Whole Earth Generation
Malcolm Harris, in his review of John Markoff’s Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, glosses over the vital cultural influence of the Whole Earth Catalog during the last decades of the 20th century [“The Zen Playboy,” June 27/July 4]. Inspired by the most iconic photograph yet in history—the shot of Earth from space by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders—Brand in 1968 envisioned a publication that would celebrate this stunning new holistic perspective of our planet home and contain information, resources, and tools that would encourage and empower people to take charge of their own lives.
In what reads like a sordid gossip column, Harris’s review dismisses the Whole Earth Catalog as a one-off indulgence prompted by Brand’s love of shopping, while ignoring the profound impact it had on a generation of young people (which included myself). There was no Internet in the ’60s, and the Catalog addressed a growing hunger for information, giving us access to perspectives both macro and micro. Steve Jobs called it the paperback prototype for Google.
The original Catalog would spawn a sequence of 33 editions over the next 30 years, as well as over 40 issues of its sister journal, The CoEvolution Quarterly. The monumental contribution of this extraordinary body of work, all catalyzed by Brand, vastly overarches Harris’s hodgepodge of petty judgments.
The writer is a musician and bandleader and a pioneering composer of the genre known as Earth music.
As someone who just finished reading John Markoff’s biography of Stewart Brand, Malcolm Harris’s review struck me as particularly uncharitable toward its subject. Brand is one of a few individuals who changed the direction of my life, by introducing me to new ways of thinking—whether through the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog (which got me to CalArts in the ’70s) or The Media Lab, which helped lead Louis Rossetto and me to create Wired magazine in the ’90s.
There are worse things than choosing to be a wide-eyed optimist. It’s so easy to criticize from afar. Harris’s mercantile lens will never understand the West Coast yearning for new possibilities. Naive? Absolutely. And yet the future keeps getting built out here.
Maier and McCarthyism
Re “Candids,” by Sarah Jaffe [June 13/20]: It seems to me that the discussion of Vivian Maier and her work can also be situated in the history of photography. Surely Maier was aware of the great work of the Photo League in New York, an organization that had, since at least 1936, produced “worker photography” until closing its doors in 1951 following accusations of being “un-American.” Self-protection, at that moment, could certainly have led Maier to publicly avoid the communist left and preserve her ability to continue to work and to photograph without federal interdiction.