneous and yet collective: it was possible to exchange smaller, time-sensitive
pieces of information, ranging from data on a not-yet-announced technology to a bit of gossip and the forum could enhance the reputations of its users.

I keep that WELL has been ‘a non-hierarchically organized social form in which scattered individuals are linked to one another by an information technology and through it the experience of a shared mindset.’ As web communication had not yet been centralised, these forms of network exchange were the first manifestations of networked online learning communities: people learned from each other. Whilst WELL perhaps focused more in the interaction part than content sharing, and despite its shortcomings, it represented a more democratic medium for co-existence where everybody had a name and were accountable for what they believed and wrote. Thus we come to the second part of the title ‘back to the future’: on our way ahead we fell behind on what made networked communication so alluring in the first place. The possibility to openly speak our minds but to also stand up for and take responsibility for what we are saying.

References

Turner, F. (2005). Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy. The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community, Technology and Culture 46 (3), pp. 485-512. Full paper available here

Hafner, K. (1997). The Epic Saga of The Well: The World’s Most Influential Online Community (And It’s Not AOL). The Wire magazine. Full article available here

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