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20th Anniversary Gossip

PORTRAIT OF 20-YEAR-OLD OUTLAW PUBLICATION (above) that isn't so outlaw anymore. Wondering what to do next, it repeats its original life-changing mantra: Try stuff. Keep showing up.

So here we are again.

The experiment this time could be summed up in a word: Gossip. Subscribers almost universally begin reading WER by reading Gossip first. Readers are after a story, preferably the Inside Story. People magazine runs a profitable business every week catering to that desire with inside stories about entertainment personalities and public figures. There is equal story in the drama of ideas. But ideas are loose cannonballs, not easily targeted, and therefore not easily marketed. Why not turn this magazine inside out, so that it becomes an issue of gossip by and about thinkers? Outright scuttlebutt from the cerebral grapevine. The customary fixtures are withdrawn to the sides, leaving nothing but unadorned gab, hearsay from the horses' mouths, and well-founded rumors.

The format of this forum was stolen from the 1978 Whole Earth 10th anniversary Jamboree. Stewart Brand engineered that two-day gathering so that 60 people spoke for a maximum of five minutes each. At the end of five minutes the microphone tapered off to a whisper, and everyone was supposed to applaud to ease the speakers' awkwardness if they hadn't finished. For this 20th Jamboree, I solicited "five minute speeches" by phone and mail for a gathering in print. Each person had a page. At the end of the page, I'd cut and compress to fit. Readers are again asked to forgive any awkwardness they detect.

The theme of this gathering is no-theme, no theme other than that which emerged from the collective pulse of personal voices. As Danny Hillis says on page 137, this puts the weight of creative theme construction on the reader. Likewise, the layout of voices follows only the pattern which emerges from circumstances of length and occasional reference to another speaker. As a reader, one of the motifs I notice arising from this jamboree is a triad of scenarios for the future, a three-piece spectrum that is graphically summarized by Robert Crumb's remarkable update to "A Short History of America" (see p.34 and back cover). Robert, who had no knowledge of others' contributions, could not have drawn a more apt emblem of what this issue holds.

The contents are a rendezvous of old friends and new contributors celebrating two decades of maverick reporting. A few words of insider explanation for newcomers: The institution whose birthday this is is the Whole Earth Catalog, begun in 1968 by Stewart Brand as an alternative shopping service items were sold together with their consumer evaluations. By 1974 the Catalog had become too overwhelmingly massive to continue printing, and too useful to stop. A thick, ad-less, cheaply produced quarterly journal was invented instead to keep the Whole Earth Catalog going as a periodical. Ingeniously named CoEvolution Quarterly, it is the CQ referred to throughout this issue. Point Foundation is the nonprofit educational organization underlying the magazine and the catalogs. CQ continued until 1984 when it gained 9,000 new subscribers from Point's failed other magazine, The Whole Earth Software Review, a casualty of the mid-'80s computer bust. By this merger it also acquired a multiple personality, and in a feverish amnesia of identity, CQ changed its name to Whole Earth Review after CQ #42. It has kept an unbroken sequential numbering of issues, from CQ #1 to WER #61, as a mark of sanity and continuity. Is it the same magazine it was before? Can you have an identity characterized by change? This, in part, is the query the stories in this issue try to answer.

What everyone is waiting for, of course, is the inside story behind the Inside Story. I conducted many interviews over the phone, taping the conversations on a cassette recorder, which our flawless transcriber, Peggi Oakley, precipitated into text. Some folks I had never spoken to before. I called them up cold. They were always gracious. I got bold and aimed for the top in a couple of cases: Surgeon General Everett Koop (because I admire his faith and compassion), and Jimmy Carter (ditto), but we never connected.

A few regular names in WER/CQ were unable to reply because of travel or other commitments. Many others bent over backwards to submit something. For instance, Danny Hillis completed his part on a pay phone between flights at the loading gate in an airport. Ram Dass agreed to be taped only two days after his father died. Caring for his aged father was practically a lifestyle for Ram Dass, and he often mentioned his father in his workshop raps. Ram said, "It was a beautiful transition. We just let him go. He died at home with our hands on him. We were all very happy." Some people made special treks to Gate Five Road to hand-deliver their stuff. Wavy Gravy, who resembles a clown even when he is not dressed as one, overwhelmed our small offices one morning. He appeared in a sky-blue suit, pulled out a spiral bound notebook and ripped out his "article" in seven pages of school-boy, hand-printed, red letters two inches high. "Wavy, who sharpened your crayon for you?" quipped Stewart. Wavy responded with a room-wide bubble shower from the bubble kit he carries on his belt.

During the interviews I often asked a few warm-up questions like: How do you think the next twenty years will be different from the last twenty? Or, What are the questions you are asking yourself these days? And, What have you changed your mind about in the last twenty years? In answer to that last one, Robert Rodale, of organic food fame, said "Twenty years ago I would never take aspirin no matter how bad my headache. Now I take aspirin even when I don't have a headache. And every time I do, I think, gee, how the world turns around."

For the most part the photograph accompanying each essay has been supplied by the author from his or her family photo album. They bear the marks of amateur snapshots: spontaneous energy and inadvertent fuzziness. All the diminutive introductions are mine. These are necessarily incomplete and one-sided. Gossip usually is.