Digerati - Chapter 3

Digerati - Chapter 3

Stewart Brand [10.1.96]

Chapter 3


Stewart Brand

THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold): What's unrecognized about Stewart is that he's a designer. He designed The Well to be something that wouldn't require his running it. He designed the Whole Earth Review and the Whole Earth Catalog to be self-sustaining communities. We need more mavericks like him. The world has become too much of an intellectual monoculture of people who belong to corporations and who don't question the established way of doing things.

Stewart Brand is founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of The Well, cofounder of Global Business Network, and author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987) and How Buildings Learn (1994).

A great deal of discussion regarding the Internet often seems to ask "what the hell is the Internet?" Stewart likes to point out two reasons for that: it is new and it keeps changing. "It keeps changing," he notes, "partly because the technology is moving and partly because it is basically a grassroots phenomenon where the users are constantly reinventing the technology, constantly reinventing what would be fun to do on it, what would be useful to do on it. Each time you begin to think you have an idea what the Net is, it turns into something else. This was not the case with broadcast television or broadcast radio, which settled down within a couple of decades and then remained the same for twenty, thirty, forty years. The Net can't hold still for even ten months."


I first met Stewart thirty years ago at the headquarters of USCO ("us" company), an anonymous group of artists whose installations and events combined multiple audio and visual inputs, including film, slides, video, lighting, music, and random sounds. USCO's mantra, "We Are All 1," had already been altered to "We Are All 1...except Brockman" in order to accommodate my involvement. In 1963, the group had erected a Psychedelic Tabernacle in a church half an hour outside Manhattan in Garnerville, New York. It became an obligatory stop for every seeker and guru passing through the area. Stewart lived there (in the steeple) for a while.

Stewart was fascinated with the USCO community of artists‹including painter Steve Durkee, poet Gerd Stern, and filmmaker Jud Yalkut‹and with Rockland County neighbors such as John Cage and his crowd, all of whom were reading, studying, and debating Marshall McLuhan's ideas on communications. In fact, at one point USCO went on tour with McLuhan and provided an "intermedia" counterpoint to his talks.

Clearly, some of the interesting thinking about the Internet has its origins in ideas formulated by the artists of the '60s, which, wittingly or unwittingly, were carried forward by the enthusiastic young Lieutenant Brand. Considerations of form and content, context, community, and even the hacker ethic all were presaged in part by activities and discussions during that period.

Stewart, who preferred the term multimedia to intermedia, performed his own piece, "America Needs Indians," from 1964 to 1966 and performed "War: God" from 1967 to 1970. He organized The Trips Festival in January 1966 and created the Whole Earth button in March 1966 (it read: "Why Haven't We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?"). He is best known to my generation as the founder, editor, and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog. I recall visiting him in Menlo Park, California, in 1968 while he was working on the original catalog. His wife at the time, Lois, a Native American mathematician, spent an entire day working on the catalog with a layout person while Stewart and I sat together reading and underlining a copy of Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics. I still have that copy.

Several months later, the oversized catalog arrived packed in a long tube. Reading it‹or should I say devouring it?‹was one of the exciting intellectual experiences of my life. More than any other book for me, the original Whole Earth Catalog captured the moment and defined the intellectual climate of the times. A subsequent edition, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1971, was a number-one best-seller and won Stewart the National Book Award.

During the '70s, Stewart often talked about his vision for what he called the personal computer, a term he is often credited with inventing, although he is quick to point out that Alan Kay deserves credit for its coinage. "Alan credits me for being the first to use it in print in '74 in my book Two Cybernetic Frontiers" Stewart says. "I don't recall others using it as a term, and I didn't think I was doing a coinage, just describing the Xerox Alto in an epilogue in the book. By '75 I did use it as the name of a regular section in the CoEvolution Quarterly, well before personal computers existed."

As a friend, Stewart can be a challenge. I called him once in the '70s upon arriving at the San Francisco airport.

"Hi, I'm in town for a few days."

"Uh huh."

"What's happening?"


"Want to get together?"


What a charmer. For a cold fish, he has a special kind of charisma. Who else could grant an entire generation permission to wear sandals, hug trees, wear pen knives on their belts‹while at the same time pursuing the intellectual edges of our era?

In 1983, around the time IBM presented its first personal computer, Stewart and his colleagues at CoEvolution Quarterly quickly leapt at my suggestion that they seize the opportunity to carry their franchise into this new area. I presented their ten-page proposal for the Whole Earth Software Catalog to several publishers. Several days later, an editor from Doubleday called to make a preemptive offer of $1 million, which after several hours of negotiation became $1.3 million. A response was required within twelve hours or the offer would be withdrawn.

Stewart thought the offer "too much money." "It might screw us up," he said. Then he announced that he needed to talk to his financial advisor. At midnight, New York time, he finally phoned me. "Can't get a hold of him," he said. "Think I'll stay up tonight and do the I Ching. I'll call you in the morning."

The I Ching? Stewart had just been offered the largest advance in the history of publishing for a paperback original‹and he was going to spend the night consulting the I Ching for a decision? Fortunately, the forces of ancient wisdom overcame the quixotic voices in Stewart's head. He went for it.

In 1983, Stewart sent Dick Farson and Darryl Iconogle of the Western Behavioral Science Institute to see me in New York about a piece of conferencing software called the Onion, which was being used on a bulletin board system called EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) and run by Murray Turoff. When I demurred, Stewart told me I could be a player or I could choose to sit out the biggest development of the decade.

Sit it out I did, without regret except I found that I had become a grayed-out area on Stewart's screen. Our typical '80s telephone conversation went as follows:

"Hi, what's up."

(tap-tap-tap-tap-tap) "Busy, talking to somebody online." (tap)

Stewart was right and wrong. It is the biggest development of the '90s, not the '80s. Inspired by EIES, in 1984 Stewart cofounded The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), a computer teleconference system for the San Francisco Bay Area, considered a bellwether of the genre. But The Well was not for me. I couldn't deal with its clunky interface. Nor was I interested in the self-consciousness of the community, which, strangely, seemed to have adopted many of Stewart's linguistic mannerisms.

Over the past few years, sbb (his user name) has spent a great deal of his time making ideas safe for the Global 500 clients of Global Business Network (GBN), the consulting firm he cofounded in 1988 with futurist Peter Schwartz and philosopher Jay Ogilvy. He can now toss around the acronyms for major conglomerates as fluidly as he once threw a Frisbee. His place became secure in 1995 when the October 16 issue of Fortune ran a twelve-page profile of his pursuits entitled "The Electric Kool-Aid Management Consultant."

It's been along ride for the guy who still wears a Swiss army knife on his belt and once encouraged an entire generation to live off the land and be self-sufficient (i.e., poor). Stewart has evolved into a legendary figure, historic even, who is, year in and year out, the most interesting and influential thinker I know.

Stewart Brand is "The Scout."

THE SCOUT (Stewart Brand): There's a major disjunction between the speed of computer technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, on the one hand, and the speed of environmental direness and maybe civilizational direness, on the other. You used to be able to think in terms of many generations or many administrations. Winston Churchill liked that the monarchy emphasized generations. People who elect democratically think in much shorter terms.

Danny Hillis and I are putting together the Clock Library, to relengthen civilization's attention span. It will be a physical facility that is both a big slow charismatic clock and something we're calling "a library," which may or may not be recognized as a working library by the time it's actually being built. The Clock Library's function is to help people think about the depth of time both backwards and forwards, and take responsible relationship personally to that. The project is the exact analog of the photograph of the Earth from space from the Apollo spacecraft in the late 1960s, which almost instantly engendered the ecology movement. The trick is to find something that works for understanding time the way that photograph worked for understanding the Earth as a beautiful and fragile planet. The board members are Esther Dyson, Doug Carlston, Kevin Kelly, Danny Hillis, Paul Saffo, Mitch Kapor, Brian Eno, Peter Schwartz, and myself. People like them are flying very fast are also thinking about having a place to land.

We want to make a clock that, as Danny says, "ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and cuckoos once every thousand years"‹because we are living at the cutting edge of technology, constantly and rapidly creating new technological environments, becoming more and more aware that we've made the future opaque to ourselves. For instance, trying to imagine what the World Wide Web might be in fifteen years is a meaningless pursuit. Too much is going to happen between now and then in that domain to think usefully about it.

The peculiarity of the new devices on the Internet is that you've got a double acceleration or a double instability. First there's Moore's Law, the fact that the number of processors on a chip, and thus computer power, keeps doubling every eighteen months, decade after decade. Then there's Metcalfe's Law: the value of a net goes up as the square of the number of people on that net. That is to say the Net itself or any net‹even one made up of faxes or cellular telephones‹increases dramatically in value the more people are on it. You've got a double-runaway phenomenon. Throw into that the tools that suddenly turn up, like the World Wide Web, Mosaic, and later Netscape Navigator, which also can become dramatically empowering in short order. The Net is a major social event. Culture's got to change.

The theory of scaling says that when you change scale you change quality. It may not apply in familiar ways on the Net, because the Net is ground-up: it's grassroots, people connecting directly with one another. It's geodesic, rather than hierarchical, in that all of the players connect directly with each other instead of going through some leadership structure. The problems you get with growth and scale in hierarchical systems will not occur in geodesic grassroots systems like the Net. Something different will happen, and it's too early to discern what.

When there were three or four hundred of us on The Well, people started saying, "What happens when we get another hundred people on here? We're going to lose this wonderful sense of community." A few years later there were ten thousand people on The Well, and everyone was still bitching about the same problem. It turned out that scaling up a magnitude or two did not present the problems people thought it would. You get communities within communities. You get private conferences where there's a very intense community of thirty or forty or one hundred people who feel just as strongly about each other and the things they're interested in as they did when The Well was very small. A granularity keeps reasserting itself, and it may make some of the usual scaling problems irrelevant.

The Well computer teleconferencing system was essentially a gift from a friend who had some software to spare, a little bit of money, and a Vax minicomputer to loan. When it started in 1984, it was connected to Co-Evolution Quarterly, which had a community feel, and it was another way for people who used the magazine to contact each other.

Within two years, it had attracted a particular group of people who were intensely interested in talking to each other online, the Deadheads. That was enough of a protocommunity for a real electronic community to take shape, where marriages and births and deaths and suicides and other profound personal changes all took place and were brought to life through the prism of this online connection. It worked as a community partly because it was set up as a regional system and partly because we insisted that people be identifiable. Anonymity was not allowed. Bright, eloquent people, both hackers and journalists, were involved from the very beginning.

Something else is going on here. To a large extent, value on the Internet is not being created by businesses, as much as they want all kinds of credit and money for creating this wonderful value. Inventors, folks who are coming up with new tools, are creating it. Some of them are well harnessed by businesses, but it turns out that businesses don't have to exist for them to harness themselves with the Net and get these things out there. For example, the person who created Eudora is a University of Illinois fellow who did it basically for himself and people he knew. In terms of quality, Eudora is visibly beyond any other email program. It makes you wonder what's wrong with companies, what prevents them from doing the right thing when a random person puts his exquisite tool out on the Net for free. This happened with Eudora, and later with Mosaic, which led to a commercial version, Netscape Navigator.

The inventors of these tools are not crazed codgers in basements. They are, by-and-large, young people with a sense of social and cultural responsibility who want things to be better for everybody. They are as valuable as our snazziest scientists, but are not accorded the respect or rewards of the snazzy scientists. They are taken for granted more than they should be. Something is wrong if we think inventors are a lower order of being than theoretical scientists.

People are surprised by the intensity and intimacy of online communication, but they shouldn't be. You could probably find a parallel for what's going on by comparing the correspondences and the books of past intellectuals. The quality of writing in their letters is often different and frequently better than that in their books. A letter has intimacy and eloquence because it's addressed to a known audience of people the author respects, whose opinions he or she cares about. It's not written for an enormous, anonymous audience, like the readership you would assume for a book. That intimacy makes for a much higher quality of writing and discourse. You could say it's the relationship that makes the difference. Speed that up, and you've got online teleconferencing.

THE DEFENDER (Mike Godwin): Stewart Brand brings two important things to the table. The first is that he understands that human beings are tool-using creatures. It's important that we use the best tools, and that we understand our tools and the consequences of the tools we use. The second thing Stewart offers is his role as a contrarian‹he's very much in the habit of taking the conventional wisdom and asking what the opposite view is. He forces people to question their assumptions about technology, society, and the relationship between the two.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): When you go to the roots of the New Age movement, which I think is a negative thing, you'll find Stewart in there kicking the old crankcase to get the engine started. He promoted a lot of the kind of touchy-feely parts of the New Age movement. He's the early touchy-feely guy. That stuff is crap. He is not a player anymore. I wish he were, though. He's an insightful guy, but I think he's left himself out of the picture.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): Early my idol, Stewart still impresses me with the power of what seems like some of his gentle choices. Although I'm an architect, I didn't know where he was going at first with his choice of the investigation of buildings. He appears so courageous to me as I limit my projects to the obvious and generic.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Stewart understood the importance of personal computing before anybody else outside the very small hacker community did. He was the first reporter to reach the promised land and bring it back to the world. He has continued to reinvent himself; he has found new things to look at and hasn't stuck in the same circles, whether it's architecture, or new media, or the personal computer. He also has this wonderful wry sense of humor.

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson): He has had the courage and the open-mindedness to change over the course of his life. He is now one of the wisest, smartest, most sensible people I know. He has also become very kind.

THE COYOTE (John Perry Barlow): Stewart is a magnificent piece of informational arbitrage. He has contained within his personality a lot of contradictory impulses that make him very fertile. There's something very conservative about Stewart. He's a flinty, Presbyterian, military sort of guy. Yet he was also the organizer of the first "Acid Test." Whenever I see those kinds of contrasts, I know there's creative potential. The more the difference is, the greater difference it makes, the more voltage there is across the gap.

THE IDEALIST (Denise Caruso): Stewart is so smart he's scary. I would love to spend a year wandering around inside of his brain. Opening doors. Opening trunks. Looking around in closets. If he could bottle the way he evaluates the world, I'd be first in line for a big dose.

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): Stewart Brand has looked at evolving culture and recognized what was genuinely new. And he has been able to do this again and again, always seeing the world with fresh eyes. A great talent.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.