Stewart Brand’s belief in technology helped shape Silicon Valley

Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. By John Markoff. Penguin Press; 416 pages; $32

Only one person may be able to claim credit for the popularity of both the Grateful Dead and space colonisation: Stewart Brand. He is best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog (pictured below), a compendium of tools that listed everything from compost machines to geometry books. Part do-it-yourself guide, part techno-Utopian journal, the periodical was considered essential reading by Americans who wanted to live more sustainably in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of its once-radical ideas, such as using solar panels, are mainstream today. In 2005 Steve Jobs, the late boss of Apple, called Mr Brand’s catalogue “one of the bibles of my generation.” In a new biography, John Markoff, a former technology writer at the New York Times, reveals that there is more to Mr Brand than the Catalog.

Born to a wealthy family in Illinois in 1938, Mr Brand moved to the Bay Area to study biology at Stanford University. He quickly fell in with the Beat poets and, on returning to California after a brief stint in the army, met Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a troupe of acid-loving hippies. Mr Brand was at the heart of the emerging counterculture. In 1966 he organised the Trips Festival, an experimental, three-day event featuring a performance by the Grateful Dead, then an emerging rock band, and plenty of LSD. It was, as Mr Markoff describes, “the first time the Bay Area’s ten thousand hippies realised that there were ten thousand hippies.” By bringing free-spirited Californians together, the festival came to symbolise the start of flower power. Mr Brand’s ability to unite individuals and galvanise movements became a hallmark of his career and explains his towering influence on many of the Golden State’s subcultures.

The Catalog, first published in 1968, became a kind of manifesto for the several thousand Americans building communes. Those who wanted to live self-sufficiently off the land needed access to tools to survive; Mr Brand’s publication provided them. The black-and-white pages packed full of agricultural equipment and how-to diagrams won both America’s National Book Award in 1972 and a cult following, particularly among environmentalists. Meanwhile Mr Brand’s belief in tools as a “democratising” force was strengthened, explains Mr Markoff. The man who hung out with Mr Kesey had become a “technophile”.

EHF9TJ The Last Whole Earth Catalog book at Tipi Valley an eco community near Talley in Wales.. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Mr Brand, who was also a journalist, mingled with early computer pioneers. He helped Douglas Englebart, an inventor, demonstrate the computer mouse to the world. In 1972 he and Annie Leibovitz, a photographer, documented the engineers of the first modern personal computer at Xerox’s PARC laboratory for Rolling Stone magazine. A few years later Mr Brand became the first journalist to use the phrase “personal computer” (by then he had discontinued the Catalog amid deepening depression) and went on to found the Hackers Conference in 1984, a pivotal moment for the open-source philosophy responsible for much of modern software.

Mr Brand’s technophilia helped shape Silicon Valley. But it drove a wedge between him and his ecologically minded friends. He had always been an outlier, enjoying Ayn Rand’s libertarian books at university. His fascination with humans settling in space—he financed the subject’s first major conference in 1974—widened the divide. In 2009 Mr Brand distanced himself from his fellow environmentalists, advocating for genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. As for the eco-warriors, he labelled them “irrational, anti-scientific and very harmful”. In response George Monbiot, an activist, suggested that Mr Brand was a spokesperson for the fossil-fuel industry. The criticism echoed Mr Kesey’s remark decades earlier: “Stewart recognises power. And cleaves to it.”

Mr Markoff’s book is dense and often mirrors the Catalog’s chaotic structure; it jumps between time periods in a way that, at times, makes it difficult to follow the narrative of Mr Brand’s life. “We Are As Gods”, a forthcoming documentary about the tech visionary, is sharper. Produced by the publishing division of Stripe, a Silicon Valley payments company, it dwells on Mr Brand’s attempt to build a clock that will last for 10,000 years—an effort to encourage humans to think more deeply about the future—on Jeff Bezos’s vast ranch in Texas. It also explores Mr Brand’s ambitious endeavour to bring mammoths back from extinction by genetically modifying elephants. To Mr Brand, this is a new form of conservation. To his critics, it is hubristic.

The documentary’s focus on outlandish projects amplifies the biggest criticism of Mr Brand—that he may be too optimistic about technology and too neglectful of its risks. It derives its title from the Catalog’s opening sentence: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Peter Coyote, a longtime acquaintance of Mr Brand who partied at the Trips Festival decades earlier, offers an alternative characterisation of humanity: “idiot savants”.