Far from the crowds flocking to the De Kooning retrospective on its top floor, a modest but exciting show on the basement level of the Museum of Modern Art’s education wing charts the evolution of The Whole Earth Catalog. Published in Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s, its goal was to give a swelling generation of politicized back-to-the-landers and flower children “access to tools,” to show them where to go to buy the things they needed to live a life in sync with the ecology around them. Goods and services weren’t sold through the catalog, although it did list where one might buy them.
In the show, visitors can sit at a big table and browse a few editions of The Whole Earth Catalog cleverly secured to a large, immovable rock that evokes the landscapes of the American West where many of the Catalog‘s users retreated from mainstream society. Flipping through these big, heavy editions feels like a trip to a history museum. On display: arc welders, build-it-yourself domes, dairy goats, and dutch ovens alongside books on un-schooling, the global population explosion, and Buddhist Economics. All of the design and type were set by hand and, in the last edition of the Catalog, its founder Stewart Brand reviews and explains the tools–things like an IBM Selectric typewriter, beeswax adhesives, and daily post-lunch volleyball games–that had a role in shaping the look and process of publishing the catalog.
At the same table, a facsimile of an article from Rolling Stone reports on the Whole Earth Catalog “Demise Party” held at San Francisco’s Exploratorium to mark Brand’s self-appointed end to the publication. After all of its accounts were settled, the Catalog was left with a surplus of $20,000–the same amount as the investment it started out with. At the party, Brand announced that he was giving it all away. The fifteen hundred people in attendance were to collectively decide what to do with the money. Near chaos ensued, with some people taking bills then later giving them back. Some proposed to either burn all the cash or give it to Native Americans. In the wee hours, it was decided that a man who had been there through all the votes and discussions would leave with the cash so that it could be put in a bank and a decision could be made what to do with it later. It never made it to the bank, but he eventually gave it away to “worthy groups.” The Catalog may have provided access to tools, but it didn’t always recommend what to do with them. The tool needed at the “Demise Party,” a way to make decisions with a large group of people, simply didn’t have the time to emerge.
Right now, also in New York, a movement that shares an ethos with The Whole Earth Catalog is gathered in the Financial District and may just have their hands on such a tool. At Occupy Wall Street, no organization provides the services that city governments and non-profits do, people provide for themselves. To say that the square lacks these official organizations does not mean that the mass of people gathered there aren’t organized. In fact, there’s plenty of organization: food donations and dish-outs, a library, a staffed info booth, a mailing address at a nearby UPS Store, legal aid, and a sanitation committee to name a few. By occupying a space for over two weeks and not containing themselves to one afternoon of protest, the protestors have taken for themselves what seems to be in short supply for all of us: time.
The most striking organizing in the square is the General Assembly. Twice a day, everyone in the square gathers for one large meeting helped along by facilitators. Facilitators are trained in a method of running large meetings in a horizontal, democratic fashion that was used earlier this year during mass protests in Spain. Facilitators rotate between meetings and everyone can become one. A collection of hand gestures allows people to nonverbally communicate a variety of things. These run from the basic agreement, ambivalence, and disagreement to signals like “point of process,” used when someone feels an imminent decision needs further discussion or more information. There are also ways to indicate someone has information relevant to the matter at-hand or that if a specific motion passes, it will cause someone to leave the movement. This last gesture, called a “block,” is treated gravely by all and used only as a last resort. The overall process enables a large group of people to make decisions together in real time. Many excerpts from General Assemblies are on YouTube, you can see the process in action in one of them below. People repeat what each speaker says because megaphones have been banned in the square and repetition is the only way to ensure everybody can hear.
Occupy Wall Street hasn’t been around long enough to reach as many people as The Whole Earth Catalog has, but for anyone who has been able to drop by so far, it provides a compelling glimpse of human-scale democracy. It’s no utopia, but in Liberty Square, tools for getting along with other human beings are both tried out and invented. In this sense, the square echoes one of the most fascinating aspects of the Catalog: its product reviews. Because the publishers hadn’t tried every product the Catalog listed, they solicited reviews from people who had. These reviews patched together a network of expert amateurs in order to figure out what tools work well. They’re by turn informative, funny, poetic, and passionate. The product reviews led Brand to state that Whole Earth was “a catalog of goods that owed nothing to its suppliers and everything to its users.” This isn’t to say the protestors must look to the Catalog as a model, but that we might productively think of the “users” of Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupation movements now building around the US as fellow reviewers. They’re out there creating spaces that inventory peer-reviewed and field-tested social goods that would serve us well and keep us whole in a more just, more democratic society.