On Floating Upstream

March 22, 2022   •   By W. Patrick McCray

Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand

John Markoff

THROUGH NO FAULT of his own, Stewart Brand and his ideas have infiltrated my life from childhood onward. My parents were neo-hippies who left their small city in the late 1960s to live mostly off-the-grid in the middle of the woods in western Pennsylvania. Pursuing a lifestyle of modest self-sufficiency, they not only heated our small house with a wood stove but had me spending far too many summer afternoons gathering vegetables and fruits at nearby farms. Hunting season was an actual season, and I was well advised to wear blaze orange. My mom drove a series of VW Beetles, ignoring the angry honks from coal trucks as we trundled up the steep ridge road to our house.

I vividly remember visiting our neighbor who lived a few miles away in a cleverly designed A-frame house, a popular rural design in the 1970s. The adults circulated a jug of red wine while chatting about yoga and cross-country skiing. I spent the time rummaging through books in the loft — and amid Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung I found a dog-eared copy of the Whole Earth Catalog, the counterculture lifestyle magazine and catalog that Stewart Brand started publishing in 1968. In its dense pages — numbering in the several hundred and packed with pictures — I saw some of the same products my parents and their friends talked about: jars for canning food, camping gear, maybe a canoe or a new shotgun. While I never heard the adults utter the phrase “sustainable living,” it was an ideal that, along with certain scents, invariably permeated the air at my parents’ parties. To be virtuous was to “live light” on the land. Ironically, this meant buying lots of stuff.

A few years later and my parents were starting to transform into Reagan Democrats. A family trip down to Cape Canaveral turned me, however, into an enthusiastic space nerd. The Apollo program had ended, but the idea of living in space seemed both fantastic and eminently realizable in my lifetime. Only much later would I learn that Brand permeated that reverie too; he had championed the concept of permanent space settlements in the late 1970s. Fast forward to the aughts and teens of this century, and I, a history professor, wrote a book called The Visioneers (2013) that explored the activities of a cohort of scientists and engineers who pursued radical technologies such as space colonies, advanced computing, and nanotechnologies. Like Brand, they could imagine a radically different future, and then build tools to make it happen while, just as importantly, popularizing their vision to a public and patrons. Through publications like CoEvolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Review, Stewart Brand had reported on many of these efforts. In the interests of disclosure (or is it boasting?), I should mention that Brand later wrote a blurb for my book. He then wandered onto the pages of three of my other book projects. He even followed me on Twitter, briefly. So, by the time I got to the end of John Markoff’s new biography of the man, titled Whole Earth, I had to admit to feeling a bit, well, brand-ed.

Subtitled “The Many Lives of Stewart Brand,” Markoff quickly nixes the idea that his book’s protagonist is a Zelig-like character who simply showed up anywhere and everywhere as hip new things were developing. It’s impossible to deny, however, that Stewart Brand was, and remains, actively and undeniably present, much as he has been in my own life but writ large, participating in and shaping events and organizations that coalesce around him. From the first Grateful Dead shows to 21st-century TED Talks, Brand is there. All the while, he has, according to Markoff, maintained a “consistent through line” of thought and purpose, marked by insatiable curiosity about technology, commitment to science and democracy (of the “small d” sort), and an aversion to orthodox thinking of all stripes.

For the last two decades, a growing cottage industry has developed around what I’ll call “Stewart Brand Studies.” Markoff, a former Pulitzer Prize–winning technology reporter for The New York Times and a Silicon Valley native himself, got things rolling with What the Dormouse Said (2005), his exploration of how elements of the 1960s counterculture, with Brand as a notable player, influenced the personal computer industry. Fred Turner, a communications professor at Stanford, presented a more theoretically inflected version of the same material in his 2006 book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In Turner’s telling, Brand functioned as a “network entrepreneur” who, for three decades, connected disparate social and intellectual communities. Turner tracked Brand’s participation in the rise of a libertarian cyberculture and the Clinton-era “New Economy” of the 1990s. Another excellent book, Andy Kirk’s Counterculture Green (2007), explored how the Whole Earth Catalog reflected a particular flavor of American environmentalism focused on tools, technology, and sustainable living.

The counterculture was a great deal more complicated than clichés of hippies dancing at Woodstock or rioting in Chicago imply. Essays in the 2016 collection Groovy Science (edited by myself and colleague David Kaiser) undermine the simplistic narrative that the youth of the 1960s rejected technology en masse. Instead, they embraced particular kinds of technology — from sensory deprivation chambers and artisanal cheese to surfboards whose design came straight from the aerospace industry — and also, along the way, fostered a new type of consumerism. A 2017 museum show at UC Berkeley titled Hippie Modernism addressed some of the same material, examining the sorts of technological, aesthetic, and social experiment that would have been familiar to the readers of Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. As that show’s preface stated, “Hippie modernism marks the tension between the modern characterized as universal, timeless, rational, and progressive, and its countercultural other, which adopts a more local, timely, emotive and often irreverent, and radical disposition.”

This same sort of tension is found in the Whole Earth Catalog and, indeed, in much of Brand’s life.

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Born in 1938 to a conventional Midwest family, Brand studied biology at Stanford before embarking on a stint in the army as parachutist and photographer. A “cosmic cowboy” who was fascinated by Native American culture, he was soon drawn into the nascent counterculture of the mid-1960s, where older beatniks rubbed shoulders and shared hot tubs with a younger cohort of hippies. A psychedelic drug experience in 1966 prompted him to successfully lobby NASA to make public photographs of the entire planet from space, a feat that brought him considerable renown. Brand claims these pictures helped dissipate the pessimism that permeated 1960s popular culture. Later, they graced the covers of the Whole Earth Catalog. As he famously stated on the catalog’s opening page, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

The book’s runaway success — a later edition won a National Book Award — enabled Brand to assume a decades-long role as a provocateur and influencer. Starting in the 1970s, he catalyzed public debates about personal computers, nanotechnology, the internet, and nuclear power. More recently, he has promoted the possibility of using biotechnology to reverse the extinction of certain creatures like the Xerces, a brilliantly iridescent blue butterfly that disappeared from the San Francisco area in the 1940s.

Brand’s activities leading up to the publication and reception of the Whole Earth Catalog are generally well known and, understandably, receive a good deal of Markoff’s attention. Less familiar to readers will be those episodes that exemplify Brand’s repeated willingness to challenge traditional viewpoints — for instance, his mid-1970s promotion of the space settlements that had captured my imagination as a boy. In 1969, a Princeton physicist named Gerard O’Neill used mathematical calculations and extrapolations drawn from existing technological trends to develop detailed designs for such settlements. O’Neill envisioned them as self-contained worlds, microcosms of larger Earth-bound systems. The Bay Area–based Point Foundation, a nonprofit started by Brand, provided seed funding for a modest-sized conference organized by O’Neill in the spring of 1974. When The New York Times featured the meeting on its front page, media coverage of O’Neill’s idea blossomed internationally, launching the physicist to minor celebrity status.

Brand contributed to the enthusiasm through his new magazine CoEvolution Quarterly, its coverage becoming a flashpoint for the conflict between technological enthusiasts like Brand and traditional environmentalists like Wendell Berry who opposed the concept of humans in space. To some CoEvolution readers, the idea of living in space seemed a logical extension of the “back to Earth” lifestyle that eschewed crowded urban environments for rural communes. Others were attracted to the escapism and possibility for social experimentation sans authoritarian oversight. But, for those who favored E. F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” philosophy and ideals of “appropriate technology,” space colonies provoked outrage. Brand himself tried to remain neutral but his diary reveals where his loyalty lay. After seeing a space shuttle at Rockwell International’s factory in Palmdale, California, he wrote: “Technology, kiddo. This is to today what the great sailing ships were to their day. Get with the program or stick to your spinning wheel.” [1] Critics directed equally pointed barbs. Perhaps most cutting was this verse from one CoEvolution reader, which I found in Brand’s personal papers:

It seems to be no secret
Where all the flowers have went
Yesterday’s counterculture
Is today’s establishment. [2]

Markoff’s biography will likely be the last word on Brand for some time. His approach to his sources is vexing, however. He made heavy use of the thousands of pages of Brand’s papers archived at Stanford University for quotes like the ones above. However, because Whole Earth “is not intended as a scholarly volume,” Markoff provides no footnotes. This is disappointing given the richness of the material he uncovered. Scholars hoping to understand the source or context of the scores of lively and intriguing quotes are condemned to tracking down the originals. The only positive outcome I can see is that a new cohort of scholars will be forced to rediscover Brand, and to fashion new narratives that complement or challenge Markoff’s.

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Since more than half of Markoff’s time is devoted to Brand’s life and activities through the early 1970s, when he was still just in his early 30s, the next half-century gets brisk treatment. Nonetheless, Markoff is able to survey a remarkable number of fascinating and thematically coherent episodes. Books, it becomes clear, are one of the key tools Brand deployed to spur his professional activities. After the Whole Earth Catalog, he authored or co-authored at least six more books. In addition to The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987), which helped cement his reputation as a future-oriented thinker unafraid to push controversial ideas, there is How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (1994), which examines how architecture adaptively evolves over time. His last major book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (2009), promoted genetic engineering and nuclear power to the dismay of some conventional environmentalists.

Not all of his thunderclouds yielded a rain of money. Markoff gives an apt telling of the ill-advised publication of The Whole Earth Software Catalog (1984). A financial disaster, it turned Brand into “a gawker outside a hothouse technical culture that was as unique and insular” as parts of the 1960s counterculture had been. Nonetheless, Brand has been relatively well represented by the high-flying literary agent John Brockman. Brockman’s reputation today is tarnished by his cozy relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but before that debacle, he secured lucrative advances for Brand’s books (the advance for Whole Earth Discipline brought in nearly $500,000), helping him become ever richer, and famous. (At the end of the biography, one learns that Brockman is also Markoff’s agent, squaring a circle of sorts.)

It can be interesting to imagine alternate realities. Consider, for example, what Stewart Brand might have written had he not been drawn into the egotistical orbit of MIT’s Media Lab founder and consummate salesman Nicholas Negroponte. What if he had discovered and written about the confluence of art, design, and engineering at another university or art center where the ratio of flashy marketing to deliverable had been lower? But instead, Brand was consistently pulled toward the purportedly “best and brightest” of the academically inclined but aggressively commercial-and-comfortable-with-power type. Cosmopolitan but affiliated with technoscientific-based industries, the people in Brand’s larger circle are always looking beyond the grind of industrial competition to a future that transcends time, space, politics, and bodies. As a cohort, they generally believe in accelerating technological improvement, of the sort predicted by Moore’s Law, which will make us more connected, longer-lived, and more liberated from our bodies, governments, and traditions.

Early on, Markoff does give a whisper of an insight in this direction. Toward the end of a 1980 Washington Post profile of Brand, Ken Kesey, a compatriot of Brand dating back to their Merry Prankster days, remarked that “Stewart recognizes power. And cleaves to it.” While the observation pained Brand, it explains a great deal of his career. As Markoff describes, Brand attended a series of fancy schools, became close friends with celebrity thinkers and gurus, and later worked as a political consultant to California Governor Jerry Brown. The epigraph to Markoff’s book quotes a Brand family saying: “Throw a Brand in the river and they will float upstream.” This suggests tenacity might matter as much as fortuitousness. But infusions of family money and growing fame surely provided Brand with considerable tailwinds.

Brand’s pattern of seeking partnerships with power continued as the Day-Glo sheen of the 1970s wore off and the Reagan-era juggernaut of greed, deregulation, and globalization accelerated. Supremely well connected, he allied himself with similarly networked people at elite educational institutions and profitable corporations. Perhaps especially notable was his involvement with the Global Business Network, a small but influential Bay Area–based consulting firm he co-founded in 1987. Its roots lay in 1970s-era futurology and Brand’s obsession with networks, digital as well as human. As Brand phrased it, GBN offered “survival insurance” to an expanding roster of “companies who want to be smarter.” [3] To this end, GBN prepared “adaptive scenarios” that functioned as “creative tools for ordering one’s perception about possible alternative future environments.” [4]

Some years ago, I found an example of one of these exercises in Brand’s papers. To guide discussions with its corporate clients, GBN prepared three “mental maps of the future” covering a range of possibilities. At one end of the spectrum, a scenario-map entitled “New Empires” predicted protectionist nation-states banding together to create competitive regional clusters and trade barriers. But if “turbulence and volatility seem to be the only constant,” then GBN suggested a second scenario-map described as “Global Incoherence.” Finally, the third one featured a “Market World” in which expanding free market forces and neoliberal economics drove the creation of a “virtuous circle of technological innovation in an increasingly interactive and prosperous economy.” With its enhanced trade opportunities and favorable geopolitics, GBN and its clients clearly favored the triumph of “Market World.” Regardless, it was technology tout court that always figured as the prominent force for social, economic, and political change.

GBN’s roster boasted a loose, eclectic, and yet exclusive membership. A feature article in the techno-hip magazine Wired displayed some faces from this newly emerging class of high-tech intellectuals: Jon McIntire (Grateful Dead manager), Michael Murphy (co-founder of the Esalen Institute), Gary Snyder (Beat poet), Bill Joy (founder of Sun Microsystems), Esther Dyson (technology pundit), Amory Lovins (energy futurist), Jaron Lanier (virtual reality pioneer), William Gibson (cyberpunk author), Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno (avant-garde musicians), and so on. The dotted lines connecting the images suggest an Illuminati-like “collection of heretics and remarkable people.” With its “network of remarkable people,” charitably described by one reporter as “relentlessly white and male and middle-aged,” GBN provided business leaders with access to new ideas and expertise, and created opportunities for the tech-savvy and cosmopolitan elite to meet one another at carefully chosen luxury venues.[5] For an annual fee of $25,000, corporate clients could formally join the GBN network and get access to these experts and celebrities while co-founder Brand drew a six-figure salary for his consulting contributions. One of the latter projects Brand pitched to John Brockman was for a book How to Be Rich Well.

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The challenge of writing a biography of a living person is amplified by the fact that the 83-year-old Brand is still so active as a personality and public speaker. Much of his visibility today comes from his collaboration with George Church, a geneticist at Harvard (more elitism), to reintroduce the woolly mammoth to the Siberian arctic as a new tool to combat climate change. Markoff sympathetically takes us into Brand’s personal life as well. We get a visceral sense of Brand’s struggles with depression, including a deep slump he experienced in the 1970s, brought about by a too-liberal regimen of recreational drugs combined with sudden celebrity and overwork as well as bouts of debilitating vertigo. A multitude of largely failed romances dot the story until Brand meets and marries Ryan Phelan, a social entrepreneur who provides a much-needed anchor for Brand’s oft-quixotic ambitions.

Chief among the latter is Brand’s long-standing enthusiasm for projects that engage with themes of temporality and mortality. The de-extinction project is one example. Brand’s involvement, starting in 1996, with the Long Now Foundation is another. The nonprofit’s aim is to foster an alternative, more measured, mindset for thinking about time. The chief artifactual aid in this endeavor is the Clock of the Long Now, which will function without human intervention for 10,000 years. Conceived in the mid-1980s by computer scientist Danny Hillis, it was funded by Jeff Bezos, a longtime Brand acquaintance (of course!), who also provided land for the first prototype. Markoff describes Brand and others in his orbit listening to it chime for the first time on New Year’s Eve as its date changed from 01999 to 02000.

Whether it was by seeing the whole planet from space, dropping a lot of LSD, encouraging communities in cyberspace, or helping build a clock that lasts 10 millennia, Brand relentlessly promoted alternative viewpoints. Tying them all together, concludes Markoff, was Brand’s notion of a broader planetary consciousness. Here we are today, flawed gods to be sure, but ones who can now see the whole Earth.

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Selections of this review related to Stewart Brand and space colonies previously appeared in McCray’s book The Visioneers.

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W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara where he researches and writes about modern technology and science.

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[1] Stewart Brand, mid-1977 journal entry; Stewart Brand Papers at Stanford University.

[2] December 1, 1977, letter from Diane Engle to Brand; Folder 11, Box 1, Whole Earth Collection at Stanford University.

[3] January 2, 1988, notes from GBN planning meeting; Folder 2, Box 68, Stewart Brand papers at Stanford University.

[4] Quotes re: GBN appear in December 1988 issue of GBN publication The Deeper News as well as the “1990 Scenario Book;” Folder 1, Box 66 and Box 75, Folder 7, both found in the Stewart Brand papers at Stanford University.

[5] More background on GBN comes from Joel Garreau. “Conspiracy of Heretics.” Wired, November 1994: 98–106, 153–158.