The Last Twelve Hours of the Whole Earth
San Francisco — The Demise of the Whole Earth was a wake, and like any good wake it lasted until early morning, what with 1,500 people haggling over the deceased’s estate. The estate — a wad of 200 $100 bills — was a surprise “educational event” sprung by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand on the former Whole Earth employees, contributors and reviewers who had come to celebrate the publication of The Last Whole Earth Catalog. By the time of the party, June 12th, they had probably all digested an earlier educational event, Brand’s decision a year and a half ago to stop publishing his successful Catalog this summer.
The $20,000, however, proved too much to deal in a single night, and by eight a.m. the 1,500 guests dwindled to 20. In the end the 20 delegated one of their number to hold the money, which itself had dwindled to $14,905, until they could reconvene to decide what to do with it. He stuffed the money into his jeans and drove off into the sunrise.
In contrast to the San Francisco Trips Festival, which Brand co-authored with Ken Kesey five years ago to usher in a new era of weird drugs, hard rock and blinding, stroboscopic light, the Demise party belonged to another age — a future age which often harks back to a past one.
The 1,500 invited “catalog makers” who filled the cavernous interior of the San Francisco Place of Arts and Sciences were mostly a quiet, sober, even saturnine crowd, like a group of midwestern dirt-farmers who had come to town on Saturday night to visit a country fair. They were a far-flung group of dirt-farmers, of course—from Seattle and Portland, the up-country wilds of British Columbia and the Southwest Desert. Here and there, one saw people shouldering sleeping bags or bedrolls, carrying hitchhike signs: “San Francisco” on one side, “Berkeley” or “Los Angeles” on the reverse.
A volleyball game began early at one end of the blimp-hangar-like hall and continued almost without stop until late the next morning. There were intermittent bouts of buffing — jousting with styrofoam swords, hectic but harmless. In one corner, servers passed out fresh oranges, watermelon slices, apple cider and home-baked bread, and the refreshments were supplemented by bring-your-own gallon jugs of red wine.
A pair of display tables bore the tome-size Last Whole Earth Catalog, and the set was surrounded with model rockets, spaceships and other apparatus that forms part of the permanent real estate of the Palace of Arts and Sciences; party-goers explored the adjacent Exploratorium, as the science museum is called, filled with an array of strobe environments, laser lights, optical illusion boxes, abstract television screens and other things dedicated to the alliance of art and science and the expansion of perception.
Occasionally, you would catch a strong whiff of weed, but it was notably rare considering the size and nature of the crowd. De rigueur clothing ranged through several shades of casual — jeans and T-shirts, cords and sport-jackets, hot pants, maxis and minis—but there were scarcely any real costumes in the old Haight-Ashbury, Flower-Power sense of the word, even though the invitation had suggested “you could come as a tool.”
Perhaps people figured they were tools — tools of restoring balance with the land, of fashioning new means of mass communication, of revolution. The principal exception was Brand himself, barefooted and clad in a black monk’s robe — a tool, perhaps, of the Lord’s will, or perhaps, he was expressing renunciation of his entrepreneurial role in helping hold the Whole Earth together, or perhaps — well, what exactly did it mean?
A circle of seat-cushions filled the floor in front of an improvised stage with a resonant sound system, and at about 9:30 p.m. the show began; professional clowns and trampoline artists, belly dancers, the Golden Toad playing Irish gigs and Tibetan temple music, even a Keystone Kops skit in which Brand was besieged by uniformed fuzz reading a warrant charging him with defrauding the Internal Revenue Service and giving power to the Gods. An undercurrent of expectation buzzed among people in the crowd who had noticed the fine print in the lower right hand corner of the invitation: “Attention Internal Revenue Service: this event is an educational occasion whose exact nature may not be revealed until 10 p.m.” Others obviously hadn’t read that far, or they weren’t concerned about it, and the volleyball and boffing beat out an insistent rhythm beneath the changing spectacles that held the center stage.
“Are you going to close the doors on everybody, at 10 o’clock, do another Liferaft Earth thing?” we asked Brand during a break at the “Demise.”
“No, though it’s a good idea. We’ll do something. There’s a hundred rumors. Take your choice.”
Why the decision to fold the catalog at this particular point? “We’ve done our job — provided access to tools,” Brand said. “Among the choices of what we could have done, this seemed to me to make more sense than any others. It’s the job you always try to do, to put yourself out of business.”
Have the communities which the catalog was established to serve become stronger, more soundly based, during the catalog’s three year period?
“They’re learning fast. As near as I can tell, that’s what they’re for,” Brand said. “In the communities, mistakes show immediately and they’re consequential. They’re the kinds of consequences that schools shield people from.”