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Stewart Brand: Hippy Godfather of the Interwebs


Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to look at the impact Stewart Brand had on computing. Brand was one of the greatest muses of the interactive computing and then the internet revolutions. This isn’t to take anything away from his capacity to create, but the inspiration he provided gave him far more reach than nearly anyone in computing. There’s a decent chance you might not know who he his. There’s even a chance that you’ve never heard of any of his creations. But you live and breath some of his ideas on a daily basis. So who was this guy and what did he do? Well, Stewart Brand was born in 1938, in Rockford, Illinois. He would go on to study biology at Stanford, enter the military and then study design and photography at other schools in the San Francisco area. This was a special time in San Francisco. Revolution was in the air. And one of the earliest scientific studies had him legitimately dosing on LSD. One of my all-time favorite books was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. In the book, Wolfe follows Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters along a journey of LSD and Benzedrine riddled hippy goodness, riding a converted school bus across the country and delivering a new kind of culture straight out of Haight-Ashbury and to the heart of middle America. All while steering clear of the shoes FBI agents of the day wore. Here he would have met members of the Grateful Dead, Neal Cassady, members of the Hells Angels, Wavy Gravy, Paul Krassner, and maybe even Kerouac and Ginsberg. This was a transition from the Beat Generation to the Hippies of the 60s. Then he started the Whole Earth Catalog. Here, he showed the first satallite imagery of the planet Earth, which he’d begun campaigning NASA to release two years earlier. In the 5 years he made the magazine, he spread ideals like ecology, a do it yourself mentality, self-sufficiency, and what the next wave of progress would look like. People like Craig Newmark of Craig’s List would see the magazine and it would help to form a new world view. In fact, the Whole Earth Catalog was a direct influence on Craig’s List. Steve Jobs compared the Whole Earth Catalog to a 60s era Google. It inspired Wired Magazine. Earth Day would be created two years later. Brand would loan equipment and inspire spinoffs of dozens of magazines and books. And even an inspiration for many early websites. The catalog put him in touch with so, so many influential people. One of the first was Doug Engelbart and The Mother Of All Demos involves him in the invention of the mouse and the first video conferencing. In fact, Brand helped produce the Mother Of All Demos! As we moved into the 70s he chronicled the oncoming hacker culture, and the connection to the 60s-era counterculture. He inspired and worked with Larry Brilliant, Lee Felsenstein, and Ted Nelson. He basically invented being a “futurist” founding CoEvolution Quarterly and spreading the word of digital utopianism. The Whole Earth Software Review would come along with the advent of personal computers. The end of the 70s would also see him become a special advisor to former California governor Jerry Brown. In the 70s and 80s, he saw the Internet form and went on to found one of the earliest Internet communities, called The WELL, or Whole Earth Lectronic Link. Collaborations in the WELL gave us Barlow’s The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a safe haunt for Kevin Mitnick while on the run, Grateful Dead tape trading, and many other Digerati. There would be other virtual communities and innovations to the concept like social networks, eventually giving us online forums, 4chan, Yelp, Facebook, LinkedIn, and corporate virtual communities. But it started with The Well. He would go on to become a visiting scientist in the MIT Media Lab, organize conferences, found the Global Business Network with Peter Schwarts, Jay Ogilvy and other great thinkers to help with promoting values and various planning like scenario planning, a corporate strategy that involves thinking from the outside in. This is now a practice inside Deloitte. The decades proceeded on and Brand inspired whole new generations to leverage humor to push the buttons of authority. Much as the pranksters inspired him on the bus. But it wasn’t just anti-authority. It was a new and innovative approach in an upcoming era of maximizing short-term profits at the expense of the future. Brand founded The Long Now Foundation with an outlook that looked 10,000 years in the future. They started a clock on Jeff Bezos’ land in Texas, they started archiving languages approaching extinction, Brian Eno led seminars about long-term thinking, and inspired Anathem, a novel from one of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson. Peter Norton, Pierre Omidyar, Bruce Sterling, Chris Anderson of the Economist and many others are also involved. But Brand inspired other counter-cultures as well. In the era of e-zines, he inspired Jesse Dresden, who Brand knew as Jefferson Airplane Spencer Drydens kid. The kid turned out to be dFx, who would found HoHo Con an inspiration for DefCon. Stewart Brand wrote 5 books in addition to the countless hours he spent editing books, magazines, web sites, and papers. Today, you’ll find him pimping blockchain and cryptocurrency, in an attempt to continue decentralization and innovation. He inherited a playful counter-culture. He watched the rise and fall and has since both watched and inspired the innovative iterations of countless technologies, extending of course into bio-hacking. He’s hobnobbed with the hippies, the minicomputer timeshares, the PC hackers, the founders of the internet, the tycoons of the web, and then helped set strategy for industry, NGOs, and governments. He left something with each. Urania was the muse of astronomy, some of the top science in ancient Greece. And he would probably giggle if anyone compared him to the muse. Both on the bus in the 60s, and in his 80s today. He’s one of the greats and we’re lucky he graced us with his presence on this rock - that he helped us see from above for the first time. Just as I’m lucky you elected to listen to this episode. So next time you’re arguing about silly little things at work, think about what really matters and listen to one of his Ted Talks. Context. 10,000 years. Have a great week and thanks for listening to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast.

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020