Stewart Brand’s Dubious Futurism | The Nation

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Stewart Brand is not a scientist. He’s not an artist, an engineer, or a programmer. Nor is he much of a writer or editor, though as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, that’s what he’s best known for. Brand, 83, is a huckster—one of the great hucksters in a time and place full of them. Over the course of his long life, Brand’s salesmanship has been so outstanding that scholars of the American 20th century have secured his place as a historical figure, picking out the blond son of Stanford from among his peers and seating him with inventors, activists, and politicians at the table of men to be remembered. But remembered for what, exactly?

Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand is the first full biographical consideration of a man who has already provided useful fodder for writers seeking to characterize the various social and intellectual movements that came out of California in the final third of the 20th century. The author, the longtime tech journalist John Markoff, has covered Brand at length before, in What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. But his new book puts Brand, the man—rather than his role as an exemplary connector of others—at the center of its story. An authorized project, Markoff’s biography draws primarily from Brand’s own words in contemporary interviews and in his detailed journals, to which the author had access. If, in the historical light of 2022, it were possible to make Stewart Brand look good, I’m sure Markoff would have managed it, which makes it all the more remarkable that he does not.

In works ranging from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—the book opens with Brand driving the famous Merry Prankster bus—to Fred Turner’s 2004 study From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Brand found a way to put himself behind the wheel, most often by buying the car. He pops up repeatedly in what has become the standard prehistory of Silicon Valley: organizing the San Francisco Trips Festivals, which kick-started the hippie movement, helping show off the first personal computer prototype, supplying those newly minted hippies with “back to the land” fantasies, advising the Zen governor of California Jerry Brown, telling America about early computer games, cofounding one of the first successful experiments in Internet community, and coining the phrase “Information wants to be free.” As an overlapping member of so many relevant milieus, Brand is like a transitional fossil, revealing changes and continuities. In him, academics and reporters have found a useful tool for narrating the period, helping readers ride smoothly from the 1960s to the 1980s and linking together the ostensibly disparate cultures in Turner’s title.

Unlike Forrest Gump, who jogged through the same period blissfully ignorant and unseduced by any particular line, Brand fervently believed in almost everything—at least for a little while. Born into an ownership-class family in Rockford, Ill., he was the youngest of four children. His father was a partner at an advertising agency, but the family money traced to the Midwestern timber boom. Stewart attended prep schools, boarding at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where despite his intellectual disposition, he was an unexceptional student, especially compared with a standout older brother. It was here, Markoff writes, that Brand developed a “coping mechanism” that became an “operating manual” for him throughout his life: “Brand figured out that the best way to compete was not to follow the crowd but to instead chart his own iconoclastic path.” For an underachieving elitist, better to be incomparably strange than second-rate.

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