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How Stewart Brand Learns : He Created the Whole Earth Catalog and Popularized the Personal Computer. For 25 Years, This Writer-Gadfly-Futurist Has Reinvented Himself--and Shaped How We Live.

October 30, 1994|Katherine Fulton | Katherine Fulton, founding editor of the North Carolina Independent, currently teaches media technology at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University

She didn't even get his name right. Not that it mattered. He was just another '60s oddball "with a face that looks like an embodied question mark"--a skinny 27-year-old who had attracted a crowd outside the main gate of Columbia University. According to Sally Kempton's 1966 Village Voice article, he wore "a black top hat decorated with a flower, and a sandwich board decorated with the question: 'Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?' " The buttons he was hawking asked the same question.

" 'What would happen if we did have a picture?' a girl asked. 'Would it eliminate slums, or meanness, or anything?'

" 'Maybe not,' said Stuart Brand, 'but it might tell us something about ourselves.'

" 'What?' asked the girl.

" 'It might tell us where we're at,' said Brand.

" 'What for?' asked the girl.

" 'Why do you look in the mirror?' asked Brand.

" 'Oh,' said the girl, and bought a button."

Kempton was amused, but not curious enough to ask NASA why, after eight years of space exploration, the agency still hadn't publicly released a photograph of what Brand called "the whole Earth." She couldn't imagine that the photo would eventually become one of the most important icons of our time, would help launch the environmental movement or would grace the bestseller that Brand himself would edit five years later.

But then, it's easy to underestimate Brand. Editor, writer, consultant, gadfly and futurist, he is difficult to categorize. Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, describes him as "a great inventor in the realm of ideas." Brand's most famous idea, of course, was the "Whole Earth Catalog," one of the most lasting emblems and contributions of the counterculture. Modeled on the Sears and L. L. Bean mail-order catalogues, it was a bursting-at-the seams compendium of book reviews, tool recommendations, personal testaments and illustrations, all held together by Brand's aphorisms and abiding faith in self-education. Aimed initially at commune dwellers, the first major edition sold nearly a million copies and went on to win the National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs in 1972. There have been five major editions since. The newest, "The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog," edited by Howard Rheingold, with a foreword by Brand, will be in bookstores by November.

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson says that Brand has brought so many different kinds of people--scientists and artists, businessmen and intellectuals--into conversations with one another that he is "one of the pivotal people over the last few decades." Brand as an intellectual community organizer is an appealing notion. Since his days hawking buttons, he has believed that to change the world it is necessary to connect people across conventional disciplines and boundaries.

That was certainly the idea behind CoEvolution Quarterly, the magazine he edited for more than 10 years as a personal think tank. In its pages, Gregory Bateson argued with his ex-wife Margaret Mead about cybernetics, and such disparate figures as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, naturalist Wendell Berry, medical self-help advocate Tom Ferguson and poet Gary Snyder all commingled. The same principle applied to the Global Business Network, the company that Brand helped found six years ago, and to the WELL, the teleconferencing system that has since become a seminal institution of cyberspace, which Brand started in 1984.

It's entirely consistent that Brand discovered personal computers--another powerful tool for connecting people--before almost everyone except the people who invented them. In 1972, he wrote a piece for Rolling Stone that both anticipated and championed the coming computer revolution. His book on interactive, multimedia technologies, "The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT," was published in 1987 to a great deal less acclaim than it might have received a few years later, when the information superhighway became a hot idea. But then, by the time Brand's ideas spread, he's usually onto something else. He's so far ahead of the curve, it's easy to forget that he's often been there first.

Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, thinks of Brand as an educator. "Stewart is primarily concerned about improving his own skills at learning, then trying to teach everyone else how to learn, then trying to institute a learning process into society as a whole." That's an accurate description of Brand's most recent project, "How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built." Published this summer, the book is ostensibly a history of architecture and design, but its real subject is how humans evolve and adapt--how not only buildings, but people, learn over time. Like "The Media Lab," Brand's book has been almost completely overlooked in the intellectual press, even though urban historian Jane Jacobs declares it "a classic and probably a work of genius."

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