How Stewart Brand Learns : He Created the Whole Earth Catalog and Popularized the Personal Computer. For 25 Years, This Writer-Gadfly-Futurist Has Reinvented Himself--and Shaped How We Live.
She didn’t even get his name right. Not that it mattered. He was just another ‘60s oddball “with a face that looks like an embodied question mark”--a skinny 27-year-old who had attracted a crowd outside the main gate of Columbia University. According to Sally Kempton’s 1966 Village Voice article, he wore “a black top hat decorated with a flower, and a sandwich board decorated with the question: ‘Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?’ ” The buttons he was hawking asked the same question.
“ ‘What would happen if we did have a picture?’ a girl asked. ‘Would it eliminate slums, or meanness, or anything?’
“ ‘Maybe not,’ said Stuart Brand, ‘but it might tell us something about ourselves.’
“ ‘What?’ asked the girl.
“ ‘It might tell us where we’re at,’ said Brand.
“ ‘What for?’ asked the girl.
“ ‘Why do you look in the mirror?’ asked Brand.
“ ‘Oh,’ said the girl, and bought a button.”
Kempton was amused, but not curious enough to ask NASA why, after eight years of space exploration, the agency still hadn’t publicly released a photograph of what Brand called “the whole Earth.” She couldn’t imagine that the photo would eventually become one of the most important icons of our time, would help launch the environmental movement or would grace the bestseller that Brand himself would edit five years later.
But then, it’s easy to underestimate Brand. Editor, writer, consultant, gadfly and futurist, he is difficult to categorize. Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, describes him as “a great inventor in the realm of ideas.” Brand’s most famous idea, of course, was the “Whole Earth Catalog,” one of the most lasting emblems and contributions of the counterculture. Modeled on the Sears and L. L. Bean mail-order catalogues, it was a bursting-at-the seams compendium of book reviews, tool recommendations, personal testaments and illustrations, all held together by Brand’s aphorisms and abiding faith in self-education. Aimed initially at commune dwellers, the first major edition sold nearly a million copies and went on to win the National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs in 1972. There have been five major editions since. The newest, “The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog,” edited by Howard Rheingold, with a foreword by Brand, will be in bookstores by November.
Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson says that Brand has brought so many different kinds of people--scientists and artists, businessmen and intellectuals--into conversations with one another that he is “one of the pivotal people over the last few decades.” Brand as an intellectual community organizer is an appealing notion. Since his days hawking buttons, he has believed that to change the world it is necessary to connect people across conventional disciplines and boundaries.
That was certainly the idea behind CoEvolution Quarterly, the magazine he edited for more than 10 years as a personal think tank. In its pages, Gregory Bateson argued with his ex-wife Margaret Mead about cybernetics, and such disparate figures as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, naturalist Wendell Berry, medical self-help advocate Tom Ferguson and poet Gary Snyder all commingled. The same principle applied to the Global Business Network, the company that Brand helped found six years ago, and to the WELL, the teleconferencing system that has since become a seminal institution of cyberspace, which Brand started in 1984.
It’s entirely consistent that Brand discovered personal computers--another powerful tool for connecting people--before almost everyone except the people who invented them. In 1972, he wrote a piece for Rolling Stone that both anticipated and championed the coming computer revolution. His book on interactive, multimedia technologies, “The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT,” was published in 1987 to a great deal less acclaim than it might have received a few years later, when the information superhighway became a hot idea. But then, by the time Brand’s ideas spread, he’s usually onto something else. He’s so far ahead of the curve, it’s easy to forget that he’s often been there first.
Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, thinks of Brand as an educator. “Stewart is primarily concerned about improving his own skills at learning, then trying to teach everyone else how to learn, then trying to institute a learning process into society as a whole.” That’s an accurate description of Brand’s most recent project, “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built.” Published this summer, the book is ostensibly a history of architecture and design, but its real subject is how humans evolve and adapt--how not only buildings, but people, learn over time. Like “The Media Lab,” Brand’s book has been almost completely overlooked in the intellectual press, even though urban historian Jane Jacobs declares it “a classic and probably a work of genius.”
Being underestimated may be Brand’s fate. After all, creating communities or anticipating cultural revolutions long before they occur are by their nature invisible work--the background, it seems, is Brand’s natural haven. “When all the noisy people wear themselves out talking,” says computer industry analyst Esther Dyson, “then Stewart says the one thing that’s really true. He doesn’t shout. He waits for a silent moment. Then he says the one thing you remember.”
Stewart Brand said he would be easy to find: He’d be the one in the fishing boat in the middle of the parking lot.
Brand has lived and worked in Sausalito for more than two decades. When I arrive, he is squeezed behind a small desk in the stern of the landlocked fishing boat he uses as an office. He’s talking on a telephone designed to clarify sounds; to his great irritation, his hearing has begun to deteriorate. Now 55, mostly bald but still lanky, Brand is a walking advertisement for the kinds of tools that the “Whole Earth Catalog” has always championed.
Tools is a word that has an elastic, almost-mystical meaning for Brand, one that he applies to everything from hacksaws to trench coats to history itself. As he declares in his introduction to the new edition of the catalogue: “Here are the tools to make your life go better. And to make the world go better. That they’re the same tools is our theory of civilization.”
On this day, his tools include worn blue Levi’s 501s and a dark-blue work shirt from Patagonia. On his belt hang pouches for a monocular, the largest Swiss army knife made, and an extremely sharp dendritic-steel sheath knife. His shoes are French black-leather sneakers (“the snootiest of the comfortable shoes”), his shoulder bag is made of hemp, his glasses are designed with spring-loaded bows and nosepiece so that they’re more durable. He wears a plain, black Swatch watch, with day and date. (“I hate digital watches--they give me more information than I want.”) In his shirt pocket are a ballpoint pen that keeps the ink under pressure so he can use it lying down, and a leather envelope that holds monogrammed 3-by-5-inch cards. Three of the cards are covered front and back with lists of books he’s looking for.
Everything, it seems, is “sturdy and robust,” adjectives he often uses to describe objects he admires. Everything, that is, except the fishing boat itself, which is rotting away. But it has light on four sides, and, he says, “absolutely nobody cares what I do with any of it.” When he needed to make a place for a fax, he took a saber saw and cut a hole for it.
Brand reserves Wednesdays to travel across the bay to Emeryville, the industrial district at the foot of Berkeley where the Global Business Network is located. GBN, as everyone calls it, has been his principal employer since the late 1980s, when he and four others established the business to help organizations get ready for the future. (He works one other day a week at what may be the most closely watched new technology lab, Interval Research Corp. in Palo Alto, funded by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.)
As we enter the GBN building, the staff is hanging a large, colorful reproduction of an old map depicting the “Isle of California” as the first explorers envisioned it. Besides provoking the obvious chuckles about how the rest of the country really does see California as an island, the map also has a serious purpose: to remind clients that clinging to a wrong mental map of the future can lead one badly astray.
Peter Schwartz, the GBN founder who has most shaped the company, bounds over to greet us. He and Brand have known each other for nearly 20 years, a friendship marked--as so many of Brand’s are--by long conversation and an intense exchange of ideas. Schwartz has just returned from the Pentagon, where, he reports excitedly, top defense planners are reading his book “The Art of the Long View.” He is coaching the department to produce something other than the familiar best-case, worst-case scenarios.
The GBN Method, developed at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, where Schwartz worked for five years, looks both at forces that can be safely predicted (the teen-age population in the year 2000, say, or the ongoing demand for oil) and events that cannot (the emergence of rap, or an Arab oil embargo). The end product weaves together a set of narratives designed to surprise leaders into re-examining their assumptions and preparing them to react quickly as the actual future unfolds. GBN’s clients include the National Education Assn., the Mott Foundation, Arco, Volvo, BellSouth, IBM, Metropolitan Life and Sears. Corporations pay $35,000 a year to be part of the GBN “network,” and considerably more for specific consultations.
Brand contributes to the scenarios and moderates GBN’s private conference on the WELL. But his main work at GBN stands before us at the building’s entrance: a tall bookshelf that holds all the books, articles, CDs, journals and software that Brand has sent to GBN’s clients and members, at the rate of two a month, for the last six years. The GBN Book Club allows him to search for the “intellectual tools for the years ahead,” just as he did when he edited the catalogue and CoEvolution Quarterly. The titles are typically catholic. Among them: “The Discoverers,” by Daniel Boorstin, which Brand calls “the most inspiring human history I know”; “Myst,” the CD-Rom adventure game whose multiple story lines, he believes, show how the computer is changing traditional narrative, and “Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos,” by Mitchell Waldrop, the story of the “complex systems” research going on at Santa Fe Institute, where Brand is a director.
Brand also helps select the individuals who are invited to join GBN for free. Now numbering about 90, they are as eclectic as the books, ranging from performance artist Laurie Anderson to Harvard business professor Michael Porter, from neurobiologist Francisco Varela to Pepsi-Cola International Vice President Mia de Kuijper .
GBN, Brand explains, is unashamedly elitist. “I think elites basically drive civilization. They are the innovation sources and the places where continuity happens, and they’re good things. The answer to the problems of elites is not to get rid of elites but to have more elites, where everybody has got a few. They’ve got to be open at the bottom, or they die.”
Unlike some of the other elites Brand has been part of, this one generates $4 million a year in revenues.
The GBN staff gathers in a light, open two-story common room for its weekly meeting. Brand himself has designed the space. Glassed-in offices and open railings give everyone visual access to the whole organization, but staff members have what Brand calls “aural privacy” so that they can work in peace. A dozen or so people pull comfortable chairs into a large circle. Predominantly white, about half female, there are lots of jeans in the room and no ties.
It all feels loose but businesslike as the staffers begin their reports: Xerox has joined the network; British rock musician Peter Gabriel, a longtime member, was on David Letterman the night before, and the future-of-African-Americans project is proceeding. Schwartz is excited about the scenario work done at the natural-gas division of Texaco, where GBN has been consulting long enough to begin to see results. And on a nude beach at Martha’s Vineyard, he ran into Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who’s on the O. J. Simpson defense team.
When it’s Brand’s turn to speak, he leaps to his feet, strips off his long-sleeved shirt and reveals his summer vacation purchase--a Martha’s Vineyard Black Dog T-shirt. I had been told by many people that Brand is not a great public speaker--a surprising observation about a man who spends so much of his time communicating--but that he is a terrific conversationalist. His report bears this out. He has an exuberant laugh. His grin is a bit goofy, it’s so big. He almost would seem boyish if he wasn’t six feet. Instead, he seems polite, a little stiff and wary. When he pauses to think, which is often, he closes his deep-blue eyes, scrunches up his long face and takes a deep breath, letting it out audibly. His face ends up looking like one of the computer networks he ceaselessly promotes; it becomes a web of connected lines.
“Martha’s Vineyard is a cult,” he begins, and then proceeds to give an unlikely but illuminating anthropological description of the island resort. It has, he says, “studied and variegated towns, with an Italian city-state quality. Everything grows to 30 feet and stops.” That fact, combined with the little cottages, gives “a two-thirds scale to everything. It’s quite romantic and endearing.”
It is, I come to realize, a classic Brand discourse, exact in its description and startling in its connections and imaginative leaps (who else would compare the Vineyard to Florence?). It’s a brilliant description that doesn’t feel that way. It’s just ordinary--with maybe a hint of arrogance, but little self-importance--which, Mary Catherine Bateson, an old friend, says is how Brand manages to influence people without being an imposing presence. “You never hear pronouncements from Stewart,” she says.
Bateson remembers that her father, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, once organized a conference and invited Brand to give a lecture. “Stewart walked in and said, ‘What do you want to ask me?’ Stewart’s thinking is reactive and interactive. He gets hold of a question and involves other people in talking about it.”
Indeed, what makes Brand one of the central figures in the new media is that his “inventions” (another favorite word of his) encourage people to talk to one another, creating a community where one didn’t exist before. The “Whole Earth Catalog” invited its readers to write in with suggestions, ideas and reviews--in effect giving a podium to anyone smart enough to use it, and making it possible for people to teach each other what they know. The WELL serves precisely the same function, but is capable of doing it every day of the year.
Later in the morning, when I get a private moment with Schwartz, he offers another example of how Brand operates. The setting was a big workshop on the future of communications, held six years ago. The people from AT&T;, Schwartz recalls, “could not imagine that the source of innovation, the challenge, the threat to them would come from lots of small companies.” But Brand just kept asking questions, coming back at them, trying to get them to identify their assumptions.
“He said, ‘Look, the first e-mail system that the country is going to have is not going to be AT&T.; It’s going to be the Internet.’ And they said, ‘You’re out of your mind. How could that be? It’s a kludgy little thing. Nothing like our big robust network.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s the people who are using it who are building it, and they have a profound commitment to it. You’re going to wait around 10 or 15 years to figure out the optimal system. Meanwhile, these guys are actually out there building it right now. And what you’re going to have to do is figure out how to cope with the Internet once it’s up and running.”
Brand, says Schwartz, is often right, as he was in this case. He’s also been wrongheaded or a little wacky. His enthusiasms have included geodesic domes (they leak, it turns out) and the political efficacy of the Black Panthers. He’s campaigned for space colonies and against the metric system. Always, though, his method is the same. He’s a contrarian who sees things that others miss because he loves going against the grain. Brand says he was born a crank. Those who have known his family for a long time joke that if you throw a Brand in the river, he’ll float upstream.
One of Stewart Brand’s most vivid memories is that of a nightmare. “There was chaos, and then I looked around and I was the only person left alive in Rockford, Ill., a knee-high creature.” This was the early 1950s. Brand had entered adolescence, and his hometown, a major machine-tool manufacturing center, had just been placed number seven on a list of most likely targets for Soviet nuclear attack.
Although Brand’s public reputation has been wedded to the ‘60s, he is a product of the ‘50s. “The impulse was, ‘How do I get out of here?’ ‘Cause ‘here’ was so predictable and boring.” Brand never felt at home, he says, until he hit North Beach in San Francisco and discovered the Beats. “They were the intelligent outlaws. You would walk down Grant Avenue and you’d hear jazz, and it wasn’t coming from a nightclub. It was coming from somebody’s basement, and you’d go sit in the alley and have some hot French bread, right out of the oven, and listen to these guys doing timeless jazz improvising into the dawn. That ain’t bad.” North Beach had bitten him. California would become his “native land, because there’s much less asking for permission.”
I look at Brand now, so straight and proper--”a balding L. L. Bean” was my favorite characterization--and I am reminded that he always had a complicated relationship to the ‘60s. He had attended two of America’s most elite educational institutions, Phillips Exeter Academy and Stanford. He had admired the loggers he worked with during summers (“They know a hell of a lot more about the woods than your standard urban environmentalist”) and had thought he wanted a Ph.D in forest firefighting. A stint in the Army, training to be a paratrooper, left him with a respect for military culture that he retains to this day.
Yet once out of the Army, he started a campaign called America Needs Indians, joined Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, experimented with drugs and found himself driving a pickup truck in the San Francisco hills, with Tom Wolfe bouncing around in the back, memorizing the scene for the opening of his classic 1960s tale, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Brand hardly drinks alcohol now, much less takes drugs. “I was always this sort of fringe conservative Prankster,” he explains. “I was always seen as the kind of responsible one, or something.” Indeed, it was a 27-year-old Stewart Brand who stayed straight long enough to organize and run the famous 1966 Trips Festival in San Francisco, which was meant to simulate what it felt like to be on psychedelic drugs. The whole thing, Brand says, was risky, physically dangerous--and alive. “(That) raggedy edge,” he says, “once you’ve tasted it, nothing else tastes as tart.”
Strip away the element of danger and the Trips Festival begins to look a lot like Brand’s other media innovations, the “Whole Earth Catalog” and the WELL, both of which follow the same recipe: “Toss interesting people in the pot and turn up the flame, then dive in.” The festival was the moment that hippie culture discovered it was actually a mass phenomenon. Some also claim that it was the first large-scale rock concert-cum-light show ever staged. Without question, it launched the most successful American band in pop history, the Grateful Dead.
Brand’s 1960s were not about politics, though. When he was an Army photographer, he had wanted to go to Vietnam, he says, but “I didn’t want to go fight. I wanted to go see it. And since I couldn’t go to see it, I didn’t believe anything I heard about it. And I knew that the New Left calling soldiers baby-killers was deep bulls - - -.” There was no war protesting or civil rights marching. Instead, Brand found his home in a quite different subculture of the counterculture--in the world of computer hackers and their rebellion against central processing.
Sometime in the early 1960s--he thinks it was 1963--Brand went to the Stanford computer center to watch “young obsessed-seeming people, all males then, who were out of their bodies, locked in a virtual combat in real time, which we didn’t know to call it then, with other people who were out of their bodies in the same place.” They were playing the first computer game, called “Space War.”
These young men had found a way “out of here” that Brand immediately identified with. His father, an MIT-trained engineer, ran an advertising agency and was a devoted ham radio operator. Long before Sputnik, Stewart Brand says, his mother was a space-travel enthusiast. So when he first encountered computers, he never saw them as a threat, as did others of his generation. “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” he wrote in Rolling Stone in 1972. “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.”
That article, later republished in his book “Two Cybernetic Frontiers,” proved to be remarkably prescient. He understood that both scientists and hackers were inventing personal computers. He spotted how much fun computers could be, how much of computer development would be driven by impassioned improvisation and how computers could be used as communication devices and a means of creative expression. And he was thrilled with what he saw.
The technology had the potential to transform the culture, and the people making computers would be the most successful carriers of the counterculture’s values of decentralization and self-help. That would be his consistent message as he continued to write about computers in the “Whole Earth Catalog,” in CoEvolution Quarterly and eventually in “The Media Lab.” By everyone’s account, Brand popularized the notion that the computer was a tool for good.
Alan Kay, now a Fellow at Apple Computers, Inc., was one of the main characters in Brand’s Rolling Stone story. He was then a scientist at the original Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), which was developing many of the innovations that would lead to the personal computer. “For us at PARC, he was the guy who was giving us the early warning system about what computers were going to be,” says Kay, “and I’m not even sure he knew it.”
Xerox PARC was full of fans of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” which maintained a nearby store to sell the products it reviewed. Books the catalogue had recommended filled the first PARC library. The catalogue, Kay says, taught him to think of the computer as a tool for accessing resources. Brand understood that “the destiny of things was to be connected together. That’s when you become educated and powerful.” And the destiny of computers, Kay and others came to believe, was to be connected. “Catalysts make reactions happen faster. Stewart was one of the major intellectual catalysts of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.”
Actually, Brand’s role as catalyst didn’t abate. When Steven Levy published his 1984 book “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,” Brand and his protege Kevin Kelly realized that the three generations of inventors in Levy’s book had never met one another. They decided to organize the first Hackers Conference, and the result was a legendary event that became an annual institution. Once again, Brand did what he does best. “The hacker community became conscious of who they were,” says Levy. “Links were made that flowered over the years.”
That same year Brand created what would become one of his most important successes--the WELL (the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). A few years earlier he had been given one of the original small Kaypro computers to teach an experimental class over telephone lines, and he learned that communication could be effective when people are not in the same place at the same time. The problem was that it was expensive. So Brand, the former Merry Prankster, thought it would be fun to try a different experiment--a cheap teleconferencing system that would be shaped by the people who used it. He decided that users would “own their own words” and could set up discussion groups on any topic, from parenting to technology itself. The idea caught fire. (In a wonderful historic irony, the WELL’s early success was due in part to its passionate use by Grateful Dead fans.)
The WELL “pioneered the idea of virtual community,” says his friend Mitch Kapor. It soon became the equivalent of a cafe where technologically savvy people hung out, whether they were hackers, civil libertarians or FBI agents. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the policy and advocacy organization that Kapor now leads, got started as a conference on the WELL, as a place to talk about the social issues new technologies raise. (When EFF became an organization, Brand became one of its first board members.)
The WELL’s success coincided with Brand’s most spectacular failure--the 1984 publication of a “Whole Earth Software Catalog.” He had received what at the time was the largest advance ever paid for a computer book, $1.3 million. But software, it turned out, had to be reviewed a lot more frequently than the catalogue schedule allowed, and the book quickly became obsolete. Brand had broken one of his own cardinal rules. Unlike the WELL, the software catalogue was not “self-enhancing. It had no way to correct.” There was, in other words, no way to debug it.
Just how Stewart Brand came to spend much of the past six years studying not computers, but buildings, reveals a great deal about how his mind works.
The software catalogue had failed, the WELL had been launched, CoEvolution Quarterly had gained a new name (“Whole Earth Review”) and a new editor (Kevin Kelly), and Brand was headed to Africa for a sabbatical. On the way, he stopped in Venice, and found himself looking up at the dome of St. Mark’s Basilica, stunned by its Asiatic mosaics. “It was an aesthetic overwhelm and a great, jarring, thrilling event where you just go, ‘Holy s- - -, I have no idea what’s going on here.’ ” He decided to learn everything he could about Venetian history and to study the city’s complex systems that controlled food distribution, electricity, transportation, politics and more. He discovered “an intensely adaptive organization which could turn on a dime. The 800 years of the Venetian republic is the classic case of a culture living on the razor’s edge, century after century.”
Once in Africa, he started spinning fantasies of the books he could write about Venice, eventually deciding that it ought to be a fiction series. On the way back to the United States, he stopped in London and dropped in on his friend Peter Schwartz. Brand’s interest in how complex systems evolve matched the work that Schwartz was doing at Shell on how organizations learn. So they dreamed up a project to start a dialogue between intellectuals and business people. Corporations would sponsor the conversations, and Brand would orchestrate them. They were called the Learning Conferences, and both GBN and “How Buildings Learn” eventually grew out of them.
Brand had been searching for a way to write about learning through time. When he shifted his gaze from Venice to buildings themselves, he knew he had hit upon a “genuine scoop of some depth and relevance. I think it really is new, true, important and well-written, which are the criteria of why you publish something or don’t that I work with. It’s the most thoroughly realized thing I’ve ever done.”
“How Buildings Learn” is the best single summary of Brand’s thought. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have written it. Not only did he use all the skills he developed at the catalogue--distilling ideas into aphorisms, making connections among disparate disciplines, liberally employing images to make his case. But the book also gave him a focused way to do the intellectual work he excels at: To Brand, the book was a scientific endeavor, a chance to study and categorize organisms--in this case, buildings--that appear to be permanent but are actually continually changing. Which allows him to talk indirectly about institutional and cultural adaptivity of all kinds--how any human system, whether it’s Venice or a tiny bungalow, moves from here to there.
The path that buildings take through time, not the space they inhabit, is Brand’s concern. “A building is not something you finish,” he writes. “A building is something you start.” Brand exhorts architects to enable people to shape buildings to their own needs, regardless of the architect’s original intentions. This, of course, is one of the primary ideas he has been communicating in various forms for 25 years--that individuals must have the tools and the freedom to adapt as they see fit. “Unmake victims,” he wrote in the 1980 edition of the “Whole Earth Catalog.” “Start with yourself, branch out from there.” That was vintage Brand, though not quite as memorable as his most famous catalogue rallying cry, which had the same message: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
But the Brand who studied biology and ecology at Stanford in the late 1950s and learned about cybernetics from Gregory Bateson in the 1970s knows that relationships are as important as autonomy. Every building, as every individual, is part of a complex system that nobody controls. People shape buildings, and buildings shape people.
This idea is so pivotal to Brand that he named a magazine after it. In his introduction to the first issue of CoEvolution Quarterly, he wrote: “It seems that all evolution is coevolution. . . . Language such as ‘preserving the ecology’ suggests something quite perfect--static, knowable, oriented backward, unwelcoming to human foolishness . . . unreal. Ecology is whole system alright, but coevolution is whole system in TIME. The health of it is forward--systemic self-education which feeds on constant imperfection. We coevolving watchers and meddlers are not left out of it. Ecology maintains. Coevolution learns.”
Brand’s belief in the biological metaphor is total, and he thinks he’s succeeded in convincing some businesses to embrace it, rather than the old sports and military metaphors of winning and conquering. “You see the term coevolution all through business texts now,” he says. Businesses are “shaped by relationships. It helps them realize that often competition is just a funny form of collaboration.”
Biology informs Brand’s next project. He and Peter Schwartz have a contract to write a book called “Biofutures” that will examine the race between between biotechnology and nanotechnology (the engineering of molecular material). “Whichever becomes profoundly effective first,” Brand says, “will influence everything else, more even than information technology has.”
After many hours talking with Brand, I am beginning to understand why he doesn’t fit the stereotype of ‘60s radical he’s so often assigned. He was always counter-counterculture--a short-haired Darwinian biologist who believed in small business and had little interest in ideology or politics. “The sorting of complex issues into Democrat and Republican infuriates me,” he says. (He did, however, put in a stint as a part-time consultant to a politician who also defied labels, former California Gov. Jerry Brown.)
The sharpest criticism leveled at Brand is that he never addresses whole political and economic systems that limit the power of any one individual--especially individuals who are not white and male. Herbert Chao Gunther, president of the San Francisco-based Public Media Center, the only nonprofit public-interest advertising agency in the country, says that Brand and his cohort are guilty of “escapist intellectualism.” They are, he says, “people on a lifeboat fundamentally blind to the people drowning in the ocean. They are alienated from the unhappy work of making a democracy.” In other words, Brand is naive about the difference his beloved tools can make and doesn’t understand what’s required to change a world dominated by intrusive governments and ever-expanding corporations.
He would answer that it is naive to try to reinvent the world from the top down. When pushed, he calls himself conservative or an optimistic fatalist. “It’s probably the difference between evolutionary and visionary,” he explains. “Evolutionary is backward-looking with accuracy. Visionary is forward-looking with eyes filled with folly. I think all utopias are dystopias. Utopia is the opposite of laying down a path by walking. It’s a spelling out in exhaustive and boring detail where one is gonna get to, and there’s no way that can work. It’s always deadly.”
When Brand turned 50 a few years back, he allowed no toasts or other sentimental gestures from the 100 friends who gathered for the party thrown by his second wife, Patty Phelan. He doesn’t learn anything from praise, he says, and introspection seems self-indulgent. For all his love of conversation, he remains an essentially private man. “Stewart is not self-revelatory,” says Mary Catherine Bateson. “I’ve rarely heard Stewart start a sentence, ‘I feel.’ ”
Where he does reveal himself is in his habitat. Next to his houseboat office is a storage yard consisting of 30 shipping containers that usually sit on the back of tractor-trailers. Brand rents two for a total of $500 a month; one is for storage, the other houses the library where he put together “How Buildings Learn.”
The steel 8-by-8-by-40-foot container has long work tables, 3 1/2 feet high and 2 feet deep, with shelves above within easy reach and plenty of storage space below. Above the work tables is a wall-length sheet-metal bulletin board; to hold things up, he uses magnets, which he then can slide around. It’s a “low road” building, his favorite kind, which means low rent, little style and easy to change. “People asked, ‘How can you stand it in there without windows?’ ” he writes in the buildings book. “All I could say was, ‘A library doesn’t need windows. A library is a window.’ ”
On the right wall just as we enter is a group of photographs: Winston Churchill on the deck of a warship, cigar in mouth; Churchill standing in his study, learning over a book holder; Churchill on his own roof, hammering. This is Brand’s “Churchill shrine.” He’s been reading about Churchill for about five years and even belongs to the International Churchill Society so he can get its quarterly magazine. “I got very interested in the whole concept of good judgment, and Churchill’s quality of judgment is so often superb.”
Not surprising, Brand’s favorite hobby is reading. He’s got a whole shelf on Venice, another of T. E. Lawrence, another of Nabokov. He usually keeps three or four books going at a time--the ones he reads for pleasure, in the evenings. This doesn’t include the ones he skims for GBN during the days.
Everywhere you look in the container, there are photographs, maps, posters--things that Brand can see, because nothing seems to impress him more than visual reality. On the worktable, just at the entrance, are the boxes of note cards that Brand has used to organize his book. They are color-coded by source: white for interviews, orange for periodicals, blue for books and so on. He does a quick estimate of their number and slips a note that says “1,824 cards” under a magnet on the bulletin board.
I look in the first box, and the first section of cards is labeled, “Writing Style.” I pull one card out: “28 May, TN Valley. As abstract as the blds book wants to be, it must glory in details--zennishly.”
Brand’s style is zennish. He writes with an informality that belies the seriousness of his ideas. I have come to see his style as a combination of influences: his father (who wrote ad copy), Samuel Johnson (whom he can still quote from his studies at Exeter), ‘60s buttons (you have to be pithy to fit a slogan on a button) and his years of practice writing all those brief catalogue reviews. “These are the poetical efforts of a prose writer trying to plant a burr in the mind as it goes by in great haste,” he says. “The mind collects stories, collects experiences, and it’s pretty good at managing aphorisms and slogans and little rhymes.”
Moving down the container, we pass a pile of printouts of his e-mail conversations with his friend, musician Brian Eno, whom he calls one of his “muses.” We get to the 500 books, and the hundreds of magazines he’s used for the buildings research, all carefully organized and labeled. Brand may survive on improvisation, inventing and reinventing himself, but the evidence of his discipline and drive are all around him. He calls it a “necessary paradox.”
I ask what he reads for work. Not the New York Times, he says. Everybody he knows reads it, so he feels he doesn’t have to. Instead, he reads the weekly Science, since “science is the only news, really, in the world.” He keeps up with Library Journal, which he finds “a very good source of pretty sensible book reviews,” and also with the Atlantic Monthly and Foreign Affairs, to get a deeper view of current events. He was for many years a loyal Wall Street Journal reader, until he finally couldn’t take the editorial page any longer. “It’s so predictable and well-written and stupid, so f- - - ‘em.”
He learns the most, he says, from venturing out--into the WELL, or into conversations of any sort. He “visits” the WELL for about an hour and a half to two hours, nearly every day, tuning in routinely to the news of the WELL itself, the Generation X conference, the books section and the GBN private section, where he’s responsible for maintaining the quality of the discourse.
As we talk about the tools he uses to stay fresh, he keeps insisting that one of the most important is laziness. At first that seems crazy to me, because he says he works 10 hours a day, seven days a week--with an occasional break for a hike on the weekends. Then he explains what he learned in the Army.
“I was taught that there are four kinds of officers--stupid and industrious, stupid and lazy, smart and industrious and smart and lazy. And the worst of these is stupid and industrious and the best of these is smart and lazy. And I’ve always tried to live up to that,” he says, laughing.
Why is that the best?
“Because an officer is the one who’s trying to figure out what’s missing here. The officer is the one who needs to see how maybe we’re doing the wrong thing right and we’d be better off doing the right thing right. The lazy officer who is smart will figure out a way to do it quicker, cheaper, faster, easier, with less involvement of people, whatever it is, because he’s so lazy. And that’s what you want. An industrious person will revel in crisis.”
The result of that strategy is that Brand is not--as many people assume--wealthy. The more than $1 million generated from the first catalogue was used to set up the nonprofit Point Foundation and found CoEvolution Quarterly. (He also threw a famous all-night party and gave away $20,000 of the profits in cash.) Recently, the foundation sold the WELL to finance “The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog.” After taxes and his agent’s fee, Brand says, he received an advance of $45,000 for “How Buildings Learn.” His savings, he says, consist of $15,000. The only thing he and his wife own that’s worth anything is their tugboat, the Mirene.
Built in 1912, the Mirene is tied up at the Sausalito docks, a five-minute walk from Brand’s fishing-boat office and the containers. Its 450 square feet is their entire living space. They have spent more than $150,000 to renovate it, stripping and revarnishing the original Douglas fir paneling and installing French doors. The design feels like a piece of clothing tailored especially for the two of them. (Brand’s only child, 17-year-old son Noah Johnson, “a wonderful leftover from a romance that was otherwise ending,” lives with his mother in Berkeley.)
It’s sunset, and we sit on the deck as the air grows chilly. Brand pulls out his monocular to look more closely at a bird and confirms that it’s a kingfisher making a surprise appearance among the boats. We talk of the man who was murdered on these docks the night before. He isn’t kidding when he says that this is his Cannery Row, a rough and rowdy waterfront scene. This is, after all, the man who attached this aphorism to his Who’s Who profile: “Life rides. Death drives.”
I sip wine with Phelan, 42, who’s been married to Brand for 11 years. Like Brand, she’s had several careers, the most recent a mail-order equestrian-supply business that she has sold. In 1978, she helped start Planetree, a nonprofit consumer health-care organization that pioneered patient-centered care. I ask how it is that her husband has taken his own best “Whole Earth Catalog” advice and managed a do-it-yourself life.
“Someone once said to Stewart--this is many years ago--they thought he might be nominated for a McArthur grant. Stewart thought that would be an incredible honor and really wonderful, since we don’t have tons of money. It would be very liberating. And he was really disappointed when the McArthurs came out that he wasn’t listed. And he said, you know, ‘I’ve just got to live my life as though I always have a McArthur.”
If Stewart Brand is, as Mitch Kapor put it, “a great inventor in the realm of ideas,” perhaps his greatest invention is his own life. Without intending to do so, says his close friend Kevin Kelly, he made up “the postmodern life, the non-career career.”
In 1971, as he was trying to decide what to do after editing that most famous “Whole Earth Catalog,” he wrote: “The voices that you need to hear, whisper, slowly and infrequently. The only way to hear them is listen. . . . There’s a difference between intention driving us on, and mystery pulling us on. Mystery will always educate and correct. Intention can go off the end of its own limb.”
So what mystery will pull him next? Someone who knows him well had told me to ask him about the “clock project.”
He stiffens. “Very tentative. Very fragile. Probably, possibly might not happen. Don’t know who’s involved, if anybody. So I just can’t talk about it until it’s real enough to talk about, and maybe not then. No offense intended.”
Later, when I get to the last page of “How Buildings Learn,” I discover just what the clock project might be. Brand is hammering home his argument about the importance of slow, evolutionary design one last time.
“Here’s an exercise. Computer scientist Danny Hillis has proposed the making of ‘a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.’ The point is to have a charismatic object that helps people think long-term.”
It’s not hard to imagine the appeal of such a project to the man who once sat on a San Francisco rooftop and dreamed up the question, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” It’s also not hard to imagine that this same man may one day be remembered for something he hasn’t yet done.
Spreading the Words
One of Stewart Brand’s jobs at the Global Business Network is to select books, CDs, journals, articles and software for its members. Here’s what he chose for 1992 and 1993:
1992 The New State of the World Atlas, Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal The Pacific Rim Almanac, Alexander Besher Governing the Commons, Elinor Ostrom The Nissan Report, Steve Barnett Beyond the Limits, Donella Meadows Earth in the Balance, Al Gore Global Financial Integration, Richard O’Brien Industrial Ecology, Hardin Tibbs Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville Artificial Life, Steven Levy Life After Television, George Gilder Crossing the Postmodern Divide, Albert Borgmann Scanning the Future, Dutch Central Planning Normative Scenarios, Jay Ogilvy Rubbish! William Rathje and Cullen Murphy The End of Equality, Mickey Kaus Generation X, Douglas Coupland Mondo 2000 User’s Guide to the New Edge magazine No Nature Gary Snyder Nerve Net, Brian Eno Us, Peter Gabriel
1993 Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez The New Century, Clem Sunter Mont Fleur Scenarios, Adam Kahane Tribes, Joel Kotkin The Structures of Everyday Life, Fernand Braudel Post-Capitalist Society, Peter Drucker Complexity, Mitchell Waldrop Fuzzy Logic, Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger Science magazine Wired magazine Wild Earth Information magazine Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold The Whole Internet User’s Guide, Ed Krol The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken The Wheels of Commerce, Fernand Braudel War and Anti-War, Alvin and Heidi Toffler The Clash of Civilizations? Samuel P. Huntington Let the Sea Make a Noise, Walter A. McDougall Russia 2010, Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson
When the first major “Whole Earth Catalog” received the National Book Award, one of the judges said: “In 100 years this will probably be the only book of the year 1971 to be remembered.” Like MTV and the Internet, the mail-order catalogue was a media breakthrough. It’s now such a historic artifact that the early editions are stored in a special collection in the UCLA library. A cross between an encyclopedia and L. L. Bean, the oversized catalogue provided non-experts with “access to tools”--from wind generators to the visions of a Sioux wise man. In retrospect, Stewart Brand sees that he took do-it-yourself and “intellectualized it and upscaled it and legitimized it and made it a pop culture item.”
“The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog,” just arriving in bookstores, is the sixth major edition. Published by the Point Foundation and distributed by HarperSanFrancisco, the impressive 384-page, $30 paperback contains more than 3,000 entries. Editor Howard Rheingold stresses how the new catalogue has evolved from Brand’s original vision. The 1980 version, for instance, boasted 37 pages on alternative energy. The new edition devotes only four, largely because the original catalogue so popularized the idea that numerous other books and resources are now available. Instead, “The Millenium Whole Earth Catalog” guides readers on setting up a computer bulletin board system, saving seeds or talking to teen-agers about drugs. “We’re saying there’s not a solution to be sold,” says Rheingold. “There’s only a solution to be found. You’ve got to find it yourself.”