Opinion: now we buy everything from Amazon, where does that leave the counterculture? A new attempt to revive the spirit of the Whole Earth Catalog is "about as counter-cultural as a Happy Meal," argues Justin McGuirk.
In 1973, man's relationship with his tools was the subject of some anxiety and much hope. In January of that year, the cream of Italy's Radical Design movement convened in the Milan office of Casabella magazine to launch a manifesto. It was called Global Tools. The objective was "to stimulate the free development of individual creativity". Renouncing for a moment the industrial rationalism of design, the group – including Ettore Sottsass, Archizoom, Superstudio and Grupo 9999 – embraced primitive tools and traditional craft skills. Flush with confidence, they even published a curriculum for a new type of craft school. But it never materialised. Within a matter of months, the Global Tools project had dissipated.
The same year, the Viennese-born priest turned polymath Ivan Illich published the influential book Tools for Conviviality. For Illich, much as for the Global Tools group, industrialisation was stifling man's innate creativity. It wasn't just the fact that mankind had been reduced to mundane labour and consumerism: even social mechanisms such as education and healthcare had assumed a mechanic feed-them-in-spit-them-out quality. "Convivial tools," Illich wrote, "are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision." He wanted less technocratic control, and more self-empowerment and participation. In essence, he advocated a creative socialism.
Forty years later, it was with these two antecedents in mind that I opened a copy of Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly. If Illich were alive today, he might find some solace in Kelly's introduction, in which he writes: "A third industrial revolution is stirring – the Maker era." The line "these are tools to make us better humans" might jump out as particularly heartening, but by the time he'd flicked through 460-odd pages of sushi knives, lawnmowers and cargo pants, he would no doubt be bemused by the sheer quantity of stuff we can buy to make us better humans.
One of the founders of Wired magazine, and the author of popular technology books such as Out of Control and What Technology Wants, Kelly is both a chronicler and a card-carrying member of the Californian school of techno-utopianism. But this is not a catalogue of apps and digital devices, which become "obsolete within minutes". These tools are sturdier and earthier. Here are chainsaws and vermicompost kits. Contrary to popular lore, when it comes to getting worms to munch through your rubbish, there is no app for that.
With its feet firmly planted on the ground, Cool Tools has a slightly different lineage than Kelly's other books. He is candid about intending this to be the reincarnation of, or at least a homage to, that bible of 1960s counterculture the Whole Earth Catalog. Indeed, in the 1980s Kelly worked as an editor of the Catalog and its various supplements. The question is, does Cool Tools retain that counterculture spirit?
When the impresario Stewart Brand published the first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, it became an instant hit with the hippies. Drawing heavily on the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, it featured anything you might need for a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle, from geodesic domes to LL Bean hunting boots, electronic calculators and kibbutz manuals. Its subtitle was "access to tools".
In a sense, Brand's offering was itself a reincarnation of the mail-order catalogue published by Sears, Roebuck & Co in the late 19th century. The Sears catalogue was instrumental in the settling of the American West, so much so that the British critic Reyner Banham called it "one of the great and basic documents of US civilisation". But the Whole Earth Catalogue was a more political document if only because instead of spreading the American way of life it essentially rejected it – in the 1960s, one way to be political was to drop out.
Of course, in the internet age "access to tools" is no longer provided through printed catalogues. Indeed, for the last ten years Cool Tools has existed as a website where potentially anyone can review a tool they think is "cool". So why make a book? After all, this one really does look like a blog printed out. Virtually no image is of print quality, resulting in a great sea of pixellated gizmos, their edges dissolving into digital noise. I know all of this is self-conscious – this is Kelly evoking the scrapbook ethos of the Catalog but in the digital age (it's even self-published). Yet it's a move that contradicts itself. If Kelly made this volume to revive the spirit of its predecessor – because, let's face it, we still venerate books as cultural milestones – then why not treat it accordingly?
Where some see the Whole Earth Catalog as having prefigured the web, Cool Tools takes the behaviour and form of the web and returns them to paper. An impressive compendium it is, but that does not make it the inheritor of the Catalog's mantle. Brand's bible spawned various successors, including the "solutions" website/book Worldchanging, but arguably his true inheritors are the Maker movement itself. This is where Brand's self-sufficiency overlaps with Silicon Valley hacker culture. It is where craft nostalgia meets digital optimism. Surprisingly, there is very little of that in Cool Tools. There is no mention of "hacking" (although, frankly, I'm inclined to find that refreshing). I couldn't even find a 3D printer.
Cool Tools is clearly aimed at the Maker movement, or at least the renewed DIY zeitgeist in general, but it is ideologically adrift. The clue is in that word "cool". This is the language of blog comments and Facebook "likes". It bespeaks a breezy Californian positivity. As Kelly makes clear, this is a book made up entirely of positive reviews – of tools that are "ingenious", "nifty" and of course "awesome". But without an ideological backbone, what we have here is a Sears catalogue for the twenty-first century with no Wild West left to tame.
Brand at least had Buckminster Fuller, the I Ching and drugs – not exactly an ideology but a constructive meeting of science and New Age escapism. Kelly just has Amazon. Every product comes with a QR code, most of which link to an Amazon page. On one level, this is just practical – I mean, Amazon does sell literally everything - but it's about as counter-cultural as a Happy Meal. As if to stick it to The Man, first you have to let him trouser your money. Perhaps this is simply an irony that someone immersed in dot-com entrepreneurialism can't appreciate. Or perhaps the Maker revolution really is chained to the corporate hegemony.
Either way, it seems that when industrial capitalism is in crisis we fall back in love with our tools. There is something steadying about the feel of the screwdriver in our hand. It makes us feel in control again. The difference between the 1970s and today is that an alternative, creative lifestyle is both easier and more illusory. "Access to tools" is no longer the issue. We have infinite access, because Amazon and Google have made us an offer we can't refuse.
Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor ofIcon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he wasawarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.