Accessibility links

From Catalogs to Clocks, Stewart Brand Keeps Re-Inventing the Future


For most of his 69 years, Stewart Brand has shown a deep and wide-ranging interest in the world around him. He trained as a biologist during the 1950s, then did a short stint as an officer in the Army, where he became a photographer. Back in civilian life, during the early days of the West Coast psychedelic counter-culture, Brand staged multimedia art events, then moved on to become a pioneer in the worlds of computer and business networking and environmentalism.

But Stewart Brand is best-known for The Whole Earth Catalog, a thick tome he created and self-published in 1968 as a resource for the burgeoning "back to the land" commune movement.

"Whole Earth was a very early forum for presenting the research of people who were trying to develop small-scale technologies that were focused, generally, on the home," says Andrew Kirk, a professor of environmental history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The book featured ecological designers who were looking into alternative forms of housing, transportation and energy. It was, Kirk says, "a really thoughtful blending of old traditions with new technologies that were available in the Space Age."

For Brand himself, The Whole Earth Catalog was also an experiment in empowerment for individuals and grassroots communities, a premise expressed by the catalog's subtitle "Access to Tools."

"I guess implicit in that is a trust that humans getting more powerful through the direct personal use of powerful tools is a good thing, both for the individual and for society," he says, adding with a laugh, "and that's been the case!"

He says even today, nearly 40 years since it was published, people come up to him to thank him for The Whole Earth Catalog. Many credit their professions to the Catalog's influence. Others, Brand says, told him it made them feel "they were connected to what was happening in the world, and that they could empower themselves and haul off and do things."

Many of the million and a half people who bought The Whole Earth Catalog lived in cities, not on communes. But all were attracted by its many in-depth essays and spirited debates about appropriate technology, ethics, social relationships and other topical concerns. They were written by the famous and the unknown alike, and hewed to no one ideology or set of beliefs.

Indeed, Brand is often credited with creating a culture of "do-it-yourself" democracy that still exists in the environmental community today. Professor Fred Turner of Stanford University says Brand's brilliance as a "social network entrepreneur" has been his most significant contribution.

In his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Turner describes how Brand "brokered a collision" between the unfettered humanism of the 1960s counter-culture and the computer and communications technologies of the scientific-military culture of the Cold War.

"In the process, Brand and the network of people he assembled around him substantially transformed our understanding of the personal computer," Turner says. "They gave rise to the term 'virtual community,' and re-imagined cyberspace as a utopian electronic frontier."

Brand remains an outspoken champion of the Internet. He believes its openness and diversity have been its greatest strengths.

But Brand's faith in technology, particularly biotechnology, sometimes put him at odds with environmentalists who say we should not tinker with the fundamental building-blocks of life.

Brand believes the creation of genetically altered food crops, pharmaceuticals, even new organisms that could help alleviate famine, eliminate disease and save the planet are probably worth the risk.

"With any of these new technologies I say 'give them a chance!'" But he says we should remain cautious. "Don't put the stuff too far behind corporate or government 'secrecy walls.'"

Brand encourages people to debate the worthiness of new technologies. "Then, when something doesn't work, you'll find out. But when you've got something that works, go ahead and use it!"

Today, Stewart Brand divides his time between two of his other pioneering inventions. One is the Global Business Network, a highly influential think tank that helps business and government leaders to imagine and prepare for various alternative futures.

The other project is the Long Now Clock, a giant, computer-driven timepiece conceived by Brand and a consortium of visionaries that will run for at least 10,000 years. When the device is eventually installed inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, Brand hopes it will prompt visitors to contemplate time on an epic scale, and to envision, as Stewart Brand himself has always envisioned, a hale and happy future for Planet Earth.

Previous American Profiles

XS
SM
MD
LG