In a famous 2005 commencement speech, Apple's Steve Jobs counseled graduates to "stay hungry, stay foolish." He was quoting Stewart Brand, a man who has been called "the intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the counterculture" and is the subject of the new documentary We Are As Gods, co-directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg.
Born in 1938, Brand was a Merry Prankster who helped conduct Ken Kesey's legendary acid tests in the 1960s. His guerilla campaign of selling buttons that asked "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?" pushed NASA to release the first image of the planet from space and helped inspire the first Earth Day celebrations. From 1968 to 1971, he published the Whole Earth Catalog, which quickly became a bible to hippies on communes and city-dwelling techno-geeks such as Jobs, whose commencement-day quote comes from the final issue of the magazine. The title of the new documentary comes from the first issue, which boldly announced, "We are as gods and might as well get good at it."
Brand helped shape early techno-culture and cyberspace by reporting on the personal computer revolution and interacting with many of its key figures in the early 1970s. His ideas were instrumental in the creation of the Well, one of the earliest online communities, and he helped found The Long Now Foundation, which seeks to lengthen and deepen the way we all think about the past and the future.
Now in his 80s, Brand's current passion is Revive & Restore, an organization that is leading the "de-extinction movement" by using biotechnology to bring back plants and animals including the American Chestnut tree, the passenger pigeon, and the woolly mammoth. Unlike so many in the environmentalist movement he helped create, Brand has always viewed technology in positive, optimistic terms.
"Humans actually have been getting better at a lot of things for a long time in terms of heading off various diseases, heading off poverty and heading off a lot of things," Brand tells Reason while explaining his support for nuclear energy, the de-extinction movement, and other controversial technologies. "You can't count on the past ways of making it better to fix whatever the current problems are. You have to keep discovering new ones." He also updates "stay hungry, stay foolish" for a world facing a global pandemic and environmental concerns: "Try everything," he says. "Take nothing off the table."
Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg; Illustration: Lex Villena; Source Image: Mark Mahaney