Stewart Brand’s belief in technology helped shape Silicon Valley


All the Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. By John Markoff. penguin press; 416 pages; $32

Oonly one may be able to take credit for the popularity of both the Grateful Dead and space colonization: Stewart Brand. He is best known as the founder of the Whole Earth catalog (picture below), a compendium of tools that lists everything from compost machines to geometry books. Both a do-it-yourself guide and a techno-utopian journal, the periodical was considered essential reading by Americans who wanted to live more sustainably in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of its once radical ideas, such as the use of solar panels, are common today. In 2005, Steve Jobs, the late Apple boss, called Mr. Brand’s catalog “one of the bibles of my generation.” In a new biography, John Markoff, former technology editor at the New York Timesreveals there’s more to Mr. Brand than the Catalog.

Born into a wealthy Illinois family in 1938, Mr. Brand moved to the Bay Area to study biology at Stanford University. He quickly fell in love with the Beat poets and, returning to California after a brief stint in the military, met Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a troupe of acid-loving hippies. Mr. Brand was at the heart of the emerging counterculture. In 1966, he organized the Trips Festival, an experimental three-day event featuring a performance by the Grateful Dead, then an up-and-coming rock band, and lots of LSD. It was, as Mr. Markoff describes it, “the first time the ten thousand hippies in the Bay Area realized there were ten thousand hippies.” By bringing together free-spirited Californians, the festival became a symbol of the beginning of flower power. Mr. Brand’s ability to unite people and galvanize movements has become a hallmark of his career and explains his dominant influence on many Golden State subcultures.

the Catalog, first published in 1968, became something of a manifesto for the few thousand Americans building townships. Those who wanted to live self-sufficiently off the land needed access to tools to survive; Mr. Brand’s publication provided them. The black-and-white pages filled with farming equipment and practical diagrams won both the US National Book Award in 1972 and a cult following, especially among environmentalists. During this time, Mr. Brand’s belief in the tools as a “democratizing” force was reinforced, Mr. Markoff says. The man who hung out with Mr. Kesey had become a “techie”.

Mr. Brand, who was also a journalist, rubbed shoulders with the early pioneers of computing. He helped Douglas Englebart, an inventor, demonstrate the computer mouse to the world. In 1972, he and Annie Leibovitz, a photographer, documented the engineers of the first modern personal computer at Xerox’s PARC lab for rolling stone magazine. A few years later, Mr. Brand became the first journalist to use the term “personal computer” (by then he had abandoned the Catalog amid a growing depression) and went on to found the Hackers Conference in 1984, a pivotal moment for the open source philosophy responsible for much of modern software.

Mr. Brand’s tech savvy helped shape Silicon Valley. But it drove a wedge between him and his environmentalist friends. He had always been an outlier, enjoying Ayn Rand’s libertarian books in college. His fascination with humans moving into space – he funded the first major conference on the subject in 1974 – widened the divide. In 2009, Mr. Brand distanced himself from his environmentalist colleagues, advocating for genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy. As for the eco-warriors, he called them “irrational, anti-scientific and very harmful”. In response, George Monbiot, an activist, suggested that Mr Brand was a spokesman for the fossil fuel industry. The review echoed Mr. Kesey’s remark decades earlier: “Stewart recognizes the power. And clings to it.

Mr. Markoff’s book is dense and often reflects the Catalogchaotic structure; he jumps between time periods in a way that, at times, makes it difficult to follow the narrative of Mr. Brand’s life. “We Are As Gods,” an upcoming documentary about the tech visionary, is more pointed. Produced by the publishing division of Stripe, a Silicon Valley payments company, it dwells on Mr Brand’s attempt to build a clock that will last 10,000 years – an effort to encourage humans to think deeper. in the future – on Jeff Bezos’ sprawling ranch in Texas. It also explores Mr. Brand’s ambitious efforts to bring mammoths back from extinction by genetically modifying elephants. For Mr. Brand, this is a new form of conservation. For its detractors, it is pride.

The documentary’s emphasis on extravagant projects amplifies Mr. Brand’s greatest criticism, which is that he is perhaps too optimistic about technology and too negligent about its risks. It takes its title from the CatalogThe opening line of: “We are like gods and we might as well become good.” Peter Coyote, a longtime acquaintance of Mr. Brand who partied at the Trips Festival decades earlier, offers another characterization of humanity: “silly scientists.”

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