A scientist sends an unmanned aircraft aloft to ride the buffeting winds of a hurricane, tracking how the storm system moves across the ocean. That drone is a tool.
A technician sends an unmanned aircraft aloft to zoom unheard across the desert and deliver death to suspected terrorists. That drone is a tool, too—but of an altogether different sort.
Kevin Kelly, longtime Whole Earth Catalog regular and Wired magazine founder, will gladly write about the former, a drone aircraft put to the cause of advancing human knowledge. He draws the line at the latter, which may promote a certain kind of public safety but is otherwise technology put to ends most of us would prefer to avoid.
The vehicle for that writing is Cool Tools, a website made up of reviews of useful tools done by both Kelly, its founder and guiding spirit, and a sizable body of peer-to-peer reviewers whose work exemplifies the Whole Earth ideal: a bottom-up swell of information, carefully curated by a top-down editorial administration to see to sensible organization and quality control. Cool Tools, Kelly tells Kirkus Reviews, represents his wide-ranging interests, but “is driven by what people are enthusiastic about.” Sometimes people’s enthusiasms leave gaps in coverage, he notes, so that lots of people might wish to write about an affordable coffee roaster or the latest and greatest skateboard, while not many writers are as enthralled by, say, different kinds of wood clamps or, for that matter, different kinds of drones. When those gaps become pronounced, says Kelly, he either writes something or, more usually, commissions pieces to fill them.
Thus, look at the Cool Tools site, and you’ll find pieces on flashlights, and roasters, and software, and, yes, wood clamps, along with pieces on aquariums, draft horses, and just about everything else under the sun. About the only taboo subject is mayhem-dealing paraphernalia; though, of course, a hammer or pocketknife can be put to ill use, Kelly says that he avoids things that are weapons of themselves or that can be weaponized. “I wouldn’t do anything that has to do with making bombs,” he says, for all the do-it-yourselfness that such an enterprise holds—and even though Whole Earth called attention to The Anarchist Cookbook and other such recipes for disaster back in the heyday of the counterculture.
Drones are fine, Kelly adds, especially if they’re from kits or homemade—though not if they’re armed.
The Cool Tools site has now given birth to a thick, oversized book that will immediately remind readers—of a certain age, anyway—of its Whole Earth forebears. Called Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, that book, or something like it, Kelly says, has been in his mind for a long while, ever since he worked on the parent publication in its final days.
“I came in late to the Whole Earth Catalog,” Kelly says. “I was mostly on the magazine side, what became Coevolution Quarterly. I left to write a book and to start Wired, but I found that I missed what was going on. The print model wasn’t sustainable at the time, though, and Whole Earth folded. It took a while for me to figure out how to do tool reviews in that sustainable way—as an email list, at first, that I called ‘Cool Tools.’ Then blogging came along, so I started a blog in 2003. Then, after four years or so, I hired some editors, and Cool Tools became a daily publication.”
Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities commemorates that 10 years of evaluating and curating. Though an enterprise involving many contributors, it expresses Kelly’s singular vision. For one thing, he says, he went through every post, every review, and hand-picked the contents of the book—some 1,200 reviews, that is, or roughly one in every four that the website has published over the last decade.
His control of the project didn’t end there, for he decided to self-publish in that old-fashioned medium of paper, modeling the book on the oversized Whole Earth Catalog of yore. Kelly writes in a blog post about that decision, “There is something very powerful at work on the large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make natural associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. . . . The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools.”
The decision to self-publish worked. Kelly printed an initial run of 8,500, and, having just cleared the dock from the printer in China, the 472-page, $40, four-color book is leaving the Amazon warehouse and other venues as fast as he can stock it.
Kelly professes to be both surprised and gratified by the obviously large demand for the book, solid evidence that the readership served by the Whole Earth communards in the past couple of generations still exists—and is hungry for useful information.
“I’m glad so many people are experiencing the sensational, immersive rush that you get when you turn the pages of a book,” Kelly says. “You can skim or you can dive in deep as you please. Either way, the book adds magic to what we’ve done online.”
“I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool,” he adds. “But what would make all this worth the work is getting email from some kid somewhere who told me that he read the thing from cover to cover, just like I did the Whole Earth Catalog. That’s something I really hope to hear one day.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.