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Stewart Brand’s World of Ideas

By Heidi Hackford

Live small so you can live large. — Stewart Brand

Influencer of a Whole Generation

Stewart Brand is perhaps best known for his iconic counterculture magazine The Whole Earth Catalog. Published from 1968 to 1971, the catalog, which offered essays and product reviews, sold millions of copies and won the National Book Award in 1972. In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist John Markoff, it was a “mosaic of crazy stuff,” from computers to how to make granola and everything in between.

A veteran chronicler of technology and the rise of Silicon Valley, Markoff spoke about his new biography, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with award-winning journalist Nicole Perlroth in a CHM Live event on March 31, 2022.

From Trucks to Computers

Stewart Brand and his then-wife Lois Jennings first set out to create a “truck store.” The idea was to deliver books and tools to friends who were living 1960s-era alternative lifestyles on communes. But they discovered that their friends didn’t have any money, so they pivoted to producing a catalog instead. It reached a much broader audience than the back-to-the-earth community.

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs called the Whole Earth Catalog one of the “bibles” of his generation, “sort of like Google in paperback form . . . overflowing with neat tools and great notions.” The farewell message on the back cover of the last issue, “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” became his personal mantra.

Despite his catalog’s impact on a new generation of technologists, Brand himself stumbled into the world of computing in 1962. He would be linked to technology for the next fifty years-for good and bad.

John Markoff explains how Brand connected with the hacker community.

Becoming Silicon Valley

From 1965 to 1975, says Markoff, Menlo Park, where Brand lived, was the center of a circle that encompassed everything important in the computing world. Like Florence during the Renaissance, technology, politics, and culture all collided there to change the world. And Stuart Brand was right in the middle of it.

Hired in 1967 to create an educational technology fair at the San Mateo County fairgrounds, Brand spent six months trying to raise money before giving up the project. Markoff notes that the funding proposal reads like it is describing the Maker Faire that happened 40 years later in the same location. While his friends went back to the land, Brand was focused on tech’s future.

John Markoff describes the “universal tool.”

Brand would later become the first to use the phrase “personal computer” in the modern sense. In 1971, he wrote a seminal article for Rolling Stone magazine, which conveyed for the first time that new technologies like personal computing and networking would have a broad impact on regular people.

But Brand turned away from computing in the dot.com era when “information wants to be free” was used as an out-of-context rallying cry for tech disruption. He was aware of the double-bind that information wants to be free but also expensive because it is so valuable.

Instead, Brand got involved in a project to build a 10,000 year clock (the “century hand” advances every 100 years), as a symbol of long-term thinking to counter tech’s acceleration of everything. Such admonitions were not well-received by the hacker community.

The Wizard

Like Markoff, Nicole Perlroth grew up in Silicon Valley and found numerous connections to Stewart Brand in her life. “He’s like the wizard behind everything we see and do in Silicon Valley,” she says. Markoff, too, had the sense that Brand was frequently showing up, Forrest Gump-like, in the middle of things and in his own life.

John Markoff remembers life in Stewart Brand’s neighborhood.

It’s hard to identify exactly why Stewart Brand saw the future before everyone else. Markoff noted that from an early age Brand chose not to compete with “the smart kids” by exploring outside the usual boundaries. He’s very well-read and gets bored quickly so he’s always moving on to something new. His oldest friends nicknamed him “Screwy Stewie” because he had so many ideas.

In any case, now in his 80s, Brand makes for a fascinating biographical subject. Markoff took on the project, reading all Brand’s journals and talking to him 76 times over the course of writing the book. Research could be a challenge, particularly with the transition to the digital world and the way people communicated changed. Emails literally disappeared.

The Well

Other issues with digital communications surfaced early on. In 1985, Brand launched The WELL, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, an online community like an early Twitter. Perlroth noted that perhaps it should have served as a warning about what could happen on social media platforms.

John Markoff describes the dark side of early social media.

For a person with so many ideas, there were bound to be some that didn’t work. And Brand was always evolving; he considers himself a pragmatist. His stance on nuclear power, for example, changed when he became convinced that it was necessary to combat the compressed timeframe of climate change. That stance was not popular with the environmental movement.

So, what is Brand thinking about today while he’s “living small” on a boat in Sausalito? In addition to being involved with Revive & Restore, a project to combat species extinction, he’s working on a new book. It’s about maintenance. We may want to listen when Stewart Brand says that’s the future.

Watch the Full Conversation

Stewart Brand and Silicon Valley’s Soul | CHM Live, March 31, 2022

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About the Author

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

Originally published at https://computerhistory.org on April 12, 2022.

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