For half a century, Stewart Brand has demonstrated a gift for prescience. He rode with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters when most Americans had never heard of hippies, ran the cameras at the first public display of modern computer text editing and graphics in 1968, and helped inspire Earth Day as an early environmental activist.
Brand is chiefly famous for creating the most important guidebook and self-help aid for the hippie generation, the Whole Earth Catalog. First published in 1968, it spun off one of the most interesting small magazines of the 1970s, CoEvolution Quarterly. The book and the magazine promoted cutting-edge ideas in ecology, urban planning, space exploration, and more.
Today Brand occupies a curious professional niche: half corporate consultant and half freewheeling visionary, co-founder of both the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation. The Global Business Network, through its use and popularization of scenario planning, has helped organizations from Shell to Xerox to the Joint Chiefs of Staff think about the future. The Long Now Foundation aims to “creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years” by building a monstrously large mechanical clock that can run by itself for millennia.
Brand’s post–Whole Earth books range from The Media Lab (1987), an early survey of what has become our modern media world, to How Buildings Learn (1994), which examines the ways modern buildings evolve after they are erected. His most recent effort, Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto (Viking), offers full-blooded environmentalist defenses of practices fervently opposed by most of the environmentalist movement, most prominently nuclear power and genetic engineering, while painting a terrifying vision of what man-made climate change could lead to if we don’t soon change our cultural and technological practices.
Brand lives on a tugboat in Sausalito, California, an ad hoc solution to the problems of adaptability, affordability, and community that he discusses in Whole Earth Discipline. I haven’t seen the boat. He told me he prefers the press to focus on his ideas, not on such “journalistic color,” and therefore insisted our April interview be conducted by phone. That detail, of course, supplies its own journalistic color, the image of a man who wants reporters to focus not on what he looks like, how he moves, or how he lives but merely on how he thinks.
reason: What do you think has placed you at so many interesting early stages of American cultural movements?
Stewart Brand: A mixture of curiosity, boredom, and absence of being dedicated to one big organization or one big ideology. I guess I agree with [science fiction writer] Bill Gibson’s line that the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. I look for places where the future is turning up and look for a sense of “if this plays out, it’ll change the world.” And I go hang out when it’s still taking shape. That led me to hang out with psychedelic drug people, then personal computer people, then MIT’s Media Lab.
These days I keep a close eye on microbial research, synthetic biology. I’ll seek out the Drew Endys of the world, check out what they are up to. Endy is a bioengineer at Stanford. He started the BioBricks Foundation at MIT and the iGEM [International Genetically Engineered Machine] Jamboree, where student groups come from all over the world and show off their bioengineered creations. So microbial biology, synthetic biology, to some extent geoengineering—these are the domains that I am paying attention to.
Outside of that, applied history. At a conference I helped get funding for a couple of months ago at Berkeley, we were looking at involving historians in an almost policy adviser role, equivalent to what economists do. Both decision makers and historians avoid each other, to their mutual harm. I’m trying to put them in the same room where decisions are being prepared.
reason: You were in the Army when you started hanging out with counterculture artist types in the early ’60s, right?
Brand: I was simultaneously an infantry lieutenant during the week and a participant in avant-garde art groups in New York on the weekend. The artists were interested that I had short hair and was a soldier during the week. The soldiers were not the slightest bit interested that I was hanging out with longhairs.
I did ROTC at Stanford and was an officer for two years, active duty. As I got a good look at the Army, I knew it was not a career for me. But it was the best grad school I could have gone to. I learned a lot, got the hell out of the Midwestern world and the academic world. My company commander was a black guy in 1961. That was the most integrated part of America, the U.S. military. My sergeants were guys who had fought in Korea, and I learned the real story. They’d say, “Hey, heard of the famous victory of so-and-so? I was the only survivor of that victory.”
And when I started the Whole Earth Catalog I had no problem being the guy in charge, because I’d been trained to do that.
reason: What attracted you to the Ken Kesey scene in Menlo Park in the ’60s?
Brand: Kesey would say, “If you don’t boil rocks and drink the water, how do you know it won’t make you drunk?” That was a creative group, up to interesting and nefarious things. Kesey had the best thing going in the Bay Area. I sought it out and swam along with it like a pilot fish.