The Real Legacy of Stewart Brand
Paris Marx is joined by Malcolm Harris to discuss the legacy of Stewart Brand and why the myth we’re often told about him overstates the reality of his impact.
Malcolm Harris is the author of Kids These Days, Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit, and his forthcoming book Palo Alto. He also writes for New York Magazine. Follow Malcolm on Twitter at @BigMeanInternet.
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Paris Marx: Malcolm, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Malcolm Harris: Thanks so much for having me.
PM: It’s great to have you on the show. I’ve been following your work for a while. You’re the author of a bunch of great books and a forthcoming book that you’ll be back on the podcast to talk about next year, which I’m very excited for, “Palo Alto.” But you wrote this review of a new biography of Stewart Brand, John Markoff’s “Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand,” recently for The Nation. And so, I wanted to discuss Stewart Brand and his life. But before we get into that, I wanted to talk to you about the response to your review. Because I think a review of a book even when focused on on the particular person that the book is about doesn’t necessarily get the kind of response that your review got. Stewart Brand himself tweeted about the review, and then a bunch of his Silicon Valley followers, the people who hold him up as this key figure in the history of tech in the Valley also came out of the woodwork to massage his ego, make him feel better because he thought your review was too harsh. Jeff Bezos, for example, tweeted, “Stewart, I very much hope the future world gets many more “hucksters” like you, we will be better for it.” And Paul Graham said, “Wow, someone hating on Stewart Brand. There’s proof if you need it, that literally anyone sufficiently famous can attract haters.” What did you make of this response to your review?
MH: Well, it showed that they weren’t expecting it, — that this book which was produced by Stewart Brand’s friends and associates. His literary agent John Brockman controls a real corner of the publishing industry, which includes Markoff who wrote this book. So they’re all buddies. So it was: Hey, buddy, write a book about or other buddy. And this is a year of sort of celebration and looking back for Stewart Brand. He’s also got a documentary that’s coming out that was again, funded by more of his rich tech buddies. So this is part of a celebratory project around Stewart Brand in his mid 80s. Now, and I guess they didn’t see it coming under that sort of actual critical attention.
PM: That makes perfect sense. I don’t know if you’ve seen that documentary. I got to see it last year. And oh, man, that is terrible.
MH: I have heard — I have not seen it. But I did hear from people who had who said that my review sort of fit with what they got out of the documentary.
PM: I was going to write a review of the documentary when I saw it. But maybe you’ll have to return to it now that it’s actually going to come out to the public and write that review. Because the idea that bringing back woolly mammoths is going to save us from climate change is a bit of crazy thinking.
MH: And he’s had his share, and so this is the latest set of notions are no better than the notions he’s had throughout his career of notions.
PM: And we’ll dig into some of those, I’m sure. So, before we dig into these parts of Brand’s life, I wanted to talk about how he is kind of positioned in the Silicon Valley mythology. He’s one of these figures that’s really held up as being key to the history that Silicon Valley wants to tell us about itself — figures like Steve Jobs, figures like Jeff Bezos who want to hold brand up as this really important figure, as having these really important ideas that inspire them and inspire the industry more generally. How is his role often positioned in that history? And what do you make of how the tech industry treats him?
MH: You have to give Brand himself credit for his self promotion. He’s done a good job putting himself at the center of these narratives, by befriending the people who are writing these narratives, by putting himself sort of in control of money that’s coming out that was used to write the first drafts of Silicon Valley’s history of itself, through institutions like the CoEvolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Catalog itself. And so he was in a good place, not so much to create the valley itself, but to be part of the story that it tells about itself. And then you get him depicted as a important figure by secondary sources or analytical sources. So the most famous is Fred Turner’s “Counterculture to Cyberculture,” which figures Brand is this central connecting figure between different segments of the Bay Area tech milieu. And so he is figured is this important guy. The Whole Earth catalog is really important institution. And even the idea of the Whole Earth as an important cultural moment, which I think is vastly overstated. Basically, all parts of that are overstated. And I’ve got a 700-page book about Palo Alto, and this whole scene coming out next year. And when it came down to it, he didn’t need to be in there. He’s just not that important to figure — he was good at putting himself in the stories. But in terms of the substantial things that are going on, pretty irrelevant.
PM: It’s really interesting to hear you describe it that way. Because one of the things that stood out to me in reading the book was how I did feel that there was that degree of exaggeration of Brand’s role, sometimes. In particular the place where it stood out for me was when he was kind of referred to as this key figure in the environmental movement. And listen, I’m not a historian on the environmental movement. But before I got into tech, and tech politics, climate change was really the issue that kind of like motivated me politically, or whatnot. And even thinking back to what I knew of the early environmental movement, I don’t remember Stewart Brand being a figure that I recognized until I started to learn about the history of tech. And all of a sudden, he was associated with the history of Silicon Valley and whatnot. And then as part of that, all of these tech folks were saying he was also a key environmental figure.
MH: His role in the environmental movement and the role of the environmental movement itself, the role of Americans in the via environmental movement is very complicated — even his role in the local environmental movement. Because in the Bay Area, you had, at the time, a really bifurcated environmental movement where you had the sort of ruling class, Save the Whales types, which Stewart Brand was the guy in charge of. He was the big “save the whales” dude. And then on the other hand, you had a labor movement that was focusing on environmental issues as a way to approach labor conditions within Silicon Valley chip fabrication, because it’s one of the most toxic production processes around and it led to huge environmental problems in the Bay Area. And so there was this strategic attempt by the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition, among others, to attack labor problems through this environmental angle. And Stewart Brand had absolutely nothing to do with that. Insofar as he had anything to do with it, it was promoting an environmental movement that was totally distinct from that. And there’s a scene, I don’t think I talked about it explicitly in the review. But, one of his big environmental actions was going to this International Environmental Conference, basically, on behalf of the US government funded through whatever pass through foundations, the CIA or whatever else was using at the time, going there to try and change the orientation of the meeting away from US imperialism, and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, to literally save the whales. So his history with the environmental movement, anywhere you sort of dig down, this guy has been on the wrong side of these issues.
PM: I think it’s fascinating that you describe it that way. Because I feel like you can see it like so many times within the book where there is this kind of politics that would be more oppositional to power and to the actual structures that are causing these problems that Brand ostensibly cares about, but then doesn’t want to be involved with because he wants to take this other approach that is like less oppositional, but also kind of beneficial to him in many ways, especially as his life progresses. And I think that example from when he goes to that conference in Sweden is just wild. I want to talk more about this divide about these politics of Brand, but I thought it would be good to get some insight on his earlier life before we do that. Before he really gets into the counterculture into that scene, what is his family life like? And when he goes to university, he makes an attempt at going to the army. What is notable in this period? What we learn about Stewart Brand, when we look back in this earlier period of his life before he becomes a more notable figure?
MH: Markoff gets at the issue, sort of, in spite of himself. He reveals more than maybe he was attempting to in the first place, which is that Stewart is this underachieving younger son of this rich, merchant family, going back generations to the Western Timber boom — and so ultimately, a US colonial settlement. And so they’re pushing that money forward, his dad ends up running an advertising company. His older brother is a standout at Stanford — a frat bro/early tech guy who gets hired at Tektronix, which is one of the really early West Coast tech companies. And Stewart attends Exeter Prep, which is one of the best prep schools in the country. And he’s got this sort of idea of himself as this elite guy, though, which makes sense, you know, as he’s raised in that community, but he never really seems to be able to pull it off. And starting with his academic career and prep school and going into Stanford, he has this idea of himself as a smart guy, someone who’s really interested in in learning stuff and ideas, but he never really seems to be able to make it happen. He doesn’t get good grades; there’s no area in which he excels. He’s really obsessed with himself as an ROTC cadet at Stanford, which is like an insanely nerdy thing to be at the time. Right, especially in a region that’s about to see the emergence of the counterculture. He was the culture — not the counterculture as a college kid.
PM: It’s notable that in the book Markoff says that he’s always going around in his uniform.
MH: Well, and he says the character that he gives — and this is where my reading of the book starts to head in this really clear direction — is you have this picture of him as a college student who has a hard time. He’s got money; he’s got a car; he’s got a place off campus; he still can’t make any friends really; he’s hanging out with the foreign exchange students who are rich kids from whatever other countries that they’re coming from. These are not strivers. These are the sons of kings and etc. Reading Ayn Rand thinking about the overpopulation crisis. That picture of that kind of person — I’m from the Bay Area, I know that guy like I know who he’s talking about, because that’s still a person who is around. And that’s the worst person you can find. That guy is a dickhead, as well as no redeeming qualities. The guy it reminds me of that I went to high school with as well, is working at Palantir and has been working at Palantir since he graduated from college. So that’s where the character of Stewart Brand really comes into focus, I think. in the book, in spite of the book, with this early formation as a person.
PM: I think it’s really interesting to hear you describe that because some of the things that kind of stood out to me in that period and you know, how he’s described by Markoff are really the fact that you know, he always has his family’s money to fall back on like throughout his life. There are notes in the book about how he could rely on his mother to send him a check or whatever, so he could get by even if things weren’t working out very well. So he never really had that kind of fear of really losing it all and like not really having anywhere to turn to. And that enabled him to kind of pursue the types of projects and things that he wanted to get involved in. But then also it talks about how after university, he went to the military, and was planning to have this like military career. And there’s this like justification that one of the reasons that he gives for why it didn’t ultimately work out was that like, he was looking for an experience that would like inspire good novel, and like all these sorts of things. And you kind of say, in your review, if I remember correctly, that this sounds more like an excuse for why he just couldn’t make it there.
MH: He wants to be the highest achiever of whatever he’s doing, which makes sense, given his background, and given the kind of direction he’s been given — given the historical project that he’s really part of. This is an elitist historical project. And so if he’s going to join the army, he wants to be an Army Ranger. If he’s going to join the army, he wants to be a Green Beret. And when it turns out, it’s really fucking hard to be an Army Ranger. It’s really fucking hard to be in Green Beret, he doesn’t have the metal for it. He drops out of Army Ranger School, and then they tell him that, and he says: Okay, well, then I want to be a Green Beret. And they said: Well, okay, well, you got to actually do basic training before you become a Green Beret. And he says: Well, fuck it, then I don’t want it. And he’s able to sort of do this, thanks partly to his connections. He’s got a very well connected — his brother-in-law, sister’s husband, is a very well connected military guy rising fast through the ranks, and he’s able to help him out and he gets a gig. It’s the most slacker gig in the military to serve out his career, which is hanging out in New Jersey. The book talks that him literally falling asleep on duty or whatever, they just put him in a corner to make sure he wouldn’t screw anything up. And he got to hang out in New York on the weekends.
PM: Yeah, that’s pretty damning description of his military career.
MH: Which, and I’d say it in the review, if you think his life is disgraceful, which I think to a certain degree, it is, it would have been much worse, if he had stuck with it and become an Army Ranger in the early 60s or whatever. Those guys committed war crimes. So it could have been worse, if he had been more of the man that he wanted to be. If even more than that he was set up to be by this historical project, you probably would have done worse things. So there you go.
PM: Probably good that he failed on that account, then I guess.
MH: At least for his soul.
PM: So you’re talking about how he really wants to be involved in this military project, how that is how he sees himself, but then he really kind of fails out of it, he can’t make it through it. So then how does he make that turn from this guy who wants to be a Green Beret,and Army Ranger to him becoming an important figure, at least how the history is often told, within the counterculture?
MH: So he always wants to be a writer, or not always. But within his college time, this idea of becoming a writer alights on him. And this is at a time in American history where being a writer was a much better job than it was now, both in terms of the pay and the prestige.
PM: I was going to say, would you actually get paid?
MH: You get paid great, really great prestige. This is at the beginning. This is right before New Journalism comes along. So this is right in the early days of New Journalism. So he’s thinking about James Agee, and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and thinking about the really noble, masculine sort of career that he’s imagining, traveling throughout the world and writing and taking pictures. He fancies himself a photographer at the time. And so the military is part of that, too. Like you said, he’s thinking about: Oh, I’m going to write a novel, or I’m going to write a story about this, one way or the other. Though, he thinks there’s not going to be any, there’s no war right now. So there’s no good stories to tell, which is a pretty stupid thing to think about the US military in the early 60s. But regardless, he ends up for a class project going to write about the Beats, because the Beats are starting to be this national, and even international, cultural sensation, even though it’s really like twenty guys in San Francisco. So he goes up to go check it out for his class, and he finds that they’re way more like him than he imagined, that these guys are actually way squarer than they’re being portrayed. And at the same time, the barriers of entry are much lower than the other elite places that he’s inquired into, that he’s applied to. And so to become a Beat was sort of the fastest way to the top. Markoff have points out that Brand realizes this early — that if he wants to be the best at whatever he’s doing, the key is to pick something that not a lot of other people are doing. Because then you can get to be the best faster.
PM: It makes a ton of sense — the quickest path to achieve the type of notoriety that I want, and realizing, okay, this might be the direction to do it. When he then gets involved with that counterculture, one of the things that stands out to me is — referring back to what you were talking about his time in the environmental movement, and about how he had a particular conception of what the environmental movement could be, that was in opposition to more of a labor framing of environmental issues. And we see that again, within this kind of moment, when he gets involved with the counterculture, where there is the New Left that is involved with the student protests and pushing back against the Vietnam War, and things like that. But Brand himself describes himself as anti-communist. He’s opposed to these protests. When he gets involved with some of these kind of hippie groups, he’s looking for ways to turn a profit out of them. He gets involved with or he starts taking LSD, and these other kinds of psychedelics. How should we think about Brand in this moment? And I guess, the part of the counterculture that he actually gets involved with and comes to represent in a way?
MH: The counterculture is is very tricky group, partly because they’ve written a lot of their own history. And Markoff’s book “What the Dormouse Said,” links the early tech world to this counterculture milieu. It has done a lot of work in solidifying that connection in people’s minds — he’s got a peace sign on the cover of the book. But then Brand who is one of the main characters in this milieu, you realize is not just pro-war and anti-communist, but had been trying to be a soldier. It’s not just pro-war, but wants to carry out the war. And that’s an important way to see ultimately, what the counterculture is doing. And he’s not alone in this. Ken Kesey is the same way, pro-war, doesn’t like the anti-war people, doesn’t like communists, very patriotic American. And so the depiction of the counterculture as equivalent to the anti-war movement, more equivalent to the hippies. But then the equivalence between the hippies and the anti-war movement is just incorrect. And so if you actually look at what the relationship was between the tech milieu in the Bay, counterculture aligned, and the New Left, and the communist left at the time, they were fighting. They were literally engaged in fight,. The New Left was throwing rocks at the labs that Stewart Brand is writing about, or ultimately bombing them. And so the conflation of these things is very misleading. And you end up sort of mixing the politics all around in a way that doesn’t reflect the actual struggles that animated the period.
PM: Do you feel that Fred Turner’s book does a good job of separating those out and making two particular categories that is this more political left wing strain and this other strain that’s more focused on the individual and having these psychedelic experiences? And that being the route to change in a very naive, but kind of self-serving way?
MH: That Turner book is much more serious than Markoff’s other one, and even though I don’t like its use of Brand as the central figure. And I think the focus is kind of blinkered, because you really have to look at the war in Asia and the long span of the war in Asia, to make sense of those periods and the historical tasks that these people were embedded in. Because when you talk about people taking LSD or whatever, they weren’t taking LSD to do communism, or whatever. They were taking LSD as part of an experiment by US intelligence authorities, especially at the beginning. So when, Brand is introduced to these drugs, or when Brand pays to get himself introduced to these drugs, because again, Brand usually finds himself at the front of the line because he get paid to be there. And LSD is a perfect example. He’s a soldier in this broader war against the communist world. And one front of that war was the experimentation with the substances. So Stewart Brand was still a soldier in that way. When you’re still when you’re with the counterculture, you’re still part of the US military effort against communism and against the Soviet Union, which we see over the course of his career how many times he becomes useful in one way or the other.
PM: No, I think it’s a really good point and just to note for for listeners as well, Brand pays $500 for his first experience with LSD, and that would be the equivalent of about $5,000 today, if you adjust for inflation, just a little bit under that. So that’s quite a bit of money to pay just to take a drug and have this experience with the military to then go on and preach it to everyone. One of the moments in that period before he starts up the catalog, or at least I believe it’s before he starts the catalog, is the Trips Festival and his involvement with that. And one of the things that stands out, based on what you have been describing, is how Brand comes from this family with money. And his father in particular is concerned about the direction that he’s taking, that it’s not a serious direction, that he’s very lost, and doesn’t seem to have an idea of what he’s doing with his life. And then he uses the Trips Festival in this letter to his father, as I remember to show to him: Look, the hippie movement can be a capitalist enterprise; I can make money off of it. What do you make of how he at least positions that or rather thinks about it?
MH: It’s important to think about his family money, not as something that he has to fall back on, because I don’t think it plays that role throughout the story. It’s not like: Oh, I screwed up, or I need some help or whatever. It’s that he’s a steward of this intergenerational fortune. That’s his job. It’s understood, it seems in the letter with his father that he’s never expected to have a job because he has access to this fortune. And that he will always be in terms of his living expenses, be living off family money, but then in a larger sense that it’s his job to be a steward of this fortune to invest it well, and to put it into things. And so when he tells his dad about like: You worry that I’m out here becoming a communist, basically; don’t worry, I’m not a communist; this isn’t commie stuff. In fact, this Trips Festival, which was basically a drug concert. So they’d be doing these acid tests, you’d come to the acid test, and they’d give you acid and trip out. And that’s how they were spreading acid. And when the state started to crack down on the distribution of acid, the Trips Festival came in, where instead of giving people acid, people would be expected to bring their own drugs, and you’d set up sort of a trippy experience for them to enjoy being high on, which included at the beginning a Grateful Dead performance, which was really the ended up being very successful.
And so you don’t even have the cost of your drugs, but people are paying for it like it’s a drug experience. So you can actually make a fair bit of money. And it was Bill Graham, who if you’re from the west coast, the name still stands for concerts and events, Bill Graham got his start doing this promo for the Trips Festival. And so Stewart could go to his dad and say: You’re worried about what kind of capitalist I’m becomin, that I’m out here with these smelly hippie people. But actually, a lot of them are much square than you’d think. And this is a growth industry. This is California mid-century — stuff is booming out here, you can really make some money. And he was. So he was showing the connection between the counterculture and capitalist logic that was maintained throughout the whole time. Even if we think of hippies and the ‘back to the land’ types as sort of anti-capitalist or something along those lines. The money behind it was still capital.
PM: I think it’s a really good point. And I think you can, in particular, see it as Brand kind of gets himself into more corporate life after these counterculture experiments, these hippie movement experiments, and how this larger movement, many of them also move into corporate America afterward. Obviously, the Whole Earth Catalog is a defining moment in Stewart Brand’s life. I think that’s fair to say. One of the things that stood out to me in the book was how Stewart Brand kept asserting that the catalog itself didn’t have politics, but then I can’t remember if it was someone close to him, or if it was Markoff himself, who just notes that it wasn’t so much that the catalog didn’t have politics, but rather that the catalog had Stewart Brand’s politics. And so he just kind of ignored that fact about it. Can you describe what the catalog was? What the significance of it was? And what kind of ideas it was trying to push on to its readers?
MH: So the Catalog is a catalog. So it’s a big, large format book, basically, that had pages and pages of mostly products. And it had other tips, cool things to know or whatever. And lots of items that would be appealing to the back to the land types about building a tent or here’s how to tie a rope, all lthe cool innovative tools that would allow them to be hand their back to the land communes away from mainstream American life through these products that they were buying in a in a catalog. So it’s kind of funny, in that it seems incongruous, but it wasn’t. Back to the land hippies were not involved in the global communist project or whatever. They were a certain type of American consumer. And these were the things that might appeal to them. But really, if you look through it, the core of the the catalog are these cool 60s books about new ideas.
And because it was a catalog, not a creative endeavor of whatever kind, they felt able to appropriate all these really cool images from all these crazy wacky 60s books about all the new ways that people were looking at the world, whether it was Buckminster Fuller’s domes, or whatever else, and include the coolest diagrams from all of these books in their catalog. And so the catalog didn’t actually sell that much stuff. And it was itself kind of expensive. It was $5, which at a time when paperbacks cost 50 cents, was a real amount of money. So it was an expensive hardcover book now, that took pictures of all these other books, and you got to sort of gloss the culture, the counterculture as it existed. And it presented, by implication, this figure of the kind of person who would be buying these things and reading the Whole Earth Catalog. And a lot of people built their identities around that during the period, even though like I said, they didn’t sell that much stuff out of it.
PM: It’s so interesting. And when he is making the catalog, when this thing is taking off, I’d like you to talk a little bit about how it becomes this phenomenon. That’s how it’s presented and how people like Steve Jobs, and all these folks in tech ended up becoming associated with or inspired by the catalog, ended up referencing it as something that inspired them. So how does it go from being this catalog that’s selling stuff to the back to the land movement to this broader thing that all of a sudden gets thi big readership, gets a lot of attention within the American media? Because Stewart Brand ends up going on talk shows and things like that to talk about it. So how does it kind of take on this life beyond the back to the land movement?
MH: Well, it does become a best seller because though not many people become actual back to the land hippies, a lot of people are interested in that vibe. And paying $5 to get this document that had the whole thing in it, where you can go page to page to page, imagine yourself as part of this movement. That’s a much bigger consumer base than the actual people who went back to the land, who if you only sold it to them, they wouldn’t have that many copies to sell. And part of that group that was intrigued by this lifestyle, even though most of them were not living it at all — in fact, were living as close to the opposite, in some ways — was this nascent tech industry in the Bay Area. And so the Whole Earth truck store gets set up in Palo Alto or in Menlo Park, next to SRI. And Stewart’s been part of this milieu since the Trip’s Festival and all this history, and so they’re falling along.
And so this provides a cultural component for this early tech industryl, and they really embrace it, as we’re the Whole Earth people. Of course, they’re also working for the CIA while they’re embracing this Whole Earth agenda. And part of the reason they’re able to do that is because they’re not incompatible. Unlike most of the work that’s coming out, that’s going to say victory to Ho Chi Minh. That’s not what the whole earth catalogues agenda is at all, the politics, as you said, are implicitly Ayn Randian basically, implicitly, American consumerist, individualist. And so the people who are engaged in this longer term American project, but who still have a sense of themselves as outsiders to the American mainstream can glom on to this and say: Yeah, we identify with the Whole Earth people; we’re like the back to the land people even if what we’re ultimately designing is you missile systems.
PM: It allows these people who are within the system to make themselves feel as though they are outside it and not trying to support it and further it in a really harmful way. When I think about the catalog, I think that there are many things that we could point to where that we could talk about in relation to it. But I think that there are two in particular that really stand out and that I’d like to discuss with you. And that’s first of all, how the catalog takes on this life of its own, it becomes this best seller, as you say. It’s really important to Stewart Brand’s life. And then as I was reading through Markoff’s book, it felt to me as though he was kind of just jumping from thing to thing afterward. And it was always the catalog that he went back to and tried to use to legitimize something else that he was doing. But he was always kind of constantly relying on that to try to build new projects on it, because he couldn’t get anything else going that wasn’t related to the catalog.
MH: It’d be a little harsh to call him a one-hit-wonder, because the CoEvolutionary Quarterly had its own following. And the Trips Festival was something he was involved in. But that really was the thing that made his name. And it’s kind of funny that it’s not like he wrote the thing. It’s not like he sat down and did the whole thing. He paid people $10 apiece for the their reviews. And then his wife at the time, Lois Jennings did, it seems like, a lot of the heavy lifting for actually putting it together. But Stewart Brand was the Whole Earth guy, right? He was the guy who’s when we didn’t talk about the Whole Earth meme in the first place, who put forward this Whole Earth brand. And it’s funny that his name is Brand.
PM: Convenient for a family that was part of an ag company, or whatever his father was.
MH: Right, the Brand family. But he really does turn this picture of the Whole Earth into his brand in a really clever way. You’ve got to give the guy credit for that, even if I think it’s ultimately pretty stupid. And not only stupid, but politically misleading. So to see the Earth as one whole thing, to see us as one whole species or whatever is obfuscating at a time when you’ve got a bifurcating world conflict between capitalist and anti-capitalist nations and powers in the world. So his his viewpoint was very useful for the American project, which is why I think he’s had this kind of staying power.
PM: That makes a lot of sense, because the other thing that I wanted to get to in relation to the catalog is because it becomes this huge thing that so many people end up reading that becomes influential, even the people beyond the back to the land movement, is that it also allows him to form these relationships with really powerful people, people who would genuinely be outside, they’re not back to the land types, they would be even promoting a very different politics. What are some of the important relationships that Brand forms through that, and that come to define his life after the catalog?
MH: So the CoEvolutionary Quarterly is one that gets glossed over in most of the histories, but gets developed here. So this is sort of the post-Whole Earth project that itself leads to the Wired Magazine kind of world. And so a lot of the people who work with Brand on the Co-Evol, ended up filling the early ranks of the Silicon Valley storytellers. And so he becomes this godfather to the people who are telling the stories of Silicon Valley, because he sets up this infrastructure. And the book makes clear that he doesn’t really run these things, or do certainly doesn’t do a very good job running these things. And that multiple times, the people who are managing his projects, whether it’s whole earth or CoEvol, have to call them up wherever he is in the world, doing whatever he’s doing, and say: Look, man, we can’t really afford to keep cutting you these checks. And he always says: Oh, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need money, but fine, whatever.
And so partly that it’s that ability to not need money that helps him maintain this role as this godfather character, as opposed to struggling with people over managerial control over these projects. So he builds up a lot of connections there. And I do encourage people to check out the Turner book to see how he is playing this role within this network. But it’s also important to think about the institutions themselves that are involved and he ends up forming this global business network, the GVN, which is a corporate consultancy, and that’s who ultimately has the biggest use for his kind of outside of the box thinking. It’s not useful for people who are rebelling against the system. It’s useful for people who are trying to update the system to accommodate new realities.
PM: I think it’s a really important thing to outline. And it brings to mind something that Markoff writes in the book about Brand’s trajectory or his development over the number of years that he’s active, an influential figure, so to speak, where he kind of says that Turner and these other people who talk about Brand or write about Brand, have it wrong in that he was this kind of libertarian figure that was that was interested in these personal technologies that had this kind of impact on how we think about technology. And the particular ideology that emerges from Silicon Valley, as Turner would describe it. But Markoff says that part of the story misses how Brand’s thinking evolves in that he goes from this kind of more libertarian phase to having a greater relationship with the state, embracing these kind of larger scale technologies — in the sense that he pisses off some of the people who previously supported him when he embraces Gerard O’Neill and his ideas for these big space colonies that Jeff Bezos now embraces and is trying to supposedly realize, and also his embrace of things like nucular energy. What do you make of how mark off describes that? And brands trajectory? Do you think that Markoff describes it properly? And what should we make of that?
MH: So, Markoff is doing an approved history, and you can sort of feel Brockman looking over his shoulder as he writes it, which makes it kind of funny, because every once in a while, he’ll accidentally say something true — true on a deeper level than he’s supposed to be writing. And so I don’t think he does a bad job necessarily describing this turn. There aren’t maybe enough accounts of the people around him who have a better perspective of what that shift looks like. But it was a general social shift to among the ruling class, where you have in the Reagan era, they come in and say: All right, we’re going to use the coercive power for the state; we’re going to do the Star Wars missile program; we’re going to spend tons of money doing defense, and at the same time, we’re gonna undermine the regulatory functions of the state. But the right was certainly eager to get their hands on state power, and be the guys with the missile button. So his transition was in keeping with his milieu. It wasn’t a strange path for him to get on. Although at the same time, you see some look at something like nuclear energy, where he used to be like: Nuclear waste is bad, we need to go back to the land, now saying: Actually, nuclear waste is good for the land. He’s not the only one to make that shift. But it’s definitely a convenient shift for some people.
PM: I think that describes it really well, especially when you look at the other kind of people that he gets involved with, by making this turn to business consultants through the Global Business Network. I guess it’s pre-Global Business Network, he works with Shell as a consultant. And then I think that’s the inspiration for the GBN. But it stands out to me, at least in reading the book that one of the things that happens after the catalog is all of a sudden, he forms these relationships with these wealthy people, these influential people. And they, in some cases, will bankroll his projects like Jeff Bezos, and the Long Now Foundation or whatever it’s called, or he’ll get in with Negroponte at the MIT Media Lab, and then end up writing about that and legitimizing it, because he has this particular role or position or what have you. What do you make of the role that he plays in that position, and in those years after the catalog, when certainly he has these projects, as you’re describing, but he’s not always close to them and always looking for the next thing to get involved with that is going to be of interest to him?
MH: He’s been a pretty low percentage shooter later in life in terms of the projects that he’s backed. Even nuclear power, which he has put a lot of weight behind, has not been a huge growth stock in terms of the alternate fuels, but stuff like the woolly mammoth resurrection or the giant clock or whatever, just increasingly ridiculous. Still doing his sort of Whole Earth act, excited about the future, always an optimist and they get morally self righteous about there’ll always be naysayers, but we’ve always got to be optimistic about the future, whatever. And it’s gone on for too long to the point where the outsiders that he backed are now not just the insiders, but really the people who are responsible for the state of the world. And that’s a tough situation to be taking responsibility for, considering the state of the world. And so this sort of celebratory lap that I don’t know how long he’d been planning right or people around him had been planning, but the book and movie and whatever else they had planned for this year is really strange. It’s really incongruous to watch.
Because you have people celebrating themselves, celebrating this life, set of accomplishments when the outcome has been disaster — a real total disaster. And so you have someone like Jeff Bezos being like: Oh, yeah, Stewart Brand was the one who taught me that you always got to stay weird, or whatever. And it’s like: Dude, you exploit labor all over the world; you’re like the face of labor exploitation; you’re Darth Vader. And so pointing to this guy and being like: That’s my ideological influence or my court jester — also, which I think is sort of the figure that he plays — is discrediting, and it’s discrediting in a lot of people’s eyes, not in their own of course. But so I think, the reaction of my review, and maybe in the future, I know Ben Kunkel at New Republic also had a pretty harsh read of the book. They don’t have great perspective on what they’ve accomplished in their lives. And I feel a little bit bad being one of the ones to sort of show it back to them. But you’ve got to give a an honest, objective analysis of the situation and that sucks.
PM: Absolutey. I was interested — you noted there that the New Republic had a review out recently, as well. I believe the book came out in March, am I right?
MH: Yeah. The end of March.
PM: Yeah, these two critical reviews kind of fell right around the same time?
MH: I filed mine ages ago. So that I don’t know about Ben, but mine was just the vagaries of the publishing industry. Ben and I put both describe ourselves as Marxists I would imagine. And that’s really contrary to the read that Brand had. And so if you told him 30 years ago that your accomplishments would be critiqued, the people who would be evaluating your life in American publications are going to be Marxists, I think you would have been surprised. So it does not surprise me that he is going to get a couple of negative reviews. And I think he’ll probably see more. Sounds like the movies not very good. And it sounds like there’s going to be more reckoning with the forces that he’s aligned himself with. So in some ways, as I write in the review, he lived too long — he could have been the paragon of different kinds of capitalism. But now when you’re aligned with Jeff Bezos, you’re just capitalism.
PM: That’s a good way to put it. And I would say that the documentary definitely shows the naivete, just how fundamentally wrong his kind of perception on technology and how technology can save us from climate change really is. And I think that’s also represented in what the book talks about in relation to his environmental politics and how that evolves and how he kind of publishes this manifesto, that is based around these kind of tech solutions to climate change, and how capitalism is going to save us from climate change. And if we look back at the past few decades, and look how much of a terrible failure that has been, it really doesn’t say very much good about that perspective. At the same time as people like Bill Gates, for example, continue to tell us that this is the route that is going to save us from climate change, and there’s really no evidence of that.
MH: I’ve got another review coming out sometime soon of Doug Rushkoff’s new book. And Rushkoff is someone who had been an associate of Brand’s, who thanks him on a book that he wrote a decade ago called “Present Shock.” But the new book, Rushkoff is very directly critical of Brand. I was kind of surprised to see it where he’s singling out Brand as an example of this tech solutionist ideology that comes in for a really pretty harsh treatment by Rushkoff, someone who could have been described as maybe more on the tech solution aside in the past, but who’s looked at the situation and looked at the tendencies and said: This is a real bad way of looking at the world.
PM: Yeah, someone who can really see how it’s actually evolved and change how they think about it in response to that, I guess.
MH: And it’s become so dramatic that he’s willing to point at someone like Brand, someone he knows personally and say: You fucked up.
PM: So one of the pieces that is really important as the book kind of comes to a close is the Long Now Foundation. This idea of building this 10,000 year clock and a library associated with it, that would promote long-term thinking, so they say. I feel like this kind of obsession with long term thinking goes back, I remember seeing it mentioned like early on in the biography as well with some of the things that Brand was interested in, or some of the topics that were kind of central to his thinking in particular periods. And it seems like the way that Markoff describes it like as the Internet revolution is happening, as these things are changing with these new tech companies, that Brand is not so much focused on that, but is focused on trying to get this foundation started, and these other wacky ideas, like bringing back the woolly mammoth. I think one of the things that I’m concerned about in thinking about that is how this suppose that interest in long-term thinking to me doesn’t seem actually interested in thinking about what is going to solve these problems for the long term. But as I’ve talked to Phil Torres, about is justifying this ideology of these incredibly powerful people like Jeff Bezos, to pursue these projects like space colonization, for example, that are against the interests of humanity today, because they might make some difference in the future, if you have this, completely imagined idea of what future humanity might be. And so, what do you make of how Brand thinks about this and his interest in projects like Long Now?
MH: At certain ends it becomes really dangerous — where you say: Oh, well, we can lose 90% of humanity, because in 1000 years that 10% of humanity will create a whole new world. And so from a long-term perspective thinking, nothing really matters that much, which I think is sort of tied to where a Brand is coming from and his ideology or since the beginning. And you think about the Whole Earth picture as this encapsulation of how he thinks about things, which is as this removed holistic, conception that is separate from politics, separate from the divisions and disputes that characterize our world as it exists today, and instead much more philosophical, and then tries to make a life out of that. And that’s very appealing to the people who are on the wrong sides of the conflicts that actually characterize our world. Because it reconfigures them such that those things don’t matter. If you’re Jeff Bezos, and you’re fighting against unions, and making lives worse for the people who work for you, in terms of the struggle between capital and labor that describes our world today, you’re not just a bad guy, but like the bad guy.
But if you think about the history of humanity among the stars, maybe you’re the guy who makes a spaceship, that gets us to the colony that contacts some other world or whatever. And then no one cares about the labor conditions and your distribution warehouse back in 2020. Because you’re the founding father of intergalactic civilization. Now, that’s a ridiculous fantasy — a very ridiculous fantasy. But you can see how people can orient their thinking about themselves in that way. And if someone is coming to you and saying: Hey, Jeff, other people say you’re a real scumbag. But when I think about history, here’s how I think about you. You’re actually super great guy. Of course, you want to give them millions of dollars to set up their giant clock. Sure, why not?
PM: It makes perfect sense. It also makes me think of Elon Musk impregnating his executive or whatever, and saying: Oh, yeah, I’m just solving global under population or low birth rates or whatever. It’s like, what are you talking about, dude? But I want to bring this to a close. We’ve talked about many aspects of brands life, what kind of impact he has actually had, the politics that he has actually pushed through, the course of the various projects that he has taken on and the people that he’s been involved with. So I want to end with a broader question. Do you think that when we think about the history of Silicon Valley, that Brand’s role is overstated? And how should we actually think about the impact that he has had on the tech industry, but I guess more broadly, on the world that we now live in?
MH: I think it’s vastly overstated. And I think there are some people that you should look up instead, and there are places that you should be looking instead. I think Myron Stolaroff, one of the first employees at Ampex, which is one of the first Silicon Valley companies that goes off and becomes this LSD evangelist is a much more interesting figure than Stewart Brand in terms of his role connecting the tech and the countercultural worlds. And Ampex is this very, very interesting institution that’s founded by this White Russian fighter pilot, after he escaped from the Bolshevik Revolution. So there’s much more interesting things that are happening at the time than I think, Stewart Brand, and the counterculture is idea of itself. I think part of the problem was these people were not that smart. And so they didn’t have a very sophisticated understanding of what was going on in the world.
And so we’ve adopted their unsophisticated understanding of what was actually happening in the world. And I hope that that changes over time. And I think as it does, figures like Stewart Brand will be deprioritized in the telling of history. And that’s certainly how I found myself doing it, where I had drafts of my “Palo Alto” book, where Stewart Brand is playing some role. And he’s a character in that story. And then as I went through and edited it, realizing that like: Oh, I felt compelled to do that, because the other histories of Silicon Valley have him as this important figure, but that actually, in terms of what was actually going on, he’s not very important. It’s an idea of themselves. And so the failure of this book project, of the Whole Earth story may puts a different cap on Stewart Brand than they thought they were doing. But now maybe we can start to move on to a more sophisticated understanding of the period.
PM: It gives you a different story, if you want to look for it. I’m sure for people like Jeff Bezos, who might read through it, they’ll be like: Oh, yeah, this guy’s awesome. This is so great. But it’s fascinating to hear you describe it that way. And certainly, I’m looking forward to your history, “Palo Alto,” reading that to see how you talk about this period. And obviously, I’ll be looking forward to having you back on the show to talk about it. But thanks so much for spending the time with us today to chat about Stewart Brand.
MH: Absolutely, thanks for having me, Paris.