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On the Millennium Road

by Howard Rheingold, published in Whole Earth Review 85 (Spring 1995)

Howard Rheingold is the editor-in-chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, and a former editor of WER. ---Ruth Kissane


Two hundred and fifty years ago, a band of subversives conspired to infect Europe and America with a radical idea: if populations of ordinary people could learn to read and write, and win the freedom to communicate with each other, they could become citizens of free nations, capable of governing themselves. The Constitution of the United States of America was one of the products of this conspiracy, known to history as "the enlightenment project."

Novus Ordo Seclorum

That's my interpretation of the mystical eye in the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill. The novus ordo seclorum, the "new order of the ages," consists of ordinary people using the tools of knowledge to take control of their own destiny.

In the foreword to The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand revealed that the spiritual ancestors of the first Whole Earth Catalog stretched back a lot further than Bucky Fuller when he pointed to the Catalog's roots in Diderot's Encyclopedie. Diderot and his network of knowledge-gatherers knew that the most subversive thing you could do in the eighteenth century would be to gather the secrets of the guilds - how to pile together enough bricks so that a large building won't fall down, how to assemble a printing press, how to make paper and black powder - and make that secret knowledge available to the citizens.

The original Encyclopedie was an instrument of subversion, as was the first WEC.

The words above begin the story that emerged from the publicity tour I undertook on behalf of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (known to those of us who talk about it a few dozen times a day as "MWEC" - Emweck). The story of the eighteenth-century subversives is what I tell people first. Then I fast-forward to 1968.

I was twenty-one, just graduated from Reed. That was a hell of a year for a young man to try to make meaningful choices about a path in life. The first Whole Earth Catalog came out at that time and introduced me to a moral compass in a period when all the moral navigation instruments had been thrown out the windows. Do you want to build a new life, independent of all the old toxic bullshit? Here are the tools: go do it! Don't take our word for it - think for yourself!

Then I tell the story of how MWEC came to be, how the board of directors hired independent accountants to prove to us how swiftly we were heading for bankrupcy. Yes, we could accept the money from the publisher and run out like starry-eyed lunatics and buy computers and hire people and create a book that would cost twice as much as we had been given to do it. But that would be the height of irresponsibility. (Audiences love this part.) And now we can see that the accountants were right. We spent all the money our publishers paid us, and much more, but our mission has been fulfilled: another Whole Earth Catalog is in the world! One that isn't just kidding about equipping us for the millennium. It's more than a book. It's the bell that calls the wits together, the clarion that sets the armies to marching - the seedsavers and ecosystem-rebuilders, the cyberneticians and the zinesters, the activists and educators and philosophers and funsters that are going to steer the whole wild wacky hell-in-a-handbasket planet right straight through trouble city to some kind of sustainable, humane way to live through this civilization we've created. Some way to preserve our liberties, our humor, our wetlands.

By the time any author finishes a publicity tour, he or she has constructed a story about the book. After a dozen cities, fifty or sixty radio stations, a dozen television stations, four score newspaper reporters, twenty or thirty bookstores, it's natural that a story emerges. At the same time the story of MWEC was emerging, America seemed to be going through one of those convulsive changes it has experienced at regular intervals throughout my life: I was on the road before, during and after the November elections of 1994. I talked with a lot of Americans in different places. In cabs and restaurants, lobbies and bars, and bookstores. It was during that time that Newt Gingrich started talking ominously about taking care of the "counterculture" that has been leading this country to moral ruination.

The "counterculture" question kept coming up. "What do you think 'counterculture' means?" reporters kept asking me.

"It means thinking for yourself" is what I told them. Which would get me into the pitch: "The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog is for people who aren't afraid to think for themselves, who want to build independent lives with some kind of meaning according to their own lights, and who don't mind doing something for their neighbors, community and planet."

Howard wearing a panama hat
Howard in a fine paisley frenzy (photo by Joi Ito)

Can you picture me in a fine paisley frenzy, holding one of those big white floppy MWECs in the crook of one arm, just a thumpin and a whumpin on the book with the palm of my other hand, Billy Graham style? Sure, I repeated the same stories, more or less, in fifteen cities. But I meant it every time, just as I imagine Billy Graham means it every time. For one thing, there was the audience looking right at me. For fifteen months, they were the critics we worried about most. Did we deliver the goods to the old-time Whole Earth fans, a constitutency who, in my opinion, can never be accused of hesitating to give a spirited, even furious, critique of the job we've done? From the looks on their faces, young and old, suits and sandals, urbanites, ex-urbanites and extraterrestrial alike, I could tell that we had delivered the goods. The millennium road was an exercise in whole-earthropology I'll never forget.

Characters on the Millennium Road

November, 1994, was the month in which Harper San Francisco, publishers of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, rode me hard and put me away wet. For six weeks - between the last week of October and the first week of December - I made promotional appearances in Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, New York City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Diego, Los Angeles, Boston, New York City (again), Washington, DC, Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, living according to a minute-by-minute itinerary that was faxed to me on the road. By the end of the tour, I was on page sixty-five of the itinerary. During deadline summer, the Catalog staff at Gate Five Road had worked weekend after weekend, night after night, racing to meet our July deadline, while I took off to the beach with my daughter, returned home in time to take my shoes off and walk on my lawn before sunset. November was payback time.

I met a lot of the old stalwarts: the CoEv Quarterly tribe: our loyalists. There was always a sprinkling of people who weren't familiar with previous Whole Earth Catalogs, but had gotten the message that something unusual was going on. The audiences usually included a few people who were yet to be born when the first WEC was published.

The tour started out in the San Francisco Bay area. That meant I could count on larger-than-usual crowds at the bookstores, and it meant I could sleep in my own bed at night. It also meant that I had to stand up and face crowds of people who expected me to tell them a story that I had only begun to compose. At that point, I knew what the MWEC was, and I had some things I wanted to talk about, but I didn't know yet what narrative could glue it all together and hold people's attention. It took a few stand-ups for me to catch enough feedback to get a feeling for the story of the Whole Earth Catalog.

My third bookstore appearance was at Cody's in Berkeley. Cody's is a wonderful bookstore, but Telegraph Avenue is a behavioral sink. Berkeley audiences are notorious for persistent, noisy political intransigence - fine with me. But people wander in who aren't in remotely the same frame of mind as the rest of the audience. This time a fellow in the back row spoke up in the middle of my second or third sentence.

"Don't you know about the Federal agents in the wilderness and the secret camps they have been building?"

"Yes. I am certain that there are a great many well-armed but not well-intentioned people running around the back country," I interjected, as soon as possible, with great sincerity. I didn't think, I just let the words find themselves: "And not all of them are Federal agents. But if you want to find out how a real investigative reporter would dig out the story, MWEC can point you to the tools. And if you want to get the story out, here's how you can print and bind and distribute your own book, or start a computer bulletin board system, or build a radio transmitter."

The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog

After a couple dozen appearances, I was beginning to develop schtick in reply to frequently asked questions. People want to know why the Whole Earth Catalog still retains its currency "long after hippies became stockbrokers." "It's not about hippies," I found myself saying after a while. "It's about people who think for themselves." That's where Diderot and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Steve Wozniak and the Republican duck hunters enter the story. It's an opportunity to crack open the shells of misbelief that can accrete around history when the media masticate it too much. "It's just that the hippies were the people who were most visibly willing to think for themselves back then."

The popular question, "Don't you think it's alienating to think of a future where everyone sits in their cubicles and communicates with each other through computers?" is my cue to start looking at the Whole Systems aspects of alienation. "Computers didn't make us this way," I begin. "Computers found us this way. If you want to start blaming technologies for the state of our alienated society, you have to include air conditioning. When most Americans sat out on the porch during the heat of the summer, they sometimes talked with each other. And the street was a public place that people cared about. We lost a little bit of community when we embraced the benefits of air conditioning." I'd mention that elevators make it possible for fifty thousand people to work in the Empire State Building every day: "How can you have a community with fifty thousand people in the same building?

"A majority of the population lives in concrete cubicles and watches an electronic box that tells them what to buy, what to believe, and who to vote for. Now that we have the opportunity to reach through the electronic box's screen to make contact with other human beings, we need to return to the notion of appropriate technology. What is a tool good for? What kinds of tasks should a tool not be used for? How does using a tool change our lives in unexpected, unpleasant ways? What kind of political power shift does a tool cause? Access to tools and ideas is no longer sufficient. Now we need new ideas about how to use tools."

The Cooper-Hewitt museum in Manhattan was the toniest venue for the MWEC road show. J. Baldwin, Tano Maida and I had spoken that morning at the Cooper Union downtown, as part of Cooper-Hewitt's day of presentations on the theme of "ecological design." The evening event at the very uptown marble building at 91st and 5th Avenue was the kind of good-cause gathering where people in evening wear stop in after cocktails and before dinner. Tonight, the good cause was MWEC, and I guess it struck some kind of chord: several hundred people showed up for the invitation-only event. Some of those well-dressed people revealed themselves to be MWEC-carrying Old Hippies, Ecologists, cyberspacers, old Bohemians, young Postmoderns, lovely society ladies, and the avant-garde German caterer mingled and dispersed, leaving me with the conviction that you can't tell Whole Earthers by their costumes.

Along Millennium Road, I ran into people I knew very well but whom I had never seen before: members of The WELL - the computer-mediated community I've participated in for the past ten years. WELLites I didn't know on sight loved to come to the talks and ask provocative questions. They showed up in Fort Collins, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. The local WELL bunch threw dinners or brunches for me in Boulder, Boston and New York. After a couple of weeks of hotel rooms and friendly strangers, meeting fellow communitarians in unfamiliar cities does take the edge off homesickness.

Sometimes five people show up at a bookstore, like in Fort Collins, and sometimes one hundred show up, like in Boulder. Sometimes it's mostly hippies, like the crowd at The Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco, and sometimes it's an uptown crowd, as at Cooper-Hewitt. You get entirely different tribes in Del Mar, California, Deerfield, Illinois and the Upper West Side. Whole Earth readers weren't afraid to think for themselves, loudly (though rarely rudely), during these appearances. But when you stand up and talk on behalf of a publication that encourages people to question authority, you have to expect some challenges.