The Hippest Hippie
May 5, 2013 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, the book that changed the world. Stewart Brand was at the heart of 60s counterculture and is now widely revered as the tech visionary whose book anticipated the web. We meet the man for whom big ideas are a way of life
posted by Eekacat (35 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man, I spent a lot of hours in the library poring over this when I was a young, neohippie library page. Steward Brand really is an interesting figure, more than I knew at the time.
posted by Miko at 12:21 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog changed my life. I ordered the very first one and still have it somewhere in my attic. The WEC was instrumental in my decision to leave the city and try to live off the land. I chose my first chainsaw, a McCulloch, because the WEC said something like, "McCulloch and Homelite are the Ford and Chevy of chainsaws" I liked Fords.
Unfortunately, when he began to write about computers in his next publication, Co-Evolution Quarterly, I thought he was a sell-out, and refused to have anything to do with computers until around the year 2000 when I was given an old 386 that would barely maintain an internet connection. I asked my friend, known here as Lelilo, for suggestions on good sites and he sent me to metafilter, where I have lurked ever since. I wish I had listened to everything Stewart Brand said, rather than just the stuff I was comfortable with. He is a truly amazing human.

posted by Hobgoblin at 12:26 PM on May 5, 2013 [9 favorites]

Great quote from the link: "For nearly five decades, Stewart Brand has been hanging around the cutting edge of whatever is the most cutting thing of the day."

Stewart Brand's "most recent" project: The Long Now
posted by salishsea at 12:56 PM on May 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've said this here before, but the slide from the first WEC's tone, at least partly mock-consumerism in the service of a more or less utopian counterculture, to the total embrace of consumerism alongside techno-utopianism in places like Wired and Cool Tools seems to me like one of the cultural watersheds in the death of the American left. Not that Brand or the WEC crowd were ever explicitly or entirely anticapitalist, but there was a major attitude shift there nonetheless. They went from a Sixties version of utopianism which was focused on opting out of the mainstream, making things by hand, growing your own food, building your own house, and forming your own community all the way to an Eighties-Nineties version of techno-utopianism without substance, all about how buying and using the latest technology is the real liberatory act. Partly it's just a shift from Brand's outlook to his right-wing disciples', but it's also a symptom of Brand's underlying worldview, I think.
posted by RogerB at 12:58 PM on May 5, 2013 [12 favorites]

So it's been long enough now I can tell this story about how I met Stewart Brand. Back in 1995 I was a fresh-out-of-college programmer at the Santa Fe Institute, a research place that attracted all sorts of interesting people. And one of the staff asked me if I could give a ride to Esther Dyson from the Albuquerque airport. "She's quite interesting!" I was no dummy and said yes. I mean, my little Honda was big enough for two! And so I got the car washed and met her at the airport. And when we met she asked "could you give my friend Stewart a ride too? He'll be here in about twenty minutes". I had no idea who that'd be until he got into my car and I was just so pleased with myself. The three of us crammed in my little hatchback for the hour long drive with two of the most interesting, provocative technophilosopher types I'd ever met. Not bad for a 23 year old kid.

Needless to say I took advantage of every minute of having them trapped in my car with me. They were quite friendly and thoughtful and fun to talk to. At some point Stewart mentioned that he'd been at the MIT Media Lab for a while (was writing the book on it, actually) and I mentioned I was applying for grad school there. And so he kindly says "Nicolas owes me a favor, I'll write a letter for you" and that's part of how I got to go to the Media Lab for grad school.

I'm embarrassed posting this now because it seems so starfucker, but back in the mid 90s there just weren't that many people talking like Dyson and Brand were. About the intersection of technology and culture, about the Internet, about building things with beauty and depth. That lucky hour had a big influence on me. And they were both so friendly and generous. I've met plenty of arrogant self-proclaimed pundits, maybe even acted like one myself on occasion, and I always try to remember Stewart Brand's friendly humility.

(Also his book How Buildings Learn is fantastic.)
posted by Nelson at 1:15 PM on May 5, 2013 [37 favorites]

I never thought of Stewart Brand or the hippie movement or the Merry Pranksters as really all that political, and certainly not traditionally political. While the civil rights fires were burning, they were heading to the country. While the unions were beginning to ose the battle against corporate statism, they were dropping acid and creating alternative communities.

Not to say that this world did not intersect with hard core politics. But this was a cultural revolution. They were exploring, and ANY convention was anathema to them, except the ones that served (patriarchy, for example). Were they ever driving political discourse? Or were they just evoked as examples and proofs to make a point about something or other?

You've put it out before RogerB, that this view and this way of being in the world should not be confused with a political movement. From the little I saw at the time, I agree with you. Not to say that what Brand has been up to hasn't been immensely inspiring and interesting and confounding, and delightful. All that.
posted by salishsea at 1:16 PM on May 5, 2013

Were they ever driving political discourse?

It depends what you mean by "political," I guess. If I had to put my finger on what changed from the Sixties WEC to the Eighties-Nineties Wired culture, I'd say it was twofold: first, they started out as communitarian and ended up as individualists, and second, they started out as anti-consumerist builders and ended up much closer to consumerism. There was a shift away from exploring alternative social forms — you can see books about communes and kibbutzim in that first '68 issue — toward change on the individual/self-help level, and there was a less complete but still palpable shift away from making and toward simply obtaining stuff. All of this seems pretty emphatically political to me, but you're certainly right to say that the WEC's message was never exclusively about activism.
posted by RogerB at 1:30 PM on May 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

In some ways I can see that the self-help stuff helped to create what's sometimes dismissed as a "Marin County" kind of politics, where political action is informed by various forms of spirituality and spiritual/psychological practice. In my experience, folks broadly fall on either side of a divide that sees people either deeply informed by that inner practice to become political (Van Jones story is really interesting in this regard) or sometimes people fall into an eddy of personal or "community" work that is worthy in itself, but is not political.

Marin County, both as a place and as a worldview is STILL incredibly interesting and for me Stewart Brand stands as something of an avatar of that whole way of seeing things. He seems to have a foot in every possible expression of this worldview.
posted by salishsea at 1:38 PM on May 5, 2013

Brand was always of the libertarian hippie bent rather than the socialist/anarchist sort of hippie. It's a very Californian sort of hippiedom, where you have all these high tech miracles that are gonna liberate us, built on the skeleton of the military industrial complex.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:43 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

So the book for this is Stanford professor Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture. It traces out the relationship between computer cultures and west-coast communalism, with Brand's long and strange career as a focusing device.

Early on in the book Turner brings in a distinction between the New Left and the back-to-the-land movements that the Whole Earth Catalog addressed itself to. Turner illustrates how this latter group was both radically more technophilic and radically less devoted to left goals, opting instead for a type of anarchism that was very easily reconfigured as libertarianism when the 90s hit.

I haven't had the fortune of meeting any of the people discussed in this thread - though for whatever it's worth, as a nerdy kid growing up in the 90s, I recall finding the west coast smart-drinks cyberdelic libertarian stuff ungodly boring - my eyes would aggressively glaze over at mention of Brand or Dyson, who struck me as a batch of shallow poseurs when compared to RMS or Linus Torvalds or, for that matter, the hackerly kids at my high school.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:02 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Bwwith: jinx!
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:03 PM on May 5, 2013

Yeah Turner's stuff is great. The thing I got from him that I never appreciated before was the impression that Brand was very lucky. He wasn't nearly as smart as he was very good looking and very funny and everybody loved being around him so he could basically choose to hang out with anybody he wanted to and his maddest skill was probably his taste in choosing friends.
posted by bukvich at 2:08 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'll second the praise for How Buildings Learn and point out that the BBC made a companion TV series which (apparently) Brand himself has posted to YouTube.
posted by Western Infidels at 2:32 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember looking at it thinking it was going to be an actual catalog and being really disappointed.
posted by jonmc at 2:33 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Too bad Usenet and Hypercard didn't work out as a combination. Damn those 300 baud acoustic couplers anyway ...
posted by hank at 2:58 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've said this here before, but the slide from the first WEC's tone, at least partly mock-consumerism in the service of a more or less utopian counterculture, to the total embrace of consumerism alongside techno-utopianism in places like Wired and Cool Tools seems to me like one of the cultural watersheds in the death of the American left. Not that Brand or the WEC crowd were ever explicitly or entirely anticapitalist...

One of the things that's fascinating me about Mad Men right now is the degree to which the 60's counterculture was in bed with commercial capitalism from the very beginning. On the show, it's the spring of 1968 and all the young copywriters at the Madison Avenue ad firm have long hair, beards, fringed biker jackets, the whole nine yards. They've already done a pitch trying to sell product via connection with the counterculture, which failed, but will stop failing any day now.
posted by Sara C. at 3:07 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great quote from the link: "For nearly five decades, Stewart Brand has been hanging around the cutting edge of whatever is the most cutting thing of the day."

Case in point, DARPA's 100 Year Starship Symposium kick-off in Orlando, 2011 (said symposium announced during programming of Stewart Brand's The Long Now foundation) where Stewart* chaired the Philosophical and Religious Considerations Track.

*There have been a couple times I have worked around Stewart Brand, one of which was at WIRED magazine in 1994 at the 3rd & Townsend building in the SF's now-mythical "multimedia gulch". The latest was at the DARPA Public Symposium for the announcement of 100 Year Starship. Incidentally at 100Year Starship Study Symposium, I wound up going to see robot boxing movie Real Steel with he, Pete Worden and DARPA's Dave Neyland. Which if I recall correctly, everyone enjoyed pretty well.
posted by Mike Mongo at 3:20 PM on May 5, 2013

Where is the counterculture now? Does that question even make sense?

Mainstream devours its children. It finds the wayward ones especially tasty, and pushes them through its gut particularly swiftly. The best one can hope for is the rapid assimilation of the DNA so all the children to come are a little bit better. Has that happened?

I was 15 in 1980, so seem by chance to have straddled the end of subversion on paper and vinyl and the beginning of subversion by silicon and network. Analogue to digital conversion. There was an hiatus before the mainstream worked out what was going on, when things seemed to be accelerating as they left the gravity well of the material world, but now the implosion of that world has pushed the event horizon out and it seems as if we're all being pulled back into whatever unpleasantness the singularity of the old order generates.

As someone who believes in a better world and believes it within our reach, the Whole Earth Catalog (and Loompanics, and the Encyclopaedia Psychedelica) showed I wasn't alone - and moreover, there were others out there with far more drive than I on the same wavelength. Where are the beacons today? Did we muff the best chance since the enlightenment, or did we win?

Can't tell.
posted by Devonian at 4:02 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember looking at it thinking it was going to be an actual catalog and being really disappointed.--jonmc

It was a catalog. See it, in the second link. Every page has things with prices you can buy. Of course it is also a lot more.
posted by eye of newt at 4:27 PM on May 5, 2013

For SF denizens, Stewart Brand is speaking on reviving extinct species in a couple of weeks (May 21) at the SF Jazz Center.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 4:29 PM on May 5, 2013

Oh, The Black & The White: 1971 & 1994 editions. It was fun flipping back and forth. Fascinating reading, as always.
posted by ovvl at 4:31 PM on May 5, 2013

Every page has things with prices you can buy

But can you buy the whole earth? I don't think so. False advertising, dude.
posted by jonmc at 4:48 PM on May 5, 2013

Stumbling on a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog during the summer my brother and I stayed with my uncle in California was one of the transformative moments of my brainhood, for sure. 11-year-old me devoured it in bed every night, trying to understand. That little story told in the margins over various pages changed the way I thought about stories.

A 2005 previously, when there was some controversy about Brand's "environmental heresies" like embracing nuclear power and genetically modified foods.
posted by mediareport at 5:10 PM on May 5, 2013

To those who are saying that Brand was only "good looking" or just "lucky" in terms of being in the right place at the right time... I don't know. I don't see that at all. I'm too young to have been a fan of the Whole Earth Catalog, but his work since then, with the online evolution, and the Long Now Foundation, have shown beyond a doubt (I think) that he is a wildly intelligent man who has made seriously substantive contributions to modern day society.
posted by Inkoate at 5:46 PM on May 5, 2013

Brand also published the Co-Evolution Quarterly. I appeared in it in in 1978 in the first article to hit print about a new California bicycling movement that would eventually be called mountain biking, Clunker Bikes: the Dirt Bicycle Comes of Age.

Gary Fisher and I reviewed several bicycle books in the 1980 edition, "The Next Whole Earth Catalog."
posted by Repack Rider at 6:08 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hah! I come here to read about Stewart Brand, and there I am, in the second comment. Unlike Nelson, though, when I met Brand it wasn't quite so memorable.

Brand also published the Co-Evolution Quarterly. I appeared in it in 1978...

That started in 1974, and lasted about 10 years, then he moved on to another quarterly called The Whole Earth Review. I did one article for each — for my piece in CQ's Spring 1980 issue, about an odd attempted murder I witnessed at a hot springs near Death Valley, I worked with a nice editor named Richard Nilsen (from Pennsylvania to California, by mail and phone — no email in those days). Around the time my article was published, I found myself out in Sausalito, so I thought I'd stop in and say hello to Richard, who I'd never met.

"Hey," he said, "you've got to meet Stewart," and took me back into an office cluttered — as you might imagine — with all kinds of books, pamphlets, stacks of paper, etc. Brand stood up, shook my hand, nodded, and said, "Well, I have to catch a plane to Tennessee." And walked out of the room.

My brush with greatness...

p.s. Gary Fisher and I reviewed several bicycle books in the 1980 edition, "The Next Whole Earth Catalog."

In addition to getting paid (a little) for my article, I also got a one-year subscription to CQ, which happily turned out to include TNWEC. Taking it off the shelf tonight, I see Repack Rider's reviews on pages 408-412: the Bickerton, the Schwinn Klunker-5, Bikecentennial, DeLong's Guide, and mention of other books/magazines including Bicycling. Who I also wrote a few articles for back then, but that's getting off the subject.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:01 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

These comments and stories, wow. This is why MetaFilter is the best of the web.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:03 PM on May 5, 2013

I briefly met Stewart Brand last year, when he spoke at ASU (video here; full disclosure: I was one of the camera operators but don't blame me for the total lack of lighting on the podium!). He seems like a very sharp guy. I wish I had a better story than that, but I was pretty sleep-deprived that weekend.
posted by Alterscape at 10:06 PM on May 5, 2013

No reason you can't be wildly intelligent and a substantial contributor, while also very lucky and good looking. I suspect he would admit to that.
Certainly the blog posts and things I have read have shown him a great respecter of his friends and colleagues.
posted by bystander at 10:34 PM on May 5, 2013

Whole Earth Discipline (2009) was my personal "Book of the Year" for 2012. Large important parts of my worldview were removed and replaced, e.g., nuclear power is not a deadly polluter but instead flatly Green; the population bomb is defused and the enlightened environmentalist stance now is "gently pro-natal"; young cities in what used to be the Third World are the center of humanity now, rather than the old First World.

We've been living in the future since 2005, and Brand's been describing it since -- 2005. Now he's working on de-extinctions, which, like other parts of Brand's work, for me taps into some kind of religio-emotional center from which meaning comes. Restoring extinct species is the most important thing in the world to work on now, obviously; somehow Brand consistently notices and remembers these things. I should probably just drop everything and be a Brand disciple. Wonder if there's an online application for that.

To be a true Brand disciple, one would have to figure out what's cutting-edge. Gene switches and evo-devo look like it, but it'll require more basic research (Brand focuses on things that are just out of basic research and just into technological feasibility) before we can do the actual thing that is most important to do now, which is teach crows to talk.
posted by kadonoishi at 12:42 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I got my grubby hands on a Whole Earth Catalog while doing my national service. I read it on my bunk and remember the feeling I got from it - very similar to when I got Internet access a couple of years later. I think the amount of sheer possibillity is what blew my young mind then.

On a good day I can recapture the feeling right here on MetaFilter. Figures that several of you has been involved with Brand's work in different respects.
posted by Harald74 at 12:53 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I worked with a nice editor named Richard Nilsen

Richard (now deceased) wrote the 1978 article I appeared in, and also accompanied us to Crested Butte in 1978 for what has become the annual mountain bike event.
posted by Repack Rider at 6:48 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents had a copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog. I was very intrigued by the fictional story that wove through the pages, Divine Right's Trip, about a guy on a road trip in a VW bus.
posted by larrybob at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2013

Richard (now deceased)...

Very sorry to hear he will be riding with you no more, Nelson. Unlike (a few) editors I've encountered over the years, he was very professional and pleasant to deal with.
posted by LeLiLo at 2:17 PM on May 6, 2013

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