With the advent of the Internet, the Whole Earth Catalog‘s curation of all the weird and wonderful things necessary to live a counter-cultural lifestyle in America ceased to be useful. Why thumb through the oversized pages of the cult publication for interesting things and drive out to buy them when you can just click through a blog link to Amazon?
That’s how Kevin Kelly, a former Whole Earth editor, felt about the ultimate demise of the project, which ceased publication in 1998. “It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better,” he wrote on his website 10 years later.
But today, Kelly seems to have changed his mind, with the recently self-published Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, which has the same format, layout, and ethos as the pre-Internet publication that many argue influenced today’s blogs, search engines, and social networks. No less than Steve Jobs called it “Google in paperback form.”
Apart from the name–an homage to the Cool Tools site Kelly has run as an online version of Whole Earth for more than 10 years–the full color spreads, and the QR codes, the catalog looks like the latest issue of the Whole Earth Catalog. “I would say 85% of the design was lifted from the various incarnations of Whole Earth Catalog,” Kelly told Fast Company. “Anybody who knows Whole Earth, when they open it up will say: Oh my gosh, it’s back. The similarities are very striking.” For those who don’t know WEC, it looks like a giant SkyMall catalog.
That’s because Kelly looked to old issues of WEC for most of his inspiration. “Cool Tools is a blatant ripoff of this book in both spirit and style,” he writes in the book, under an old photo of WEC. Much like WEC, each large 14-inch by 11-inch page contains a cluttered smattering of product images, some of them even pixelated, like ’70s photographs, accompanied by brief, straightforward descriptions. The book has a practical, rather than a literary, feel. The little blurbs include retail information, many of them pointing to Amazon.com. Like Whole Earth, Cool Tools doesn’t sell anything, but directs readers to alternative points of sale. In this contemporary edition, among the first pages Kelly put a guide to some useful Internet sites for reviews and shopping, including another modern incarnation of WEC: The Wirecutter and The Sweethome.
The content is a best-of selection from the Cool Tools site’s 4,000 entries. A chunk of those 1,200 offerings did not exist during Whole Earth‘s heyday 40 years ago. But the listings include more than just modern toys. While Kelly recommends a Wi-Fi body scale and devotes a page to chargers, entire sections point to old-school technologies like screws and nails. In fact, Kelly opted not to highlight too many electronic devices because they become obsolete so fast. In the camera section, for example, you’ll find Adobe and a lens rental service, but not any digital cameras.
To choose the items, Kelly looked to past reviews on the Cool Tools site, comments on those entries, and then asked if the tool held “possibilities.” That decision goes beyond: Does this product work well? “It is more than just a one-time thing? Would it unleash or open up other stuff?” Kelly asked himself. For example, the book includes a tool that makes a hole bigger. That might help someone on a particular craft project, but it also opens up the mind in other ways, he argues. “Often times these tools are metaphorical in a certain sense,” he explains. “The idea of making a small absence bigger, that’s powerful.” Also an homage to WEC, many reviews were user-generated, written by readers.
Taken as a whole, the collection fits into the WEC philosophy. Just as the original books attracted young people looking for an alternative to their parents’ suburban existence, Cool Tools appeals to an Internet-era counter-culture: the maker/DIY movement. Kelly sees his creation as a reaction to our increasingly screen-dependent lives. “The counterpoint to [screens] is making physical things,” explained Kelly. “That’s something I’m emphasizing in the book: Hacking the physical world. Whether it’s gardening, or traveling, there’s a minimum amount of computers and screens stuff.” So, instead of recommending an iPad, or the other gadgets so many product review sites obsesses over these days, Kelly made an effort to include things that facilitate activity, such as the Murray McMurray Hatchery for raising chickens.
But just as the book is an homage to its forebear, in many ways it emulates and is a product of the Internet experience. As an alternative to search, the issue includes a detailed table of contents, for those who want to refer back to favorite items, or look into certain topics, like “dwelling” or “household.” There’s also an index, to locate specific products. And the very existence of the Internet made the production process possible. What it took 30 editors to do back in 1970, it took just two to do in 2013.
The QR codes on Cool Tools‘ pages allow readers to buy items through third-party retailers, so this 4.4 pound paperback gets readers as close as it can to the Internet shopping experience–at least in theory; it’s unclear how many people engage with the digital squares.
The codes, located next to each item, also provide a possible revenue stream for Kelly and his self-funded venture since they’re linked to Amazon’s associate links program. If someone purchases something through the book, Kelly gets a kickback from the online retailer.
Even with that modernized experience, however, the book still fails to match the web’s utility. If the web just does curation better, as Kelly noted in 2008, why bother with a dead-trees edition?
“I don’t change my mind, that the web took over most of what was being done by Whole Earth Catalog,” he said. “It took over 95%; this is the other 5%.”
While websites offer convenience, books offer experience. “Turning these large pages and having your eyes scan across this jumble of different things, you’re making associations,” Kelly explained. “It’s very vivid. There’s a little bit of a buzz, and you own them as you start to associate. There’s a browsing state or a browsing trance, or something that happens that kicks in and is liberating.” Kelly not only hopes that each of the products inspires “possibilities” in its users, but that seeing the images laid out on pages will have a similar effect, too.
The book might appeal to those nostalgic for the Whole Earth Catalog–a pretty large and loud contingent–or Cool Tools‘ 500,000 readers (numbers via Kelly). Early rave reviews Kelly cites on his website–from Matt Groenig, Brian Eno, Walter Isaacson, among others–are nothing less than ecstatic. So far Kelly estimates “thousands” have ordered his book, which has yet to ship, via Amazon.
Ideally, Kelly wants Cool Tools to become WEC for the next generation. He hopes that young people will discover the book, just as he did, and that it will change their lives. Personally, though, he claims he doesn’t care if he sells any copies. “I told myself I only need three copies of this book to give to my kids, and then I’m happy.”