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.
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When Goodnight Moon was first published, in 1947, the chief children’s librarian at the New York Public Library didn’t like that its story—Goodnight Moon’s honest presentation of sleep and solicitude still resonated with readers, who’ve since purchased more than 48 million
According to celebrity stylist Kate Young, anyone can figure out the look that works best for them by creating a mood bosecond episode of her new YouTube show, Hello Fashion, created with The Slowdown. While her mood boards take various forms, including Pinterest boards and entire books of ph
Kate Young, the stylist for red carpet luminaries such as Sienna Miller, Margot Robbie, and Michelle Williams, grew up iVogue, and later, after several years in the Vogue fashion department, as fashion editor-at-large of Interview magazine. On her new YouTube show, Hello Fashion, created with The Slowdown, Young provides an inside peek, through her own distinct, high-low perspective, into the world. In the weekly series, which premiered on Tuesday, Young highlights the quality, craftsmanship, and enduring value of cthe debut episode, Young talks about how she and actor-singer Selena Gomez, a client of hers since 2014, created their latest project togRevelación. In addition to detailing the various looks—including a Valentino haute couture dress—Young FaceTimes with fashion iconHello Fashion as a whole. How did Hello Fashion come about? Why YouTube?
How Spanish Culture and Color Informed the Styling and Art Direction of Selena Gomez’s New “Revelación” Album
New York–based stylist Kate Young, one of Hollywood’s most highly sought-after, is known for putting the women she dressVogue. This week, Young debuted her new YouTube show, Hello Fashion, created with The Slowdown, where she dives deep into the ins and outs of her trade, and the superior craftsmanship of first episode of the weekly series focuses on how she created a series of photographic art for musician Selena Gomez’s new album, “Re
Earlier this month, Francesca Johanson, editor of the Architectural League’s online publication Urban Omnibus, launched Memory Loss,” a new series with Guernica magazine. These essays seek out sites of remembrance in New York City, addressing a “continuum between private and publ
In the era of Covid-19, you might think that Julia Cooke’s book Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out this week, was inspired by a longing for air travel, but you’d be wrong. “What I reall
How Snøhetta Translated the Ethos of Bronx-Based Chef Collective Ghetto Gastro Into an Experimental Kitchen
Three years ago, on New Year’s Eve in Havana, artist José Parlá introduced Craig Dykers, a founding partner of the archiSnøhetta, to Jon Gray, one-third of the Bronx-based chef troupe Ghetto Gastro. The two began what would become an ongoing converBurnside, an intimate, flexible café and culinary event space for the Tokyo creative agency En One. (Health restrictions have pr
Blackness as a color and, in some ways, as a culture often finds itself in close proximity to death. Despite the vivid b
In 2019, Madrid-based designer Jorge Penadés founded Extraperlo, a nonprofit exhibition platform for unorthodox work andCurating Curators,” on view Feb. 18–20 at Penadés’s warehouse-like studio as part of this month’s Madrid Design Festival, upends the conv
Hanna Nova Beatrice is the founder and editor-in-chief of The New Era, a recently launched independent Scandinavian design publication. “It grew out of a strong belief in the [power of] priResidence magazine, prefers to consume media the old-fashioned way, with an eye toward periodicals that innovate on physical page How do you start your mornings?
As the world adapts to pandemic life, we’ve seen creativity heroically emerge, in nearly every sector, amid limitations.Kei Truck Garden Contest in Osaka, which brings nature closer to city-dwellers in the form of compact, foliage-filled creations. (The date for t
For most of us, the urge to bring smartphones into our bedrooms is too strong to resist—even when science, and firsthandattest to the habit’s harmful effects. One way to curb the temptation: Loftie, an alarm clock designed to transform sleep spaces into phone-free sanctuaries. Calibrated for the digital age, the dev
Those visiting Japan’s beloved gardens during the winter might be struck by the sight of trees confined within mysteriouyukitsuri—the term for these intriguing rope webs—is a traditional Japanese gardening technique intended to protect trees’ long b
Design can be a powerful tool in times of crisis, when creativity is a crucial element for survival. At the start of theDesigners Against Coronavirus, and in the fall, took the project a step further by documenting 272 of the works in a book of the same name. Nearly all the resources to publish it, from the paper to securing the copyright for each image, were donated, and the
Formgivning, the Danish word for “design,” serves as both a thesis and a call to action in a new book, Formgiving: An Architectural Future History (Taschen), by the Copenhagen-born architectural practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). This is no project-by-project compe
By poking around the murky world of hoaxes, ghosts, spirit paintings, and holograms, A. Joan Saab—the vice provost of acObjects of Vision: Making Sense of What We See (Penn State University Press). We recently spoke with Saab about why things aren’t always as they appear, and the reason
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, better to be held in the warm focus of Steve McQueen’s gaze than one more narroSmall Axe, his enthralling new five-film anthology now streaming in the U.S. on Amazon Prime Video (and available in the U.K. on
This year has driven many of us to create a de facto home spa—steeping in long, leisurely baths for solace. One such batEkin Balcıoğlu, a Taos, New Mexico–based artist and the founder and editor-in-chief of Hamam, a new quarterly print publication about the culture of bathing that will release its second issue later this month. Hamam, while bursting with originality, has parallels to Wet magazine, the subversive, now-defunct cult classic founded in 1976 by Leonard Koren (who was the guest on Ep. 78 of our At a Distance podcast) that explored pleasure and play through a loosely water-themed lens.
In 2018, when writer Amitav Ghosh appeared at the Brooklyn Public Library to discuss his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Joel Whitney, who manages arts and culture programs at the institution, took note. “I was surprised by Amitav’s main iClimate Reads book club, a yearlong digital initiative launched by Whitney’s department and the advocacy group Writers Rebel NYC earlier this fall, suggests otherwise, with climate-focused fiction titles including Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel, and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk on its roster. The club plans to tackle a handful of nonfiction books, too, such as The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by the late Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, and Why We Swim—the focus of next month’s meeting—by swimmer and surfer Bonnie Tsui.
Sometimes—especially in moments of political strife, pandemics, hurricanes, or all of the above—a television plotline caWatch a train wend its way around the fjords and farms of the Norwegian countryside over the course of seven hours, or see a sweater get made, in the time of a typical work day, from A to Z (beginning with shearing a sheep’s wool), set to the tune of cheery foldogs frolicking on a beach, a meandering stroll among flowering cherry blossoms in Japan, and a sailing trip to Tobago, accompanied by the soothing sounds of waves lapping against a boat’s exterior. The format can arguably be traced to n1963 film “Sleep” consisted entirely of his lover, the poet and performance artist John Giorno, napping. Regardless of its subject matter
For those of us who are lucky enough to have a full plate right now, consider helping those who don’t. One avenue for alCoalition for the Homeless, forced to cancel its annual fall fundraising gala due to the pandemic, is launching the Artist Plate Project, a limited-edition collection of porcelain platters depicting works by 50 legendary artists, including Tauba Auerbach, Ep. 25 of our Time Sensitive podcast). The series will be available on the organization’s website beginning Nov. 16. Profits from the heirloom-worthy tableProspect, will go toward serving the 59,000 New Yorkers who currently live in shelters or who struggle to survive on streets andA recent study by Columbia University predicts that homelessness will increase by 40 to 45 percent within the next year due to Covid-19—making the coalition’
Durham, North Carolina–based journalist and filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala has been particularly productive of late: In addBecoming America anthology, he’s host of the TED podcast Pindrop and a mentor to emerging Asian and Asian-American filmmakers through a new fellowship program called The Sauce.