Over this past weekend, I went on a walk with a friend who had run into Stewart Brand the week before at Founders Fund in SF. It was a neat little coincidence, that my friend had chatted with the man I had been reading about earlier that afternoon. A fun anecdote to recount when I got back to Portland. But it got me thinking: what was Stewart Brand up to these days? To what projects was he turning his considerable background, knowledge base, resources, etc. today, nearly fifty years after the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog (1968)? The world’s a different place today, with different problems and different tools for tackling those problems. How had his interests evolved?
And so, taking inspiration from the rubric at the beginning of the Catalog, which reads,
An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:
- Useful as a tool,
- Relevant to independent education,
- High quality or low cost,
- Not already common knowledge,
- Easily available by mail.
and adding a sixth category:
6. Human experience/wisdom
Since I think people and human innovation are the real treasures, and that one of the real successes of the Catalog was that it connected people to tools, to ideas and to other people and collaborators, I think I’d prefer to talk about where a few of the original editors of the Whole Earth Catalog are today and what they’re turning their attention to in a more digital age.
**I find it revealing, though I’m not sure of what, that all four of the men listed below still live and work in the Bay Area. Perhaps it’s the dominance of the digital culture and the tools and people connected with that? Perhaps it’s always been home? Perhaps it’s particularly comfortable for old hippie types?
Stewart Brand (b.1938)
In his own words, Stewart Brand “finds things and founds things.” Things Brand has found include “tools, ideas, books, and people, which [he] blends and purveys.” Things Brand has founded and co-founded include the Trips Festival (1966), Whole Earth Catalog (1968), Hackers Conference (1984), The WELL (1984), Global Business Network (1988), and The Long Now Foundation (1996). He graduated in Biology from Stanford and served as an Infantry officer.
To unpack those a bit… In 1984, Brand and others at the Catalog (including Kevin Kelly) organized Hackers Conference, which was inspired by the publication of Steven Levy’s book, Hackers: The Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Brand felt that it would be fascinating and provocative to get some of the people mentioned in that book together for a weekend and “see what happened”. It was a resounding success, and has occurred almost annually since then.
In 1985, he co-founded, with Larry Brilliant (a fascinating dude in his own right), The WELL (the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) a prototypic online community that has been the subject of multiple books and studies. Time magazine said, “WELL was a huge hit, a precursor of every online business from Amazon.com to eBay.
In 1988, Brand founded the Global Business Network (GBN) with five friends. GBN is a strategic consultancy that specializes in scenario planning, collaborative problem solving, and works with companies, governments and non-profits to tackle and solve critical long-term challenges. (Note: I’m pulling most of that from their company summary, but I’m not quite sure what they do precisely.)
In 01996, Brand founded the Long Now Foundation, a private organization devoted to creatively fostering responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years, promoting “slow/better” thinking, rather than “fast/cheaper.”
Today, Brand splits his time between the Long Now Foundation and GBN. He also gives talks, and writes books and articles. And apparently wanders through the offices of Founders Fund.
Kevin Kelly (b.1952)
Before he worked with the Catalog, Kevin Kelly was a traveler, journalist and international nomad. From 1984-1900, Kelly was the editor and publisher of the Whole Earth Review. From his bio, “Under Kelly’s direction and editorship, Whole Earth was the first consumer magazine to report on virtual reality, ecological restoration, the global teenager, Internet culture and artificial life (to name just a few early trends).” In 1988, Kelly wrote and published much of Signal, a Whole Earth Catalog of personal communication tools. He continues to be a participant, observer and scholar of “cyberculture.”
He cofounded Wired magazine in 1993, was Executive Editor of the magazine until 1999 and currently serves as its Senior Maverick (or Editor-at-Large). He’s published several books, writes for leading publications around the country and continues to practice photography. He is also the editor and publisher of the Cool Tools website, which strikes me as a less all-encompassing, digital version of the Whole Earth Catalog. He co-founded the Hackers Conference with the Point Foundation, the WELL, and Stewart Brand in 1984. He is also a member of the board (with Stewart Brand) at the Long Now Foundation. He has no college or university degrees.
After a cursory amount of research, I’d say that he remains deeply invested in understanding, building and connecting to tools that leverage power to individuals. The tools themselves have evolved since his time at the Catalog (today, many of them are digital), but the link is there. You can read more about him and what he’s up to at his website: www.kk.org.
Lloyd Kahn (b. 1938)
Graduated with a BA Stanford. Served in the Air Force in the late 1950’s, and edited the USAF newspaper for two years. Quit his job as an insurance salesman to build houses. Each house became more an more ambitious, as Kahn learned new building techniques and tinkered with green/low-energy designs. Next worked for Stewart Brand as the shelter editor for the Catalog.
In 1970 Kahn published his first book, Domebook One, followed the next year withDomebook 2, which sold 165,000 copies. After living in a geodesic dome, decided that the design was fundamentally flawed and went in search of other (non-dome) ways to build – across the U.S.A., Ireland, and England, and the book Shelter (1973) was the result. Shelter Publications, Inc. (of which he is the founding editor-in-chief) continues to publish books about home construction/design as well as books about fitness (seems like an odd addition). He is also an author, photographer, and pioneer of the green building and green architecture movements.
Today, he is working on a book on tiny houses (due out this Fall) and spending a lot of time skateboarding. Kahn’s website: http://lloydkahn-ongoing.blogspot.com/
A step or two removed, but still interesting to follow: Howard Rheingold (b. 1947)
Howard Rheinhold graduated from Reed and became interested early on in mind altering and methods around it. He logged onto the WELL (discussed above) and wrote about the experience of participating in a digital community. He edited the Whole Earth Review for a little while and was editor-in-chief of the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. Here’s his introduction to the Catalog: http://www.rheingold.com/texts/mwecintro.html.
Today, he is a visiting lecturer at Stanford and at Cal. He remains interested in collective intelligence and the possibilities around broad-based cooperation, the Internet, mobile telephony and virtual communities. Here’s his website: http://www.rheingold.com/.
Perhaps more to letter of the assignment for this week: I was fascinated to see Dune, by Frank Herbert, in the Whole Earth Catalog. Dune, a classic science-fiction novel, seemed a bit at odds with the other tools and literatures in the Catalog. It wasn’t a guide to canoe-building, or a mail-order catalog for outdoor gear. Nor did it expand upon the aero-dynamic intricacies of an eagle taking flight (another favorite page of mine). It painted an intriguing (and possible) far-flung future for humanity and upset a few preconceived notions of what resources were necessary and which might just be luxuries. But it was fiction. Not to be relied upon for any real-life survival situations.
From the New York Times:
Set on a desert planet that holds the key to humanity’s destiny, this book and its five sequels stand as one of science fiction’s grandest feats of informed imagination. The ecology of Dune, with its Bedouin-like Fremen and the mammoth sandworms that dominate its food chain, was worked out to a degree never before seen in the genre; ”Dune” was cited as a learning tool in the first ”Whole Earth Catalog,” a book that introduced an entire generation to the concept of our planet as a dynamically adaptable yet ultimately fragile environment.
And from Frank Herbert, about some of the goals he had going into the writing of Dune:
It was to be a story exploring the myth of the Messiah.
It was to produce another view of a human-occupied planet as an energy machine
It was to penetrate the interlocked workings of politics and economics.
It was to be an examination of absolute prediction and its pitfalls.
It was to have an awareness drug in it and tell what could happen through dependence on such a substance.
Potable water was to be an analog for oil and for water itself, a substance whose supply diminishes each day.
It was to be an ecological novel, then, with many overtones, as well as a story about people and their human concerns with human values, and I had to monitor each of these levels at every stage in the book.
After slow initial sales (the novel was about 5x as long as most other books of the time and the $5 pricetag was unheard of for science-fiction novels), sales for Dune picked up in the early 1970’s, largely because the novel was celebrated as an environmental handbook. In fact, Herbert spoke to more than 30,000 at the first Earth Day conference.
Today, Dune is considered the one of the most popular books in history. I’ve read it – though I haven’t gotten to the rest of the books in the series yet – and it definitely makes you think. Definitely worth reading, and now more than ever.