John Markoff’s new book describes Stewart Brand’s unique contributions to California culture.
“He lit a spark,” veteran tech author John Markoff said about Brand Stewart. The tireless entrepreneur, best known for launching The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, has also been at the center of countercultural movements for decades.
The first person to have used the term “personal computer”, Brand co-founded the pioneering online community The Well and Quarterly CoEvolutionwhich included contributions from Gary Snider and Wendell Berry. More recently, his Long Now foundation is trying to separate signal from noise and focus on the challenges of the next 10,000 years.
Markoff, a Palo Alto native who retired from The New York Times in 2016 and previously wrote What the Dormouse Said: How the 1960s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, recalls visiting the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park while on vacation from college in Washington. His new biography, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, traces the impact of this last-day Zelig. Several lives, indeed.
“There’s been a straight line since the Trips Festival” – the Longshoreman’s Hall Brand’s famous acid-soaked event held at the behest of Ken Kesey‘s Merry Pranksters in 1966 – “to the rise of the Haight”, says Markoff. “But by the time the summer of love arrived, it was gone. When everyone showed up, it took off. (The famous brand handed out buttons that read “Why haven’t we seen a picture yet of the whole earth?” after an acid-induced epiphany on a North Beach rooftop.)
Born in Rockford, Michigan, Brand was a “stereotypical Midwestern kid” who was “completely enamored with California” when his brother enrolled at Stanford, Markoff recalls. Brand followed in his brother’s footsteps at The Farm, but in his senior year he had discovered North Beach and fallen in love with its budding Beat scene as it transformed into hippiedom. But he has always been a researcher.
“What he took away from Buckminster fuller was that if you want to create social change, train someone to use a new tool,” says Markoff. “The Whole Earth Catalog emerged as Silicon Valley was forming and had a huge impact on that culture, best expressed by Steve Jobs‘ Stanford’s 2005 commencement address (quoting Brand’s aphorism): ‘Stay hungry. Stay stupid.
Unlike the tech billionaires he inspired, Brand never tried to make money. However, he has enough to keep him afloat on the Sausalito tug he shares with his wife, Ryan Phelan.
“Look at the founders of Google,” says Markoff. “They were meant to destroy evil, and wealth corroded them. Apple was talking about the chemistry between Steve Wozniak, who just wanted to share computer design with his friends, and Jobs, who realized there was a market. This is the canonical story of Silicon Valley. Stewart was talking about something else. He was always more intellectually curious than people realize.
Markoff and Brand will celebrate the book launch on April 7 at 6 p.m., in conversation with Mike Cerre at Sausalito Books by the Bay.