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Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff
Book Notes and Learnings
Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand is a biography of Stewart Brand, an author, environmentalist, and technologist. While best known for creating The Whole Earth Catalog, he reinvented himself many times, and his current focus is on fostering responsible long-term thinking.
While I found this book itself tedious, Brand himself is a fascinating figure. Starting out as a struggling photographer in the 1960s, he found himself (or put himself) at the center of the counterculture, environmental, and computing movements. He both organized The Trips Festival, the event that first brought together the hippie movement; and assisted with the Mother of All Demos, a demonstration by Douglas Engelbart which introduced many features of computers decades before they became mainstream.
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The Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools, came out of the back-to-the-land and do-it-yourself movements in which people left cities, joined communes, and sought to live self-sufficiently. The catalog featured a wide range of “tools,” from books to farming implements and personal computers. He first published the catalog in 1968 and then released periodic follow-ups and supplements into the 1990s.
His other accomplishments include:
Creating The WELL, a pre-web online message board
Founding the Hackers Conference
Serving as special advisor to Jerry Brown during his first stint as California’s governor
Co-founded the Global Business Network, a consulting firm that worked with big businesses (and drew Brand much criticism for being a shill)
Writing The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., which popularized the Media Lab
And writing How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, an architecture book about how buildings change beyond the architect’s original intents.
Brand is a real-life Forrest Gump, who had a knack for being at the forefront of many technological and societal revolutions, such as counterculture, environmentalism, computing, and urbanism. And he seemed to know everyone, from Steve Jobs to Jane Jacobs. How did he do this? The biography doesn’t answer this well. My best guess is that it was a combination of luck — being in the right place at the right time — and intense curiosity that pushed him to explore wide-ranging fields.
His recent book, Whole Earth Discipline argues in favor of urbanism, nuclear power, genetic engineering, and geoengineering. It goes against much of the traditional environmentalist movement he was originally part of, showing his ability to change long-held beliefs. Instead of minimizing human interference with nature, he views technology as the solution. Instead of the libertarian, do-it-yourself view of The Catalog, he argues that it must be governments that take the lead, not individuals or companies.
His current focuses are The Long Now Foundation, a non-profit that promotes long-term thinking, whose projects include constructing a mechanical clock that will run for 10,000 years and preserving endangered human languages; and Revive & Restore, an organization attempting to protect endangered species and revive extinct ones.
The following three sections are my key takeaways from the book for understanding how he did what he did and his perspective on technology and the future.
“Live small, so you can live large.” - Stewart Brand
“Brand seems too preoccupied with the search for tomorrow’s frontiers to be looking over his shoulder or slowed down by his critics.” - Stewart McBride, Christian Science Monitor
Brand was intensely curious and followed his interests, diving into new fields and starting over many times over. He could afford to pursue activities that might not pay off because he lived frugally and (if needed) had the support of his parents. Here are some of the principles he lived his life by:
Invent your own life: Ignore critics and keep moving forward.
Go where others aren't and you have the field to yourself.
When you find yourself stuck in life, start over.
Take good opportunities as they come and parlay them into more success. (As opposed to having a concrete long-term plan.)
It takes time to get things right, yet we have plenty of time, so we don't need to rush.
Not living an extravagant life gives you freedom.
If you find yourself in a job just for the money, move on from it.
"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." - R. Buckminster Fuller
Stewart Brand believed that learning is best achieved through tools. He saw tools as catalyzing new ways of thinking and enabling people to gain fresh perspectives. Unlike traditional education that prescribes what to learn, Brand thought that tools empowered individuals to engage in more effective, curiosity-led learning approaches.
“A major source of learning, maybe the major source, is other people’s mistakes.”
“Drop out of specialization. Develop rudimentary skills good for any situation.”
“We are as gods and might as well get used to it.” - Whole Earth Catalog, 1968
"We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it." - Whole Earth Discipline, 2009
Brand acknowledges the potential for technology to inflict considerable harm (e.g. nuclear weapons); nonetheless, he believes that through a responsible guiding hand, technology can be a positive force. He asserts that some problems, such as climate change, even if originally caused by technology, can only be solved by technology. Despite its harms, he believes that technology overall, such as medicine or telecommunications, has improved our lives.
Other Interesting Tidbits
The following is a mix of highlights from the book and my notes on several other topics.
“Most of adulthood and its skills consists of adventure prevention.” - Stewart Brand
As a child, his parents made sure that he had everything he needed to pursue his interests. They were financially supportive of him, even in adulthood, to give him the freedom to keep pursuing his interests instead of needing to work to earn a living. He didn’t often need his parents’ help, but it was freeing to know it was there.
“Stewart Brand was wealthy in an ‘as needed’ way...it meant freedom to be ‘lazy’ and follow his interests wherever they led. Those supplements changed the world.”
“All of the Brand children lived for summer, when for several months, freed from the bonds of city life, they would become ‘free-range’ kids.”
“If one of the children developed an interest, their mother would make sure they had all the books imaginable to pursue their subject.”
Brand went to Phillips Exeter Academy, which teaches using the “Socratic teaching approach, known as the Harkness method, in which a small group of students sit around an oval table with a teacher who, rather than engaging in dry lectures, encourages participation”
On zero-sum games: “children were forced into structured games by adults who in turn had been forced into such contests when they were kids”
“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” - The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT
Brand embraced much of the hacker ethic (identified by Steven Levy in his book Hackers): “the simple joy of designing computers and programs; free access to all information; distrust of authority; meritocracy; the belief that computers could create art and beauty; and the faith that computing could improve your life.”
“At one point, they had created an anonymous online conference, and he watched as it had instantly become pathological. Anonymity immediately triggered the basest of human behaviors, he discovered. People masqueraded as others, behaved viciously, and then the victims would act the same way to exact some revenge.”
Brand said, on his departure from traditional environmentalism and his embrace of technological solutions: “You and I are living better now than we did in [the 1960s]. And everybody else wants to do that too. Voluntary simplicity is a great idea, but it does not get taken up by people. Involuntary simplicity is where they’re stuck and what they want to get the hell out of. And I’m with them.”
“Technology innovation happened first and most effectively in the areas that were most challenging for human life, forcing creativity.”
Architecture and Urbanism
“[Brand]’s goal was to turn architecture if not on its head, at least on its side”
“He wanted to convey the idea that buildings were analogous to living things…built from the bottom up and continuously evolving.”
One of the buildings featured in his book, How Buildings Learn, is MIT Building 20 which was designed around “cave and commons”—small private offices that surrounded a shared common area for informally exchanging ideas. (Related: How the Hybrid Work Model can Fix the Open-Plan Office)
When he got the opportunity to work with an architect to remodel offices for the Santa Fe Institute, Brand designed it around the four goals of conversation, community, concentration, and adaptivity.
“‘walkability’—the notion that all of the resources a resident might need, from shopping to work and entertainment, were within easy walking distance—was the key to creating a livable community. That insight would be at the heart of Brand’s break with the back-to-the-land movement.”
“We’re actually frustrated by our inability to be gods and change the world.” - Jaron Lanier
“Robert Frank had told him that he had stopped being a photographer because ‘I noticed that when I made an exposure my eyes closed.’ He confided in Brand that he believed that photography was stopping him [Frank] from seeing the world.”
This feels especially true now when we all carry cameras with us all the time and can photograph everything without truly seeing it.
“Immediacy is addictive.”
“‘It’s a small world after all,’ sang Disneyland. We didn’t know it was a threat. Now the world is becoming Disney World.”
“Brand was something of a distant figure who kept to himself, reading books and writing quick reviews in a small cubbyhole at the store.”
It feels appropriate that I would be writing my first book summary here about this book, considering that much of Brand’s work for the Whole Earth Catalog revolved around reading and reviewing/recommending what he read. Summarizing books I have read is something I’ve done before, but not consistently, and mostly just for myself. Yet I strive to do it more to help synthesize and solidify my thoughts. I read a lot, but it mostly goes in one eye and out the other. I’m hoping that making the summaries public will help me do an even better job of it since the best way to learn is to teach.
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