“Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand” by John Markoff
Courtesy Penguin Press

A New Biography Looks Back on Stewart Brand’s Planetary Impact

Tech journalist John Markoff’s “Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand” frames the visionary’s thinking as a model for global consciousness.
By Mara Fisher
March 21, 2022
12 minute read

One afternoon in February of 1966, Stewart Brand took half a tab of LSD, sat on a rooftop in San Francisco’s North Beach, and looked up at the sky. He began to visualize what he would see if there were a mirror up there, miles away, looking back at him. As he contemplated this vantage point, he thought about the powerful impact that a photograph of the entire earth might have on people and their collective consciousness. Brand later launched a campaign imploring NASA to release such an image, which became a powerful symbol that implicated societies in a collective identity and responsibility to care for the planet.

Brand put the image on the inaugural 1968 cover of the Whole Earth Catalog (which philosophically influenced our At a Distance podcast, the cover art for which is a not-so-subtle nod to Brand's creation), a compendium of educational ephemera, how-to diagrams, and practical items, from potter’s wheels to outdoor equipment, for people heading to a commune. (Brand, a photographer, writer, community architect, and former army lieutenant then on the cusp of his 30th birthday, had spent a portion of that summer driving around Colorado and New Mexico, selling camping gear, books, and supplies to residents living in intentional communities.) The catalog envisioned a new social order in which skills, together with manual and technological tools, provided a path to individual empowerment. To this day, the publication is widely considered an early analogue to the World Wide Web, and its emphasis on connectivity and on the democratizing effect of universal accessibility to information continues to influence leading minds in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Notwithstanding its cult following, Brand left the publication—which was released quarterly through 1971 and infrequently thereafter until 1998—in 1972. He then worked as a journalist, covering then-nascent hacker culture, and helped create a number of conferences and initiatives, including The Well, one of the first online communities, and, with Wired magazine’s founding executive editor, Kevin Kelly, organized early hacker conferences. Today, Brand’s distinct perspective—which champions a blend of individualism, respect for science and the environment, and Eastern and Indigenous thought—endures as a profound, ever-evolving model for planetary consciousness.

John Markoff, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who has covered Silicon Valley since 1977, and who has known Brand since the early 1980s, chronicles Brand’s life story in the book Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand (Penguin Press), out this week. The deeply reported biography is the result of years spent by Markoff poring over Brand’s personal journals and letters—many of which are part of a special collection at the library at Stanford University, Brand’s alma mater—coupled with extensive interviews with Brand in his Bay Area office.

We recently spoke with Markoff about Brand’s trajectory and guiding principles, and his preternatural ability to stumble into emerging trends and social movements in their earliest days, sometimes even creating them himself.

Spelling out Brand’s philosophies and work seems like a daunting task. What do you consider his greatest achievements, and their impacts on society and the planet?

Brand served as an inspirational model for a generation that was trying to break out of the boundaries of middle-class American society in the 1960s and 1970s. Not only did the Whole Earth Catalog serve as a guide to inventing your own life, but its spirit was captured by Steve Jobs in 2005, when he told a Stanford graduating class, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” He was quoting Brand. The catalog was a serendipity engine—while reading it, you would find interesting ideas, and your entire life would go off in an orthogonal direction because of something you stumbled upon. That perspective, that set of ideas, came out of the same forces that were creating Silicon Valley.

Brand’s latest crusade is an organization he co-founded called the Long Now Foundation, an effort to try to push our culture toward long-term thinking. It’s too early to judge whether this effort will have a significant impact. But they’re building a clock that is designed to run for 10,000 years, a timespan they call “the long now,” to make their point.

Brand’s endeavors center on ideas around seemingly disparate subjects: environmentalism and technology. Can you elaborate on how, for him, they relate to one another?

It’s important that the subtitle of the Whole Earth Catalog is “Access to Tools.” The opening sentence in the introduction to the first Whole Earth Catalog is also legendary: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” If you ask Stewart today where that came from, he’ll tell you he was channeling a man named Buckminster Fuller. He took away from Fuller that, if you give someone a tool and teach them how to use it, they can change the world with it, and that introductory line in the catalog captures this vision.

Personal computing fits into that—it’s a universal tool. Stewart was also influenced by [engineer and Internet pioneer] Douglas Engelbart, who introduced him to the idea that the computer was going to be a tool that humans could use to bootstrap society.

Do you think those core focuses are what have helped him to anticipate the future so accurately?

Stewart was always early to ideas. It was almost eerie how often he would be early to something that would become an important force, and in many cases, he would actually be a factor in creating it. He was a member of the group around author Ken Kesey called the Merry Pranksters. He was also part of a series of parties called the Acid Tests, and ultimately organized one of the largest Acid Tests, in January 1966.

After he got out of the army, in 1962, Stewart wanted to become a photojournalist for a while. His first paying job was from the architects who had created Stanford’s student union, and they gave him an assignment to photograph the building. While he was on campus, someone showed him around the computer center, which at that time had a big centralized computer with a graphics display. He saw two young men playing this video game—it was actually the very first video game, “Spacewar!”—and what struck him was that the two men playing were having this out-of-body experience. What he saw is what we now call cyberspace, or perhaps the metaverse. He didn’t actually write about this experience for another decade, but when he did, in 1972 for Rolling Stone, it was a really seminal article. He laid out all of the ideas that would become the way we now use computers, long before the personal computing industry existed. In fact, Stewart coined the term “personal computing” in a book [II Cybernetic Frontiers] he wrote afterwards.

Another example was when he began to speculate on why there were no photographs of the whole Earth. Stewart started a quixotic campaign: He ended up wearing a sandwich board and selling buttons [that read “Why haven’t we seen an image of the whole Earth yet?”] on four college campuses. He sent buttons to all the members of the U.S. Congress, and even to people in the Kremlin. After that, NASA released a photograph and it had this cultural impact. The iconic image in the fifties had been that of a mushroom cloud. It was a very dark vision of the future, and it shifted. The NASA image was adopted by Earth Day and the environmental movement that was formed in the early seventies. Stewart was really instrumental in that.

What is it about Brand’s ideas that makes them so impactful and timeless? What fuels the ways he thinks about the world?

To understand the through line that fuels Stewart’s activity, you need to understand that, as an 8-year-old, he took the Outdoor Life magazine conservation pledge: “I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country—its soil and minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife.” He can still recite it from heart, and it underlies all of his plans, thinking, and writing.

What are some of the most surprising things you learned about Brand while writing this book? Or, what might readers be surprised to learn about him?

The biggest surprise for me in researching his biography was a “missing” journal that he had kept during 1967, and that he gave to me in 2018—eighteen years after he had donated his papers to Stanford University. The separate journal is an account of a failed project that he undertook that year to attempt to create an “Education Fair” at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds. The project failed because he wasn’t able to raise money for it.

However, in his writings, I found things that made me rethink his role with respect to Silicon Valley. He wrote in August of 1967 that he had come to Menlo Park to “let his technology happen.” That was quite extraordinary in itself. Many of his friends were leaving the cities to go “back to the land,” and to build communes. Brand headed in the opposite direction, and somehow ended up arriving in the center of Silicon Valley just as the region was becoming the high-tech center it is today.

I also found that he was much more deeply influenced by computer scientist Douglas Engelbart, whom I mentioned earlier, than I realized. Engelbart invented the computer mouse, hypertext, and many of the ideas that are the basis of modern computing. The takeaway is that it is wrong to view the Whole Earth Catalog in the context of the back-to-the-land movement. Rather, it grew from the same forces that were shaping Silicon Valley, and it represents an early impact that the Valley would have on American culture—an independent and entrepreneurial sensibility that would later become a hallmark of the region.

In the book, you note that Brand has always had a strong commitment to science, but that some of his views have evolved quite dramatically over time, such as with those that fueled the Whole Earth Catalog. How do you think about those shifts, and what do they say about his legacy?

You can’t easily put him in any kind of box. Stewart calls himself a conservative, but he refuses to read the Wall Street Journal because he hates their opinion pages so much. What kind of a conservative is that?  He wrote a book in 2009 called Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, in which he broke with the environmental movement. He changed his mind about several technologies that the environmentalist movement was opposed to—GMO food and nuclear power, in particular.

He really has changed his mind on things over time. But there are things about Stewart that have been constants. The responsibility humans have for their environment has been an overarching viewpoint of his throughout his entire life.