What’s the secret to being at the right place at the right time? To embracing a tectonic shift in culture, technology, or business before others sense its emerging rumble?
These are questions prompted by the life of Stewart Brand, who helped spark a series of societal movements over multiple decades. Brand is perhaps best known for creating The Whole Earth Catalog and related sequels and spinoffs. Steve Jobs called the eclectic counterculture publication "one of the bibles of my generation" and described it as “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.”
Brand was the first journalist to use the term “personal computer,” was a pioneer in exploring the concept of cyberspace, and co-founded the early online community, the WELL. He participated in creating the modern environmental movement, helped ignite the San Francisco music scene, advised California governor Jerry Brown, and took LSD when it was still legal.
“Information wants to be free,” Brand famously said in 1984 during the Hackers Conference he helped found—and that mantra defined the ethos and business model of some of the most successful Silicon Valley companies. (Less noted is that in the same comment he also said “Information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable….So you have these two fighting against each other.”) (p. 269)
A new biography titled Whole Earth by longtime New York Times tech reporter John Markoff offers a painstakingly comprehensive account of Brand’s life that permits reflection on the broader questions of where good ideas come from, and how one individual consistently spotted generation-defining developments before others latched on to them.
Markoff rejects the idea that Brand, now 83, is a mere Forrest Gump or Zelig figure, naively turning up in the frame as major historical events unfold. “There is a consistent through line that has connected his various campaigns, crusades, and inquiries over more than six decades,” Markoff writes. “Brand has been consistent in his commitment to science, which he refers to as the only ‘true news’; in his commitment to bottom-up democracy (with a small d); and in his relentless curiosity.” (p. 5)
Brand also had the fortune to live in Northern California when it was emerging as a uniquely important hub for culture, technology, and ultimately the economy. He also benefited from a family inheritance sufficient to support the extended periods of searching, hanging around, and traveling that made possible his engagement with the various emerging trends of the day. “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish,” Brand printed on the back of the 1974 edition of The Whole Earth Catalog—a mantra (later cited by Jobs as a life goal) that does help to explain Brand’s openness to whatever might be on the horizon.
Drawing on extensive interviews and journals kept by Brand, Markoff’s biography is at times tediously comprehensive—including details of childhood ice cream consumption (two scoops of strawberry at the end of one teenage adventure), roommates, lovers and dalliances, office-lease negotiations (the ask was $450/month before they bargained to $250), and so on. It’s also a fascinating look at how one individual spotted and catalyzed the developments of consequence over an extended period.
Among the factors that seemingly played a role in Brand’s notable ability to spot and shape trends:
- Reading was instrumental. “Reading was almost always the portal through which Brand veered off in new directions,” Markoff writes. (p. 28) Among the books that influenced him were Buckminster Fuller’s No More Secondhand God, Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and a 1937 volume titled America Needs Indians!
- He was a technophile who had a passion for tools. The Whole Earth Catalog was subtitled “Access to Tools” and included short reviews of items ranging from hacksaws to Hewlett Packard calculators. (In reality it also included advice, how-tos, fiction, and a cartoon of a naked woman with an elephant head.) The computers and software that Brand embraced were especially useful tools. ”Brand believed that tools were inherently democratizing and would serve as agents of social change,” Markoff writes. (p. 138) Brand was influenced by Fuller, the architect and futurist who said “if you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”
- Journalism and books amplified his access. In a remarkably prescient 1972 Rolling Stone article, Brand declared “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people.” Accompanied by Annie Leibovitz photographs of the Stanford computer scientists he was profiling, it depicted the hobbyist spirit that would drive personal computing and identified key technology developments including Arpanet, which was a technical foundation of the internet, and new computer chips that would make PCs possible.
- Drug use accompanied some of Brand’s big ideas. Brand’s obsession with publishing a photograph of the “whole earth” as seen from space was the product of an LSD trip on a San Francisco rooftop. (He believed such a photo could help activate a planetary consciousness among people.) There was a tank of nitrous oxide, refilled weekly, in the store affiliated with the Whole Earth Catalog project, for quick hits during the work day. Drug use also pushed Brand to the psychological edge.
- He was surrounded by capable collaborators. Brand’s ex-wife Lois Jennings, among others, played an under-recognized role in founding and making The Whole Earth Catalog a success.
These days, Brand is among the leaders of the project to construct a clock designed to last 10,000 years on Jeff Bezos’s ranch in Texas and is supporting efforts to bring animals including mammoths back from extinction.
To be sure:
- Brand has his critics, and the book documents some poor behavior and falling outs with collaborators over the years. Some have accused Brand of excessive techno-optimism—a critique with resonance today when the tech industry's culpability for amplifying misinformation, harassment, and inequality is clear. “Brand appears to inhabit a parallel Earth that is free of the specter of corporate control or haunted by the profit motive; where new technology arises spontaneously, pure and without intent,” Berkeley Daily Planet correspondent Gar Smith once wrote. (p. 357) Brand infuriated some environmentalist friends by later embracing nuclear power and spent years as a consultant to businesses. "What I find disturbing and a little sociopathic about your perspective is the absence of doubt," Peter Coyote, an early friend of Brand's, said to him publicly at a 2011 event. (p. 358)
- Whole Earth has a level of authoritative detail that’s a testament to Markoff’s profound understanding of Silicon Valley from covering it since 1977. It’s also a heavy dose of Brand, and the minutiae of his life are sometimes numbing.
- Brand was born a relatively wealthy, white man in 20th century America. His story underscores how a life of privilege provides unique freedom and access, an important context to note when recognizing any extraordinary achievements.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Brand was opposed to the metric system because he thought it was too efficient. “Slowing down to do conversions forced you to think,” Markoff explains. (p. 230) Nevertheless Brown appointed Brand to the California Metric Conversion Council.
- Brand stepped down from the WELL board of directors in 1992 after users bitterly attacked him online for shortcomings in the system.
- Brand shut down the first stretch of publishing The Whole Earth Catalog in 1971 when its success and popularity were peaking, explaining “We wanted to stop something right for once.” “So many institutions sort of fade out and piddle out,” he added. (p. 192)
- In his journal, Brand later recounted what he thought were failures of the sixties counterculture: “Drugs, communes, spiritual practice, New Left politics, solar water heaters, domes, small farms, free schools, free schools, free sex, on and on.” (p. 297)
- “I find things and I found things.”—Brand
- “We are as gods and might as well get used to it.” —introduction to the first Whole Earth Catalog (p. 165)
- “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” —Anne Herbert, an editor who worked with Brand
The bottom line is that Whole Earth isn’t the typical book about work or management that we usually cover in these briefings. But Brand’s story offers revealing glimpses into the process of innovation, creation, and cultural change through the narrative of a life at the frontier of many of the social, technological, and business movements of the last 60 years.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive briefings like this by email.