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Taking the long view: Tech journalist John Markoff on the legacy of Silicon Valley visionary Stewart Brand

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with technology journalist John Markoff about his fascinating new book, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. They discuss the visionary futurist Stewart Brand and his impact on Silicon Valley, eco-pragmatism, and the Whole Earth movement.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honored to be joined today by Pulitzer prize-winning technology journalist, John Markoff. John is the author of the fascinating new biography of futurist Stewart Brand entitled Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. The book, which is the result of many years of research including hours of one-on-one interviews with Brand himself, is a powerful story of Brand’s extraordinary life and its intersection with American innovation and technology. John, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

JOHN MARKOFF: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

SEAN SPEER: I thought long and hard about how to organize today’s conversation since as your book’s title alludes Stewart Brand’s life doesn’t follow a typical script. He’s involved in so many different movements and technological and social developments that a question like, “Tell me about Stewart Brand”, is not particularly useful. Let’s start at a basic level. When did you first encounter Brand, and what got you interested in him?

JOHN MARKOFF: There’s actually a very funny story. When you say “encounter”, I knew about Stewart Brand from college onward. I grew up around Stanford. There was this thing called the Whole Earth Truck Store when I was in college. I saw the catalog. I was in the truck store, and I knew of Brand. Actually the story of my first encounter—which was not a meeting—I was a young reporter at a weekly computer paper called Info World. They sent me to a huge trade show called COMDEX. I had been a starving freelance writer for many years before that. John Doerr, who is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, called the personal computer industry the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history.

I was really struck by that. I was in Las Vegas. I went to a party hosted by the Epson Printer company, and I was standing in front of the largest bowl of cooked shrimp I’d ever seen in my life. On the other side, I recognized Stewart Brand. Brand, of course, was there because he’d started something called the Whole Earth Software Catalog, which turned out to be a disaster. It framed everything for me because we were both being sucked into this new industry that was vibrant and more than anything else, full of wealth, creating wealth, and showing off wealth. Both of us came out of the counterculture, so it was quite a shock

SEAN SPEER: Brand was a Midwesterner but something drew him to Silicon Valley before it was even called Silicon Valley. What did Brand see there? What role did he play in cultivating the heterodox culture that has enabled such explosive technological innovation?

JOHN MARKOFF: There’s a bunch there. He did grow up west of Chicago. He summered at a beautiful place called Higgins lake. He had a very Hemingway-esque childhood. His brother had gone to Stanford, and that brought him to Stanford. He had two intersections with Stanford. What I found really striking, and that I think I discovered because he gave me a journal that he hadn’t given to Stanford when he gave most of his papers to Stanford in 2000—he gave it to me in 2017—and it was an account of what he did on the mid-peninsula around Stanford in that period before he started The Whole Earth Catalog, that year in 1967.

Brand had lived in San Francisco, then he briefly considered going back to the land. Remember, everybody of his generation was in the process of being more rural. He helped start a commune in the Southwest, but decided he really didn’t like rural life. He showed up in Menlo Park, California, which was basically ground zero for Silicon Valley in 1966, ’67. That was quite striking. He has this reputation of being Zelig-like. For many years, he was at the right place, the right time to either start a new trend or arrive in the middle of a new trend.

It wasn’t Silicon Valley until 1971. He showed up when all the forces that would create Silicon Valley were underway. It’s something about some sixth sense that he had called him there. He wrote, “I come here to let my technology happen.” He wanted a world technology education, he wrote in his journal. It really reframed—because you mentioned, what was his role in this technological culture that merged? A lot of people give, I think, false credit to Brand for being the first of the technological utopianists in the valley. I came to look at it in the exact opposite way, Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog was in some ways a product of the forces that created Silicon Valley, which was quite striking to me because I hadn’t looked at it that way.

SEAN SPEER: John, we’ll come back to the Whole Earth Catalog later in the conversation. Before we get there, one thing that listeners may not be familiar with about Brand is his relationship with American Indian culture. He was of course married at one point to an Indian woman. How did this relationship to American Indian culture shape his worldview and perspective?

JOHN MARKOFF: He had grown up in the Michigan backcountry with some contact with the remnants of Native Americans, American Indians. He had a sense about Indians, but he didn’t really understand the Indians deeply until in 1963, he was a struggling young, want-to-be photographer. He got an assignment to help a group of American Indians who were on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in the centre of Oregon develop a brochure because they were trying to find ways to bring tourism to the reservation. He went up there to photograph a wild horse roundup.

He didn’t really know much about this culture. In fact, if you thought about the three or four decades before that, America was really trying to suppress the Native American culture. They wanted to integrate Indians into mainstream middle-class American culture. What he discovered was this culture he’d never seen. He grew up a white middle-class kid. He was upper-class educated at Exeter and Stanford. He found this culture that was much more in tune with the land that they lived on, in tune with their environment, committed to protecting it.

He came away with a very different sense, in the sense that he framed in this multimedia slideshow he would ultimately create, called America Needs Indians. The historians give him credit for reframing that policy conversation in America and playing a role in protecting the Indian culture. He’d grown up like most of us thinking about cowboys and Indians, and when he was up there on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation he discovered that there were Indian cowboys who really were close to the land.

Brand had also stumbled across this pledge that was in Outdoor Life magazine as a seven or eight-year-old, I guess an eight-year-old, that was basically a pledge to make it part of your reason for existence to protect the environment. That connected very closely with what he saw on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned a couple times in your answers, John, Brand’s commitment to environmentalism. You’ve described him in the book and he’s been described elsewhere as an eco-pragmatist. What does that mean and how does it differ from the animating ideas of the modern or the contemporary environmental movement?

JOHN MARKOFF: He was instrumental in the creation of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s. There had been earlier threads in American history. But this new movement emerged in part from this idea of the impact of seeing the whole earth and realizing that we’re a single species and that we’re woven into the fabric of this planet that we live on. Then in 2007, he wrote this book called Whole Earth Discipline in which he came up with this notion of eco-pragmatism that differentiated himself from some of the people in the environmental movement that he felt were anti-technological.

Brand has been optimistic about technologies all the way through. He split with the environmental movement that he had created over issues like GMO food, nuclear power, dense urban cities, and geoengineering. He wrote this book that got him cast out of part of the environmental movement. Eco-pragmatism is his notion of you do what works. You follow the science and you iterate.

He’s still at odds with old friends within the environmental movement like Amory Lovins, particularly over nuclear power. It’s interesting to see the debate here in America over nuclear power—there are many environmentalists who now have taken the stance that, “We have to get across this chasm as quickly as we can to stop burning fossil fuels, and if we have to use nuclear power, that’s okay.” A larger group of the environmental movement is taking that position than I think they once did.

SEAN SPEER: One more big picture question before we get into the Whole Earth Project and some of the other big accomplishments over the course of Brand’s life. The story of Brand is a story of a first mover. He’s ahead of the curve on the personal computer. He’s an early leader in the psychedelic culture. There’s so many other examples where he seems to be able to read the future. Based on your research, were you able to discern where that ability came from?

JOHN MARKOFF: We talked a lot about that. He winces at the term “futurism” even though he has that reputation. He knows he has that reputation. It came out of this book he wrote in 1987 called The Media Lab about Nicholas Negroponte’s laboratory at MIT that focused on future digital technologies. Stewart wrote a very optimistic book about that. He feels that—I think if you ask Brand, he doesn’t call himself a futurist, he likes to think of himself as a pragmatist. Within his organization that he’s created most recently called The Long Now Foundation, his notion is once again you iterate on what works.

Which is different than those people who have this grand plan for the future that they try to work toward. In terms of his ability to see things that others might miss early on, I actually think that’s because he’s idiosyncratic and he often is an outsider. He intentionally goes in another direction. If you go in another direction and don’t follow the pack, you have a chance to see things that others might not see.

I think that actually has made a difference. I used to say, when I was a daily reporter covering Silicon Valley, the visionaries were always wrong, because there was this herd mentality about what’s the next big thing in Silicon Valley. Often there wasn’t. People were often surprised about what the next big thing was. I think Stewart, a couple of times, more than a couple of times, saw things early on.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s come to the Whole Earth Project now. John, some of our listeners, particularly our younger listeners, may not be familiar with it or its cultural significance. What was the Whole Earth Project, and how ubiquitous was it in terms of its relationship to American culture generally, and the culture of Silicon Valley in particular?

JOHN MARKOFF: The Whole Earth Catalog was a project that Stewart started. Initially, he got this idea after his father died and he was trying to figure out how he could help his friends who were going back to communes. He decided that what they needed was information on how to do things, and so he came up with this idea of a Whole Earth Truck Store. It was this notion that he would drive around with books and tools and sell things to his friends. He tried that a couple of times during the summer of 1968 from his base in Menlo Park, and immediately he realized that that wasn’t going to work because his friends on the communes didn’t have any money.

He was going to sell them. He pivoted to this idea of a catalog. The catalog took off spectacularly. It had seven sections, it had sections on things like mobility and pneumatics and housing and learning. It was just an eclectic mix of things that Stewart found. There were little mini-reviews. He would pay $10 a review. He found section editors. Then they would get people who would submit these items on tools or books or ideas that they thought were neat or cool. Only positive ones, there weren’t negative reviews in this catalog.

He only ran this for three years. It started small. Initially, I think there were 20,000 copies of the first issue published, the bookstores didn’t know what to do with it because it was this odd size and they didn’t know where to put it, but it touched a nerve. Ultimately, over the next three years, there were two issues the catalog published a year, and then two supplements. He wanted it to be interactive, and so the supplements were feedback that came from people who read the catalog. Ultimately there were 3 million copies printed in just three years.

It won the national book award after he shut it down in 1972. The point was it was in every living room and bathroom all over America, actually around the world. It just spread everywhere. I can’t tell you how many people, while I was working on this project, I would run into from my generation who would say, “I stumbled across something in the catalog and it sent my life in this orthogonal direction.”

It really was this fantasy amplifier for people. It also gave people to reinvent their lives and do things that were outside of the cookie-cutter 1950s career-oriented American life. It touched an entire generation. Of course, then it gradually went away. You’re right that there’s a big white space when you ask people if they’ve heard of Stewart Brand or the catalog. Steve Jobs tried to call it Google before Google, which I thought was nice, although I think that’s a little bit wrong. It was more about serendipity rather than looking for something, it was just what you stumbled across.

SEAN SPEER: Why did he stop its publication or at least try to sell its rights to someone else to carry it on? Why did it come to an end in spite of its massive popularity?

JOHN MARKOFF: What he said was publicly that he was trying to stop something at the top rather than letting it fade away. That’s what he said. That was the public statement on The Dick Cavett Show when Cavett asked him that question. The reality was that his life was falling apart. He decided he was going to cancel or end the Whole Earth Catalog after the first year. He was married to Lois Jennings who was the co-inventor of the Whole Earth Catalog.

He finally gave her credit for that at a reunion 50 years after the catalog was created. Their relationship was in trouble, it was actually crumbling. The catalog was a huge burden for him. He’s always struggled with depression in his life, and he was struggling with depression. He was thinking about suicide. He just wanted to get rid of the burden of this project that was more and more of a burden as it got more and more successful. It was just this all-encompassing thing. He shut down and ended it with something called the demise party, which was held in San Francisco and was some quirky event.

SEAN SPEER: Another aspect of Brand’s life is that while he was something of an anti-establishment figure, he does spend time in the California governor’s office of Jerry Brown from 1977 to 1979. How did this experience in politics and government shape him in the years that followed?

JOHN MARKOFF: He was close to Ken Kesey, a well-known author who was part of the counterculture. He was chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kesey at one point criticized Stewart in an article in The Washington Post for wanting to cleave to power. Brown he met at the San Francisco Zen Center. He was tasked in Brown’s first administration, 1976, to basically be the person to bring interesting people into the administration as a path to get new ideas in. He did a spectacular job of this.

He had, before coming to Brown’s office and during the period in which he ran the Whole Earth Catalog, he’d been a bit of a libertarian. He had initially been attracted to Ayn Rand’s ideas but that had already fallen apart. Then when he got inside Brown’s administration, he realized that he saw the value of good government. It really flipped him around. He even moved more in that direction later on when he wrote Whole Earth Discipline. I guess that’s mainstream.

He once called himself a conservative to me in our interviews, but a conservative who couldn’t read the Wall Street Journal because he hated their editorial pages. What kind of a conservative is that? He’s not a neoliberal. There are people from England these British Marxists who talked about the Silicon Valley ideology and they asserted he was a fellow traveler. But neoliberals don’t see the value of government. I think Brand is someone who believes in capitalism with guardrails. To me that makes him a liberal in the classic traditional sense of the word.

SEAN SPEER: In more recent years, as you mentioned earlier, John, Brand has become associated with the movement focused on the long term by which he and others mean not years but centuries and beyond. What is the significance of Brand’s long-termism, and how has it influenced others in Silicon Valley?

JOHN MARKOFF: The idea that he began this organization, The Long Now Foundation, came from a man by the name of Danny Hillis who designed supercomputers. Danny had been at MIT, he’d met Stewart at MIT. Danny decided that the consequence of this networked world with these accelerating computer technologies was that people were not thinking long-term in our society. American society particularly was seized with quarterly results and ever-accelerating computer technologies. He approached a bunch of his friends with this idea.

Dan even took me out on a long walk to explain this idea of a mechanical clock that would run for 10,000 years ticking only once a year where the cuckoo came out, I think once a century. I just didn’t get it. Stewart was one of the few people who came back and said, “If you’re building this clock, you need a library.” Brand’s idea was the importance of the continuity of institutions like libraries for civilization that he brought to this project. Whatever you think of the clock, it’s almost built now. They’ve almost completed the first major clock. It’s a prototype. Jeff Bezos paid for it, formerly the world’s richest man.

It’s in a mountain on the property of Bezos’s spaceport in Southwestern, Texas. It is one of the wonders of the world. It’s a remarkable idea. It’s a provocation. The best example of the value of long-term thinking that they cite in this Long Now Foundation is this story about Oxford university where a number of years ago one of the buildings on campus, the roof wore out with these giant timbers, and they began to wonder where they were going to find these giant timbers. They asked the university forester, they had a forester.

He said, “I wondered when you were going to ask us.” They had actually planted a forest 600 years previously just for this purpose. That’s the value of long-term thinking. It’s taken interesting directions. Out of The Long Now Foundation, he and his wife, Ryan Phelan, spun out this organization called Revive & Restore, which has become very controversial, because George Church, the Harvard biologist has talked about and is trying to bring back a wooly mammoth.

That’s made everybody think about Jurassic Park. However, I think the more interesting thing that they’re doing is they’re working with ecologists and molecular biologists, and geneticists to develop technologies that will help sustain species that are in endangered niches because of climate change. Coral is a classic example where they’re trying to breed corals that are more resistant to bleaching as a result of climate change. He’s involved in that. He’s working on a book now on the importance of maintenance for civilizations.

SEAN SPEER: One of the extraordinary things about Brand’s career is just his durability. This is someone who, as we’ve discussed, was at the centre of action before Silicon Valley was Silicon Valley. Today, younger generations of technologists and entrepreneurs like Patrick Collison and others continue to be influenced by Brand’s ideas and thinking. What do you think has contributed to this extraordinary durability over his life?

JOHN MARKOFF: A big part of it is his ability to reinvent himself and go in different directions. I thought a lot about that because he called himself upper class but I never saw him as being wealthy in any kind of a traditional upper-class way, being a playboy or anything like that. His family gave him just enough money so that he didn’t have to get a day job. He was able to avoid getting a conventional career. As a result, he could follow these crazy ideas. He himself will tell you, he has a lot of bad ideas. Every once in a while have one that resonates, that catches on, that has impact.

He did that repeatedly. I think it helps to be extremely curious. He was intellectually curious and he was willing to take these risks. Maybe he got it out of the military. He was a leader even earlier, even as a child. I talked to some of the people who grew up with him and they called him Screwy Stewie. The reason he was called Screwy Stewie is because he was a nonstop font of crazy ideas. Every once in a while, he had a great notion.

SEAN SPEER: Just a penultimate question. One of the things I thought about as I read the book was the virtues and benefits of weirdness. We have a culture these days that I think some listeners would see as conformist and conventional. What does Brand’s career tell us about weirdness and the way in which it can ignite ideas and technologies, and so on?

JOHN MARKOFF: There was a bit of Brand family wisdom. If you’ve tossed a Brand in the river, they’ll float upstream. He took pride in the fact that he wasn’t a conformist. He was never a dramatic nonconformist in the most flamboyant sense. As a Stanford student, a completely middle-class institution, he discovered the north beach scene. He discovered the beatniks in the 1950s. He was really drawn to that. They were out of step with the world that he’d grown up in in Chicago, they flabbergasted his parents. There were these letters from his dad, castigating him for associating with these people, but he didn’t back down.

He explored these avenues all within this framework. There was this larger continuity and framework of protecting the environment. Just recently, when the first event I did on a book thing—a couple of times he did interviews with me, joint interviews, I didn’t push him, but this was fun—we were up on stage at this fancy place in San Francisco called the Jazz Center. I was telling a story. To illustrate the story, he lit a $1 bill on stage and we completely freaked out. This was going to set off the fire alarm and call the fire marshals, but he was willing to do that. It was good theatre actually, it didn’t set off the fire alarms.

SEAN SPEER: To wrap up, what would you say is Brand’s legacy or ought to be his legacy?

JOHN MARKOFF: It’s about this original notion about seeing the whole earth. He talked about the value of the whole earth as a symbol, it broke America. The symbol of the ’50s was the mushroom cloud. The symbol of the ’60s and ’70s was the whole earth. The value of that symbol is it’s the one symbol I can think of that unifies the human species. Every other symbol I can think of divides us. I think of that is what Stewart is associated with. It’s an important legacy and one that’s of value, particularly today.

SEAN SPEER: If you want to hear that story and many others, I recommend you read Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. John Markoff, congratulations again on the book, and thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

JOHN MARKOFF: Thanks, Sean. This was fun.