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The 'Whole Earth Catalog' was the internet before the internet


These days, the answer to almost any question is just a few keystrokes away.


But before the internet, searching for information could be much more time-consuming, so a lot of people turned to one publication that brought volumes of information together.

STEWART BRAND: The hippies called it a hippie bible. Steve Jobs called it the internet before the internet. We called it access to tools.

MARTÍNEZ: Stewart Brand was a co-founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of how-to guide for life in the '60s and '70s.

BRAND: And, you know, for the price of a book, you could learn how to make guitars, but just as easily fix a motorcycle or raise goats or bees.

MARTIN: By 1972, the Whole Earth Catalog had sold more than a million copies and won the National Book Award. It also let readers tune in to what was then called the counterculture.

FRED TURNER: You open it up, and there are, you know, pictures of wagons and tractors, but also calculators and psychedelic imagery. And it's, like, wait a minute. Where is this world?

MARTÍNEZ: Stanford University professor Fred Turner says it opened the door for a digital world.

TURNER: And so the computer becomes sort of a tool like the ones formerly offered in the Whole Earth Catalog. And the catalog itself becomes a model for an early and really important virtual community.

MARTIN: Brand had a hand in one of the earliest online communities when he pulled content from the original Whole Earth Catalog to create the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link and give users a place to share ideas in real time.

BRAND: And that led to real discourse.

MARTÍNEZ: Thanks to the San Francisco art collective Gray Area, a nearly complete collection of Whole Earth publications is now available for visitors to flip through online - putting the internet before the internet on the internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMI HENDRIX'S "JUNGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.