The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or John Markoff. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is John Markoff, one of the early personal computer journalists. He wrote back in the day for InfoWorld and Byte. Those were two that I read quite religiously in the day. I’m sure I read some of his stuff there. In 1988, he made the big time. He became the Times, Times that’s the New York Times, national computer writer. You left there recently, what, 2017? Something like that?
John: I did, at the beginning of 2017.
Jim: Got it. He continues to work as a freelance journalist for the Times and other organizations and he is a volunteer at the Computer History Museum, very worthy institution. He is an affiliated fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. That would be a good thing if we were actually able to achieve that now, wouldn’t it?
John: Still an open question.
Jim: Indeed, I actually do a little work in the AI area and consult with some of the leading AI projects. I have lots of AI thinkers on my podcast, so that’s a concern of mine as well. But today we’re going to talk about a book that John wrote called Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, a very, very, very interesting and in-depth biography of Stewart Brand who appeared in more places than I knew at important inflection points in the history of our epoch. The book was published in March 2022 and I can say I can highly recommend it.
As I was telling John in the pregame, I usually read the books fairly slowly and try to finish three days prior to my podcast so it’s all fresh in my mind. So following my usual model, I started about three weeks ago, and I just zipped right through it, because it was just so damn interesting. I think it took me four days, maybe something like that to read it. If you find what we’re talking about today interesting, check it out, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. So welcome, John, welcome to The Jim Rutt Show.
John: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Jim: Really good to chat with you, and it’s just a fun topic. I’m going to start off with something that you reference in the book, the altogether two common meme about Stewart Brand as the Zelig of our epoch. I did a Google search and unfortunately it turns up 3,600 times on Google, so that goddamn meme has spread. I think it’s amazingly unfair to a guy who is a hell of a lot more than somebody who just showed up.
John: Absolutely. I’m shocked to hear that the number is 3,600. I may actually have been the first person to use it, although I’m not sure if that’s true and I hope that’s not true. I referred to him as a Zelig in an earlier book I wrote called What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. I’ve come to think of that term as being unfair and in particular because Zeligs are shapeshifters and what I realized was that there was a throughline in Stewart’s life, and so for that reason alone, I wouldn’t think of him as a Zelig.
Jim: I think of a Zelig as just a person who happened to be there and got his picture in the history books by just happening to be there and especially reading the book… But I knew a fair bit about Stewart. I met him a couple of times over the years. He probably knows who I am. I know who he is, but our relationship’s no stronger than that, but I’ve always thought of him as, then the book confirmed it, as a person who is a deep thinker though not necessarily a systematic one. He has these interesting, deep thoughts, but they aren’t necessarily part of a broader system, and fully up to changing his mind, which he’s done plenty of times.
This book really enforced this, I would call the subtheme, is that he seemed to be an almost magical entrepreneur. An entrepreneur in the sense not of starting companies, raising venture capital, and all that shit, but rounding up friends all the way back to his teenage and younger years to do something. He seemed to have that innate ability to round up some people, motivate them, and call the play. And again, and again, and again at every kind of level from two people or three people going on a cross country camping trip to putting together amazing cultural events, like the trips festival, to again and again and again, he was that small E entrepreneur, that missing ingredient that without it, a lot of things wouldn’t have happened.
John: It’s interesting to use the term entrepreneur. I guess it’s the correct term, but there’s really only one for-profit enterprise that Stewart’s been involved in. He was one of the founding members of the Global Business Network, but he was a fellow traveler there. Most of his stuff has been about ideas. Occasionally he’s been an activist, although he is kind of conflicted about activism, but over and over again he has these whims or ideas that he follows and he starts over. I guess he’s a super curious person and he follows his instincts. He’s done that since he was a kid.
Jim: But a lot of people do that. There are lots of intellectual flâneurs in the world. This is actually a direct quote from you, “Throughout his life, Brand has taken pride in creating new institutions.” And again, as an entrepreneur myself, an advisor to entrepreneurs, et cetera, again, it’s not the for-profit model, but there were things started that had continuity that he was the indispensable catalyst that made it happen. That’s why I decided that the underlying theme here, John probably doesn’t even know that, is small E entrepreneurship.
John: I really like the term catalyst. I think that gets at it.
Jim: Then, as you said, he has displayed an eerie knack for showing up first, the onset of some social movement or technology inflection point and moving on just when everybody else is catching up. He has retained a remarkable aversion to orthodoxy, which on occasion made him the target for criticisms from the right, and sometimes the left. Again, that also came through that in my circle of folks, we call that edge seekers, people who are trying to orient towards where the edge is and you of course, because it is the edge, you don’t necessarily know where it is. So by some process or some intuition or some randomness, you kind of stumble towards the edge. Again, that was the theme that came back again and again and again that he did seem to have… Has, he’s still kicking, last I knew you, was about 84 years old. Going strong last time I talked to him.
John: Yeah, he’s working on a new book. That’s right.
Jim: Yeah, he always seemed to somehow smell the edge and move in that direction. As I mentioned, again my assessment, is that he has had a few deep ideas. In particular, I did not know until I read the book that he was the inventor of the Pace Layer Model. Paul Saffo, I think he worked with him on it, and it does recapitulate some ideas and not form quite the same way of Dyson the physicist. But that’s an interesting and important and pretty deep model. Maybe you could give us a quick précis on that if you recall?
John: Well, so I think this came out of his work in the world of architecture. One of the things he dived into, and what became the book that he’s most proud of, is this work he did on what he called the distinction between high road and low road architecture. He was interested in how buildings learn. Out of his time spent at the media lab where he saw this pristine corporate designed building that the new media lab went into, which was a beautiful edifice, but it was a terrible place to work in. Then he learned about Building 20, which was this building that was so funky that it didn’t even have a name, but people loved it, and it could be repurposed.
Out of thinking about how architecture changed, he realized that there is a hierarchy of pace in various layers of humanity, going from the very basic and physical all the way up to the cultural, and then I guess the very top is fashion. He articulated that in a number of sort of iterations. Ultimately, Paul Saffo helped him on some of that. But it’s a good analytical tool, and he’s used it in some of his new work at The Long Now Foundation, which is concerned with the pace of change. It’s something he began with a computer scientist named Danny Hillis. It’s an effective way to look at the world, I think.
Jim: For listeners, the six layers are nature at the inner, it moves slowly at its own pace, evolutionary, and geological time, and then culture. And then governance, think the US constitution. Infrastructure, interstate highway system, railroads, and the internet. Commerce, always moving, but again at a pace of years. Then finally, he puts forth fashion, which is especially now internet influencers, fast fashion, TikTok, all that ridiculous horseshit. It’s moving so fast that we can’t even keep up with it. So anyway, I found that to be a pretty important contribution actually, to thinking about how the world works.
The other one, of course, the one for which he is quoted, but out of context, the very famous quote, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive because it’s so valuable. The right information, the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”` So you have these two fighting against each other. Now, as somebody who worked in the information industry for my whole career, basically, originally textbooks all the way to running the infrastructure of the internet, that just rings so true to me. But of course, he is quoted out of context. Information wants to be free, which does such a disservice to the thought.
John: No, you’re right. I’m really pleased that you used the real quotation first rather than the meme that became the rallying cry of the .com era. He was simply channeling one of his mentors, Gregory Bateson. Bateson of course, had this notion of the double bind. Double bind being the study of these diametrically opposed contradictions. The double bind is even when you win, you lose. If we had picked up that nuance at the start of the .com era, as opposed to just half of it, I think it would’ve been very helpful.
Jim: It was always very relevant to me because I was always involved in ugly monopolistic businesses trying to fuck people by extracting monopoly rents from information. And we did quite well many times, right?
John: Nothing has changed sadly.
Jim: Well, it’s a lot harder than it used to be but…
John: There’s still some information monopolies though, of note.
Jim: If I were Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, one of these people, one way you could spend your money that would probably do the most good would be to open source all the scientific literature instantly. It wouldn’t be that expensive. It’s probably $20 billion, something like that. That’s one of the worst abusive rent seekers out there, these goddamn journal publishing companies that want to charge you $29 for an article, drives me nuts. On the other hand, there are back doors, which some of us know about, how to get around that, but we won’t talk about those in public. So yeah, that was interesting, and to the point probably partially unfairly, but partially fairly, I guess it wasn’t you actually, it’s somewhere else I pulled it off the internet, recently. Brand has been heralded as the first internet utopian. In several contemporary books, he’s been called out as the person responsible for the libertarian ideas that grew out of the creation of the internet. Yes, maybe. What do you think about that?
John: When I started this project in 2017, Donald Trump had been elected president and these two books were published, one by Jonathan Taplin, Move Fast and Break Things. The other by Franklin Foer, World Without Mind. I think Franklin Foer was pretty upset that somebody destroyed the New Republican, somebody from Facebook had affected the New Republic. Anyway, what struck me about those two books is they both began with biographical sketches of Stewart Brand and I thought, well, that’s odd. The sort of nut was, they were looking for the first sinner or the guy responsible. I was really sort of perturbed that they went back to Brand. I think they were kind of channeling a book written by Fred Turner, a communications professor at Stanford University called From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Then Jill Lepore did the same thing the next year in American History. I think it’s just simply wrong.
Stewart was one of the first people to report on Silicon Valley and I actually came to believe that the Whole Earth catalog was actually one of the first products from Silicon Valley, but they have it turned around 180 degrees. Brand had the uncanny ability to show up at just the right time. Silicon Valley was named in 1971 and Stewart showed up in 1967 while all of his friends were going to back to the land, which I thought was really quite remarkable that he would show up in Menlo Park, California right when all the forces that would lead to the creation of Silicon Valley were at work.
He was a technological optimist. He remains a technological optimist. He was a libertarian as a young man, but it was never a pure libertarianism in an Ayn Rand sense of the world or to be more modern, a Peter Thiel sense of the word. He was always committed to environmental values to protecting the environment, to protecting nature. Early on, he shed some of the Ayn Rand entrepreneurialism. He briefly had a bit of a fling with it when he was at Stanford. But to call him a libertarian is just dead wrong.
Jim: That’s right, and of course, many of us had our youthful infatuations with Ayn Rand. I remember reading The Fountainhead when I was 15 and going, wow, what a dude. Then I read Atlas Shrugged at 17 and go, wow, I even read the speech. But as you got older and wiser, you go, well, in a world of sociopathic people with IQs of 130, you might be able to make a society work that way. But I sure as shit wouldn’t want to live in one, right?
John: Yes, and I think that that sort of frames Stewart’s point of view pretty well.
Jim: Probably not a bad description for Peter Thiel. Although he might be a little smarter than IQ 130, I don’t know. But anyway, yeah, a lot of us went through that, like him, but he did seem to shake out of it pretty quickly. So anyway, let’s get on to sort of the rough outline of his bio.
He was born in 1938 in Rockford, Illinois, the home of the Tower of Time. If you ever get to Rockford, Illinois, look it up. It’s one of the better clock and watch museums in the world. How the hell it got to Rockford, Illinois, I don’t know, but I happened to be there one time, but it’s a pretty cool thing. His family seemed to have been from a family of wealth and business people, and his father kind of branched off from the family business, started his own business. Seemed to be somewhere in the lower end of upper middle class. Does that sound about right to you?
John: It was a mix. That does sound right to me, but I visited his home, and his home in Rockford was a purely middle class home. It was not an upper middle class home. The upper middle class homes were about a block away on the river. His parents bought a bit of property on the river and they were striving. That was the American dream. They always wanted to build their house on the river, but it’s significant to me they didn’t build a house. Their kids’ educations were expensive and they sent their kids to good schools. That was the family value. So yes, upper middle class in some ways, middle class in other ways.
Jim: It was always interesting how people at the lower end of upper middle class choose to spend their money and it sounded like, as you said, education was a big part of it. Both Stewart and his brother both went to Exeter, right? Middle class people don’t send their kids to Exeter.
John: His dad had gone to MIT. His mom went to Vassar. That was in the family blood. The family was, on both sides, came from Michigan wealth, a department store, timber, a mineral interest. They had the family compound on a lake in the middle of the state so that was all. But significantly, his father decided not to go into the family business, but moved to Rockford and went out on his own and I think that was significant.
Jim: You had mentioned the family compound. It seemed to have been an important attractor, an important value creator in his life where the family would locate to the family compound on the lake for most of the summer and the kids got to run wild as kids used to be able to do. I was one of the last generations that free range kids were a thing, but he seemed to have really taken advantage of that. It had a big influence on him.
John: He spent every summer outside. In many ways that was the kind of boyhood that Hemingway had. Hemingway grew up in Chicago, and then summered at Walloon Lake. Stewart grew up in Rockford and summered at Higgins Lake, which is a very Hemingwayesque kind of scene. To compound that, he stumbled across something in Outdoor Life magazine when he was 10 years old. He took this thing called the conservation pledge, which he could still recite when we first began meeting when he was 80 years old. I think that was the throughline through everything that Brand did, was this commitment to protecting the environment. He no longer calls himself an environmentalist because of his quarrels with the environmental movement over technology, but he does consider himself a conservationist.
Jim: We’ll get to that later. In fact, I have the outdoor pledge in quotes, “I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country. Its air, soil, and minerals. Its forest waters and wildlife.” Pretty strong stuff for 1947 or something, right?
John: That’s right, and the fact that he stayed committed to that all the way through.
Jim: Yep, very interesting. I never heard of Outdoor Life. I looked it up and it appears it’s a sibling publication with Field and Stream and some of those other ones that were big in that epoch. I don’t even know if they still exist, I guess they do. He also developed an interest in Indians at that time from a Native American person who helped the family out, I think, at around and about the lake as I recall.
John: Yeah, there was… What’s the word? Not Last of the Mohicans, but in a way that was the connection that they had. But that Indian who was close to the family several generations before Stewart was imprinted on the Brand family. But the real contact with American Indians came later when he was out on the west.
Jim: We’ll talk about that later. So anyway, he goes off to Exeter and at that time, the general expectation you’re an Exeter boy, you’re going to go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. But he doesn’t, as it turns out, and this is one of these interesting forks in his life. His brother seems to be a real character, Mike. Did you ever get a chance to talk to him? Is he still around?
John: Oh yeah, Mike’s great. Mike’s still around, too and he’s living in Portland, Oregon.
Jim: Anyway, he seemed like a real interesting guy. He was the one who broke the mold and decided to go to Stanford and Stewart tagged along with the family when they went out there and decided he too, was going to be a westerner. So when he went off to college, he went to Stanford. Any other color you want to provide on that sort of key life decision?
John: Well, so much of the world is about serendipity and the thing I love about Stewart’s decision to end up at Stanford, I mean, he looked at other schools as well. He looked at Reed. He almost went to Reed, but he thought it was a little pink. There’s a wonderful back and forth and correspondence over whether-
Jim: Yeah, I love that little back and forth. That was hilarious.
John: They told him they were no pinker than some of the east coast schools, which I just loved. Mike was an idiosyncratic, he was independent, and he was also a jock. He was a football star in school and he could have gone to those Ivy League schools and played football, but he had a kind of arched eyebrow, so he read an article in Life magazine where it described the Stanford football coach who had lost every game in one season and Stanford rehired the guy. Mike decided that was the kind of place he wanted to go to school, and ultimately that led to Stewart going to Stanford. So what do you make of something like that?
Jim: Life is more contingent than most of us like to think. I used to give a talk to second year MBA students called, “My Famous Career” and I’ve done all kinds of wild shit. But one of the things I highlighted was at least 60 to 70% of it’s pure damn luck. These things that happen in your life and you just pick one of them and it fundamentally leads you into one way or another. Of course, you have to be ready to take advantage of luck and it does seem that Stewart had that open mind. I bet if you ran the big five personality test on him he’d score a 98 percentile on openness.
John: Yeah, I agree.
Jim: That’s interesting. When he gets to Stanford, one of the things that I think is highly compatible with this idea of him being a small E entrepreneur or catalyst is he was a pretty relentless networker. He got introduced to interesting people, Dick Raymond and his wife, Ann Milstrop, et cetera. It’s relatively uncommon for a freshman to be networking as relentlessly as he seemed to do.
John: He was kind of a… There was a bit of… Let’s see how to describe it. There was a bit of a goody two shoes to him. I mean, if you grew up like I did watching a series called Leave It to Beaver-
Jim: My wife and I actually revisited Leave It to Beaver about two months ago. We watched one episode and just picked one at random from the middle of the series and we go, yep, that’s Leave It to Beaver all right. That was a standard when we were growing up.
John: But that kind of Beaver Cleaver just really earnest and honest and a little bit naive. I think when Stewart showed up at Stanford, that’s sort of where he was. Very Midwest, not very cosmopolitan, but really open to learning about the world.
Jim: Really open. I think one of the very interesting encounters that I believe had a pretty significant impact was another brother Mike, a recommendation when he became associated with Frederick Spiegelberg, who’s a very important figure in essentially bridging German philosophy to the United States.
John: Spiegelberg also sort of opening up his students to Asian spiritual and religious influences. I think that confluence was very important. Spiegelberg was one of the two most popular professors on campus during the 1950s and everybody who took a course from him was kind of gobsmacked. It had a huge impact on a number of people, including the people who founded Esalen. They were Spiegelberg devotes, as well.
Jim: The Murphy’s, that was just a very interesting coincidence that through student activity, what was it, the International Student Association or something? He ended up going down to Big Sur, which I must say, Big Sur is probably the place in the world that causes my bell to ring. I just love Big Sur. Every time I go there, I go, “Why would I ever live anywhere else?” Did I ever live in Big Sur? No, but I spent a fair bit of time there. It seemed like it had a similar impact on Stewart and right place, right time before Esalen really existed. He got to meet the family that eventually ended up creating it. Just a great time, but he took advantage of it. He made some connections, right?
John: That’s right. The fact that he ended up in the International Student Association, as opposed to being a fraternity boy. He went through fraternity rush. He should have gotten into a fraternity through some kind of family inheritance because his brother had been a Phi Delt, but he didn’t get accepted. He didn’t even get accepted to the eating clubs. He was kind of a loner and he found his way to this foreign student organization, which really opened him up to the world in an important way.
Jim: That was again, a choice he made, and it turned out to have implications, highly contingent. In this case, led to some very interesting things. You also write, “Reading was almost always the portal through which Brand veered off in new directions.” I identify with that. I’ve always been a voracious reader. I read about 75 books a year. Start a hundred, finish 75, and it’s been sort very important fuel. I can see that theme coming up again and again and again. Here he is closeted in the Whole Earth offices with stacks of books and plowing through them. But one of the things you said about Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I thought it was very interesting and one that Brand would initially find valuable and then ultimately find useless.
John: I was describing the arc of his involvement with psychedelic drugs. He read about and actually listened to Huxley at Stanford. Then when he was in the army, he fell in with sort of some Bohemian artists, and in ’60, ’61 was introduced to psychedelics, and then came back to San Francisco and got deeply into a really important community of people who use psychedelic drugs in a systematic way.
Jim: We’ll talk about that in a little bit. One of the things I found interesting, no idea, was after freshman year at Stanford, for some God-known reason, he talked himself into working at a logging outfit up in the Northwest, owned by some cousins or something and he came back thinking that this needs to be the basis of a Moby Dick scale novel, the life of these loggers. He was like, wow, wow, wow. Of course, he later was connected to Kesey and Kesey drilled it with sometimes a great notion.
John: Completely, and the logging thing was in his blood from the family. Mike had gone up there and worked and he was following in Mike’s footsteps, and that’s a big part of why he went and worked there. He really wanted to work in the backwoods. Only did it for one summer. I think Mike did it for two or three and ended up in Oregon actually later on. But it was an important rite of passage for Stewart.
Jim: That’ll make a man out of you. That’ll kill you, right? That’s hard ass work. I’ve done a lot of ugly jobs. I’ve done a little bit of logging, and it’s the worst of the ones I’ve ever dealt with, even a little bit. Of course, sometimes a great notion, just an amazing novel. To my mind, I will regularly put down the marker and say, I believe it’s the best novel written in English since World War II. That may be a little extreme, but it’s that good.
John: Definitely, and Kesey wasn’t even a logger. He hung out with the loggers. He went to bars and stuff like that, but he was an Oregonian. He picked up that culture.
Jim: Now the other book that you reference, and again, one that had a big influence on me when I was 15, I think he read it later, was The True Believer by Eric Hoffer.
John: Yeah, it is. One of the things that I noticed as someone who grew up as a true new leftist, one of the things I enjoyed most about my interaction with Stewart while I was writing this book is he’s not predictable. You can’t frame his politics. I think he got that kind of openness in part from his interactions with Hoffer. He got a detector for sectarian worldviews, cult worldviews. He really backs away every time he smells a cult of any kind.
Jim: We’ll talk about a few of those examples throughout his life. I kind of synthesize that as even things not as strong as a cult, he seemed to have a strong, negative reaction to tribalism. That even if it was more benign than a cult, once it became the conventional wisdom of some group of people, then he immediately started backing away and looking for the new edge. Because if you’re an edge seeker, those tribal resonances are never the edge, right?
John: I think that the roots of that came at Exeter where he had to figure out how to succeed when he wasn’t the brightest one in the class. He ended up being in Exeter with all these overachievers, and he found that by going in a different direction was an often a good way to compete effectively. Don’t go where they are, but go someplace else and achieve there. That’s been a pattern throughout his life.
Jim: Yep, I agree. That’s a great strategy. Today, we have our damn society, which is tearing itself apart with these tribal resonances. This is a great lesson for us all. In one side, we have the MAGA nuts and then the other, we have the wokies, and they’re both very evil. On one side, you have authoritarianism with the MAGAites and on the wokies, even though most of them don’t realize it yet, it’s a proto-totalitarianism. There seems to be no way to reconcile those two factions and people just walk away from those two factions. They’re both wrong. I don’t think Stewart would be attracted to either one of them.
John: No, staying away from true believers is probably an important lesson.
Jim: So all you kids out there, go read Eric Hoffer. My father, oddly enough, a ninth grade dropout, but a person who read the newspaper assiduously, was a Washington DC cop so he had pulled over various congressmen given them tickets, or actually you don’t give a Congressman a ticket as it turned out, but very interested in politics, when I was 15, he said, “This is a book you got to read James.” I think he thought I had some tendencies towards true believerhood and I will say that book was a great immune injection against adherence to tribal resonances.
John: Yeah, just to interject here, you mentioned Stewart’s reading habits. That was something that struck me over and over again that he’s probably one of the two best read people I’ve ever met in my life. He has a remarkable library and once he spent two or three hours giving me a tour of the library and he’d read every book in his 5,000 volume library. It was overwhelming, actually.
Jim: That’s amazing. Who’s the first?
John: Ira Sandperl, Joan Baez’s mentor. Ira Sandperl was an early American Gandhist. He worked at this wonderful Menlo Park bookstore called Keplers. Ira was the guy behind the counter and he was my librarian when I was growing up.
Jim: Wow, that’s great. I love that. I’ve probably read 5,000 books or maybe a little more so. Probably in your list too, as well. Now onto North Beach again, seemingly a fortuitous, but edge attracting kind of thing and Joan Squires.
John: Joan Squires was a worldly young woman. I think she was a year ahead of Stewart at Stanford. They became friends. I think they dated, but there were always issues between them, but they stayed friends and Joan was really aghast at coming to Stanford and the fraternity culture, so she found the edges that you’re talking about and she had found this Bohemian world and she was one of the paths to North Beach and the Bohemian culture for Stewart. He just fell in love with something that was intellectual and was open to new ideas and it really became a magnet for him.
Jim: To your earlier description of Leave It to Beaver, I love this quote from the book, “Brand was remarkably straight-laced. He still had a Boy Scout quality about him. At the same time, he was intensely curious and clearly trying to escape his Midwestern skin. Squires was a revelation.”
John: Very much so.
Jim: He would’ve been about 20 at the time, maybe something like that?
John: 18 or 19, really early.
Jim: Wow, that means he would have been turned on to North Beach in like 1958, 57, something like that. That would’ve been cool. I mean, I didn’t make it to North Beach until 1975 on my first hitchhiking trip out west. Why did I go there to North Beach? Because I had to see City Lights Bookstore, God damn it.
John: That’s about all that was left at that point, so it was good that you made it. Even the hippies were gone by 1975.
Jim: I also had to go over and check out Haight-Ashbury and there were just a few drugged out people passed out on the sidewalk and various boarded up stores and what have you. I was just a little too young for all that stuff. Oh well, that’s the way it goes. But back to Brand, I wrote in my notes about this North Beach phenomena and I thought about it, kind of a theme through his life is he was always a stranger in a strange land.
John: I think that’s fair. Yeah, an outsider.
Jim: Again, this anti-tribal resonance, as we know, most humans are tribal resonators, but if you’re not, you’re always standing a little to the side.
John: Yeah, and when the digital world emerged, I think that’s a good description of his relationship to the digital world where he was early, but he was never a hacker. He was one of the first people to discover hackers, if not the first.
Jim: In fact, he helped do the first hackers conference, right?
John: Well, yeah, it was actually Kevin Kelly’s idea, but Stewart and Ryan Fallon, Stewart’s second wife, helped organize it.
Jim: Very cool. Then Stewart’s initiation to sex at the age of 20 with a hooker in Switzerland. What the hell?
John: It was actually in Paris, in Pigalle, in kind of a low rent neighborhood. But yeah, it was a disappointment, let’s just put it that way.
Jim: Of course that was that era. Probably not that strange to still be a virgin at 20 in 1958.
John: No, I think the timing was pretty normal and unfortunately Stewart was good and drunk at the time it happened. I’m surprised he remembered anything from the experience at all.
Jim: But it didn’t seem to put him off women.
John: No, not at all. No, no, no, no. He was very typically American in that way.
Jim: You were fairly circumspect about all that, but he seemed to have gone through periods of fairly serious womanizing.
John: It’s funny you should mention that. There are 60,000 words of my original draft that didn’t make it into the final published volume and many of those stories fell on the cutting room floor that I thought were vastly humorous, but they were extraneous. I think we got the idea.
Jim: Tell me one.
John: Well, my favorite was he was in the army. He had a friend who was in army intelligence and was in Washington DC. They were both living in DC and they went double dating in the Virginia countryside and Stewart’s date went home and the woman with his friend, they were staying in enjoining rooms in a hotel room and she went to bed with his friend. After about 10 minutes, she told this guy, “I’d really rather be with Stewart.” So she got up and went into the other bedroom.
Jim: Pretty laissez faire for those days, right?
John: Well, this guy was pretty pissed more at her than at Stewart. His friendship with Stewart actually survived this incident, which I thought was pretty interesting.
Jim: Pretty cool. I’m not entirely clear in my mind. I think it was while he was still at Stanford, Stewart somehow got engaged with the Sequoia Seminar folks.
John: Yes, that was I think before his senior year. Sequoia Seminar had come out of a couple, the Rathbuns. This was the other most popular professor on the Stanford campus during the 1950s, Harry Rathbun, taught a course in business law. The Rathbuns were interested in the historical teachings of Jesus and they had created this retreat center that was actually, I learned later, co-located in the Santa Cruz mountains with the Quakers. Actually, this is sort of where I come into the picture. The summer camp that was sort of the defining world for me was located in the same place in the 1950s on that same piece of land where the Sequoia Seminar was. But Stewart went through that. It was a kind of intense process for him. He wrote letters home talking to his parents about how significant it was for him, but it was glancing. Actually earlier, one of the guys who would be instrumental in bringing LSD into the pre-Silicon Valley community, had a midlife crisis at the Sequoia Seminar and then he met a guy who was kind of the Johnny Seed of LSD.
Jim: Ah, Al Hubbard.
John: You know about Al Hubbard.
Jim: Oh, I’ve known all about Al Hubbard for a long time.
John: I think he’s one of the most fascinating American folk characters of all.
Jim: Yeah, amazing. I mean, nobody knows that much about him, right?
John: Although, there is now a biography which is worth reading.
Jim: Oh, I got to do it.
John: I learned a lot from the biography.
Jim: I’ll have to check that out. I’ve always thought that the shock wave of 5 million people doing LSD in the late sixties produced some major shock to our social systems. Hubbard was, as you say, the Johnny Appleseed long before Owsley or anybody else, and his story is very interesting. The other thing about the Sequoia Seminar best I can tell from my little bit of research I did preparing for the show, was you could also say in some ways it was one of the roots of the later human potential movement.
John: Absolutely. A number of groups spilled out of the Sequoia Seminar, not as directly, but other related. All of this stuff was intermingled in the 1970s on the mid-peninsula in the Bay Area and one of the roots was the Sequoia Seminar.
Jim: I actually found a history of Sequoia Seminars and the word Stewart Brand turned up eight times actually, so he did leave some footprint there, which is pretty impressive. But then the next thing in his life after graduating from Stanford, I mean, he didn’t seem like a super serious intellectual while he was at Stanford, but he sampled a lot of things and met some very interesting people, was he went off to the army, so he wouldn’t get drafted presumably. He could have gone to graduate school to avoid it, but he’s from a military-ish family. His brother was in the military. His brother-in-law ended up as a big time general, as I recall. So he joined the army, and what did he find out about the military? If he could have asked me, I could have told him. It’s mostly boring and stupid interspersed with some outrageous excitement, but I think he ended up mostly with the boring and stupid.
John: He came face to face with bureaucracies that sort of don’t have any rationale for what they do and he really came to hate the military, but on the way in, he went there because once again he was following in Mike’s footsteps. Mike had joined the army and Stewart had been following Mike all along the way up until that point. They branched after that, but Mike had a big influence on Stewart going into the military.
Jim: Some of the stories in the book about the idiot bureaucrats that he had to deal with, it was like, ah, this was catch 22, right?
John: Absolutely, but the other thing that’s really striking, if you talk to Stewart today, and this is really the value as a biographer of having contemporaneous documents, because Stewart has a kind of hazy and pleasant view of his time in the military. He’s very proud of the fact he was in the military. He sort of takes lessons from his military training. But if you read his writing at the time that he left the military, he was bitter. He was an angry man. He didn’t understand it. It was irrational. He realized that he’d come into the military as an anti-communist in a kind of textbook kind of sense that everybody in America was anti-communist at that point. When he came out of the military, he realized that a pox on both of their houses, that these systems were more similar in some ways than they were different. It had a really dramatic impact on him. He went off and he didn’t resist the draft, but he did not stay in the reserves when he left the military.
Jim: The tap dance all around finding clever ways not to fulfill his reserve obligations.
John: I think there was a generation of young men who did exactly the same thing and the Pentagon was very afraid during Vietnam of creating resistance within the reserves, so they didn’t push it. You could skirt the edges if you’d done your service. But there was also this important moment where he had to make a decision. He could have stayed in the military. There were not many places to go. One of the places he might have been able to go was Vietnam. He had this notion of being a photographer, a military photographer in Vietnam, but he was going to have to re-up for another three years and so he decided not to, and that was a significant branch point in his life.
Jim: The other branch point, again, as I alluded to in the pre-game show, I had an analog in my own life, was he signed up for Ranger training. If he’d gone through Ranger training, he’d likely would’ve stayed for a career, was my read. Ranger training is amazingly brutal, not quite as bad as the SEALs, but it’s pretty brutal. The story you tell on how he was just destroyed by it. It must have had a powerful impact on him and put him on a completely different branch.
John: Yeah, I think that’s very true. You think once again about serendipity, he might have toughed it out if he hadn’t gone through it during the winter. The winter added another layer to the time he spent in the pool freezing in 37 degree water that completely undid him. Then somebody was telling him, well, we’re going to have to go and sleep in wet sleeping bags in these cold mountains and that just sort of put him over the top. If he’d gone through it in the summertime, it might have been a different thing.
Jim: Though it depends what you think about heat and insects. Georgia in July? I would much prefer a little winter myself, but that’s to each their own, right? But on the other hand, I’ve got to give him credit. He bounced right back from it, went through parachute school. He was not crushed by it, but he was deflected shall we say? Because parachute school’s no trivial thing either.
John: You could see Brand being an iconoclast and being independent, even in the army. I mean, he insisted on dragging his camera along and they’d let him take pictures during basic training, which I think is probably very unusual. He kept trying to get an assignment as a photographer and they kept beating him down and they sent him off to be a drill instructor in New Jersey. That was just soul deadening for him. That’s when he found his way into the Bohemian community, with his friends in New York and at the USCO this sort of fringe group of artists and technologists that he joined.
Jim: That was quite interesting that he stumbled into those characters. Again, here it is 1961, holy shit. But anyway, we have to move along. Unfortunately, time is moving. In 1962, he gets out of the military and where does he go back to, but North Beach. Here’s a quote from the book, “Returning to North Beach in the fall of 1962 proved to be remarkable timing. The beats were fading and it’d be four years before the emergence of Haight-Ashbury and the hippies, and five years before the summer of love, which broadcast the arrival of the counterculture to the world. Brand had placed himself at the center of one of the most creative places in the country, just at the moment when a great rupture for mainstream culture was about to occur.”
John: How do you do that? He had developed his passion or his interest in the beats before he left for the army. As soon as he was free, he came right back. He settled in North Beach. He wanted to study to become a photographer. He was sort of on the cusp between artistic photography and photojournalism, but he really was passionate about photography. It was incredibly inexpensive to live in North Beach at the time. I think he might have been paying $50 a month for two apartments, not just one, in a soon to be condemned building. That was one of the interesting points I discovered. Stewart was wealthy in an as-needed-to way, particularly after he got out of the military. His mom would send him a check for 50 bucks or so once in a while and it was just enough money so he didn’t have to get a day job. I think that was really significant. It allowed him to follow these curious interests and persist rather than having to go to work.
Jim: That was so cool in those days. It was so cheap. I mean, you could live on a hundred dollars a month if you really wanted to crash in a crash pad and what have you, but not anymore, unfortunately. Not in San Francisco.
John: Well, it was true for a long time. Even when I began as a freelancer, I was living in Palo Alto in the 1970s and paying 50 bucks a month for renting a room. You couldn’t do that anymore.
Jim: Not at all. So the next significant inflection point was he got connected to the International Foundation for Advanced Study, another very important little nexus in American history, not known by most people.
John: Absolutely. That comes out of his visit to Esalen. Again, this goes back to the Sequoia Seminar. This goes back to this group of people who were mostly pre-Silicon Valley engineers. They were technologists. Al Hubbard shows up. He introduces these guys to LSD. These are six couples that are sort of meeting informally around the Sequoia Seminar and they decided that there must be a link between creativity and LSD. They set up this foundation to explore that in a “scientific” way. They take ultimately over 350 people through this incredibly intense experience and Stewart learned about it shortly after he came to North Beach and he was one of the first people to go through that experience.
Jim: Interesting. He tripped for the first time there. I think he was number 155, as you report, in their list of psychonauts. This is your write-up of his first trip, “To the Menlo Park Foundation Researchers, Brand had proved a tough nut to crack. Their analysis that he was stuck in here and now concepts and resistant to fully letting go. They saw him as the model of the uptight intellectual guy who depended on logical analysis for emotional defense.”
John: I think that pretty much captures the early Stewart. I don’t think he would dispute that, but the remarkable thing, and we’ve talked about this a lot, because he doesn’t remember it, but it’s in his notebook, they gave him two oral doses and then he was still not where they wanted him to be, so they gave him a third dose by injection. I can’t imagine. I mean, I’ve taken a little bit of LSD. I just simply can’t imagine that kind of experience.
Jim: I wonder how many micrograms that was. Probably a bunch. I tripped like six times back in the seventies and I think 400 micrograms was the most I ever did. That was just enough to push me over the edge to ego loss for about half an hour. But I’m probably also one of those intellectually resistant sorts. I always enjoyed it though. I never had any bad trips or anything. It was kind of cool, but yeah, he continued to use acid a fair bit, but then he eventually… To the quote about… Or as a perception, he eventually decided as many of us did, that we got what we were going to get from it.
John: In 1969, after this last kind of blast with Kesey and I think it was in Colorado, they had something called the Great Bus Race and Stewart dropped acid at that event. At that point, he was trying to break with all of that and he decided that he’d put drugs down and walked away from it.
Jim: Let’s hop ahead to Kesey and The Pranksters, and the trips festival and all that.
John: The Pranksters began organizing these events called acid tests. These were rock and roll parties fueled by LSD. This forged The Grateful Dead. The first time they were The Warlocks, they were kind of the house band of The Pranksters. They played around the mid-peninsula. We’re talking Santa Cruz, San Jose, Palo Alto, all had acid tests. Then they came to Stewart and said, we want to put on a really big one and Stewart knew that they weren’t great organizers and they wouldn’t get it together. He took it upon himself to become the prime organizer. He ran into this guy by the name of Bill Graham and asked Bill Graham to help him with the publicity. Bill Graham was really good at that.
Jim: Hell yeah.
John: Out of that, I mean, what’s so striking to me is the day after the Trips Festival, which was a three day affair at the Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco, which was made by the fact that The Dead played on Saturday night, and as Stewart said, Saturday night was the beginning of The Grateful Dead and the end of everything else. All that eclectic stuff he was trying to get it washed out because people really wanted to dance. But Graham really understood that there was money in the proto-San Francisco music scene at that time and so the next day, he leased the Fillmore and that led directly to the San Francisco music scene.
Jim: Amazing and interesting with the relationship with Ken Kesey. One of the books I really loved when I was in college was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and you referenced that Brand makes a cameo there and sure enough, I downloaded the Kindle, searched it and sure enough, I think he turns up like eight times in the book and on the second page. That was quite interesting and the whole phenomena of The Pranksters and that whole scene, so intense and Ken Kesey had an expression, “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus,” talking about the bus Furthur, which they drove around in and I think you alluded to the fact that Stewart resisted being on the bus.
John: Kesey was a very charismatic leader and Stewart and he kind of butted heads. I mean, Kesey was the classic alpha male and Brand decided that if you were in this situation where you had to give your life to this thing, best to walk away and he did at a certain point.
Jim: Again, that’s this thing we talked about earlier of him recoiling from tribal resonances. He doesn’t want to be in anybody’s tribe longterm because by definition, once it becomes a tribe, it’s no longer the edge. There has to be somewhere more interesting to be.
John: That exactly describes what happened to Stewart, yes.
Jim: Now the next episode, one I knew nothing about, Stewart was at or near the very beginning of multimedia, multimedia presentations.
John: There was a group, this group USCO that was playing around with multimedia when multimedia was three slide projectors, an audio track, and a single screen. They were playing with electronics, with sound in interesting ways, and Stewart started to make a book about the American Indian experience when he stumbled across the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. He went up there because this guy, Dick Raymond, who had become his mentor, had introduced him to this tribe. The idea was that he’d create a brochure for them that they could use to sort of help the Indian reservation plan to become a tourist destination. But it devolved into a multimedia production and Stewart showed it around the Bay Area. It had a lot of influence on the politics of the way we saw Indians during that period. For decades, the US government had been busily trying to integrate them into American society and get rid of anything Indian and after that stuff in the sixties, which Stewart highlighted, the notion of preserving the Indian identity, the Indian experience became relevant and became an important policy thing that went forward.
Jim: Well, I guess the name of the show was America Needs Indians. Apparently it was quite popular. It got good reviews and things of that sort.
John: It did. I mean, this is something he showed probably a dozen times and the last time that he showed America Needs Indians was actually a great failure. He set up a tipi on the floor in the Trips Festival on Friday and he and another guy got inside and they were playing something, an Indian bone game, and they were projecting the images onto the tipi and nobody could figure out what was going on, so it kind of lost its resonance.
Jim: If you’re eating acid and listen to psychedelic rock and roll, it’s going to be hard to make sense out of some multiple screenshot, what the hell? As he goes through all this, it’s kind of the next move, and again, at least my read of it was his greatest single invention, but one which sort of plagued him eventually was coming up with the idea of the Whole Earth Catalog. But before we go to the Whole Earth Catalog, the famous story about why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth, maybe you can tell us that and then we’ll transition to the Whole Earth Catalog.
John: Yeah, part of American culture. Stewart was thinking a lot about his dad who was very sick. He’d had a troubled relationship with his dad. He went up on the roof of his apartment, dropped a half a tab of acid and sort of contemplated the landscape. He had this epiphany after a little while that the buildings weren’t exactly parallel. And then in his stoned mind’s eye, he was up above the earth and it was this glorious round orb. Then he realized there wasn’t a picture of the whole earth, even though we’d been in space for more than half a decade.He came down off the roof with this campaign in mind. He got a button, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth?” He got a sandwich board. He stood on a bunch of campuses. He mailed copies of the button to everybody in Congress, to the White House, to the Kremlin.
That image, that symbol of the whole earth became the symbol of a generation. It was a counter. It was important because it was a counterweight. The fifties had been this very dark period where the symbol of humanity was the mushroom cloud and the symbol of the whole earth was this hopeful symbol. It really had framed the environmental movement. It became partial to the environmental movement. Whether it actually led NASA to produce a photo of the whole earth, nobody’s ever been able to prove one way or another. They did. They did the next year after he had this campaign, and there’s this wonderful story. Mike Malone tells it. His dad worked in security at NASA and he was tasked by NASA in Washington to go out and look at Brand and see if he was a threat. He sends a letter to headquarters saying, “The guy’s harmless, don’t worry about it. By the way, why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth?”
Jim: I love that. Here’s somebody in the bureaucracy with a sense of humor and a sense of that’s a damn good question. Then soon thereafter, he comes up with this idea of the Whole Earth Catalog, which is, as I mentioned previously, seemed to me at least reading your tale, to be both his greatest public triumph and something that he considered to be kind of just a burden at some point, but let’s start with the beginning.
John: His dad died, he went back to Illinois for the funeral. He was on a plane coming back and he was thinking about all his friends going to the communes, and he was thinking, what can I do to help them? He came up with the idea of a truck that would drive around to the countryside and sell them information and tools. He figured that’s what they needed. He was very much under the influence of this point of Buckminster Fuller, who of course, believed if you gave someone a tool and taught them how to use it, that’s how you changed the world, so he was channeling Fuller in that way, in a sense. Also I learned later, Doug Englebart, which we can get into if we have time, but then he got Dick Raymond’s backing. He started out with the idea. He bought a truck, he went out to some communes and he discovered that his friends on the communes had no money so that wasn’t going to work.
Jim: They had no baksheesh, no money.
John: So he pivoted to the idea of a catalog. The first issue, they only sold a couple thousand copies, but it resonated. It resonated with my generation, probably with your generation as well. It became a Bible. Ultimately over just three years, it would sell three million copies. It won the National Book Award in 1972. But even after the first year Stewart was buried, he probably didn’t do a good enough job of delegating. The more successful it was, the harder it was. He was in a very depressed state. He was having trouble in his marriage and he decided even after a year that he was going to kill it off and ultimately it only lasted in its initial phase for three years.
Jim: I was a little too young to notice the first one, but the last one landed with a big noise when I was a freshman in college. I think it would’ve been when I was a freshman in college, 1971, ’72.
John: Even Steve Jobs saw one a couple years. In ’75, I think was when Jobs saw it. But the significant thing about the Whole Earth Catalog is information was scarce and interesting information was even more scarce. Stewart had this wonderful editor sense of finding interesting things. I can’t tell you how many people I ran into who stumbled across something in the catalog and it sent their life in a completely different direction. That’s what it was.
Jim: I think there was two very interesting policies that he adopted early on that may have been a part of his success. I think you referenced them both. One is that he does positive reviews only and no politics. It’s interesting, my podcast, maybe I stole it from Stewart. I never have guests on that I totally disagree with. I have some on where we have a little bit of snark, but I don’t bring anybody on just to argue with them. I want to bring their ideas forward. I don’t engage in team red, team blue politics on the show. We sometimes allude to it, but we don’t have shows about that. Those seem to have been both very interesting design principles, particularly at that time where an awful lot of especially counterculture journalism was very political.
John: Stewart was in no sense part of the traditional left, the old left in particular. It’s kind of interesting. He was good friends with many of the leaders of the new left, like him and Abby Hoffman were complete best friends and yet Stewart was not on the left. He was kind of resisting that. If you look carefully at the catalog and the various indexes, they also had these quarterly updates. There was a lot of environmental stuff in there. Stewart’s sympathies were pretty obvious, but he did have that formal ban against politics.
Jim: That was interesting. The other thing I loved, I finally found out who J. Baldwin was, having read the 71 or 72 version, but then particularly reading the Whole Earth Review later in the late eighties and into the early nineties, these little brilliant squibs but they were just signed J. Baldwin. Who the hell is this guy? Is it a guy? Is it a girl? I have no idea. Well, whatever it is, he’s got the best taste in tools of anybody I ever read and writes these many reviews with this dry elegance that I’ve never seen the equal of again.
John: Baldwin was amazing and he was part of a clique of people that Stewart picked up as his section editors that I think to frame these guys, they were the spearhead of this movement for ecological design and Stewart tapped into that. Those guys really sort of solidified the impact of the Whole Earth Catalog in that way.
Jim: Very interesting. Eventually he did find someone to pass on much of the responsibility to in Kevin Kelly, another very interesting guy.
John: Well, yeah, Kevin ultimately became an editor and it was reinvented as the Coalition Quarterly, but then they realized that they could keep the Coalition Quarterly alive by occasionally producing a version of the Whole Earth Catalog. The mistake came when they tried to produce the Whole Earth Software Catalog and it just didn’t resonate.
Jim: I can tell you a personal experience about that. 1985, 84, 85, something like that when it came out, I was a tech entrepreneur, had my second startup. We were a hard core PC networking technology company. I remember being quite excited to get my hands on the Whole Earth Software Catalog. I started reading it and I went, “Fuck, this thing’s totally out of date.” In those days, you had to read the weeklies to really glean what was new and important. I always read PC Week and of course BYTE and all the other bazillion others and it was like, ah, what the hell’s this? That was a mismatch between content and format.
John: Yeah, it was his greatest commercial failure. It was unfortunate in timing and everything else, just didn’t work.
Jim: But around that time, they did something else extremely interesting, though well.
John: In 1985, Stewart had actually… Over and over again, I saw that ideas would bubble for a really long time and The Well was one of those ideas that he actually had in 68 from looking at Doug Engelbart’s work at Augment. He came up with this idea. I can’t even remember what it stood for, but in his notebook you can see the proposal for something he called EIEIO. It sat dormant for almost a decade. He comes up with the idea of The Well, there was a lot of online stuff going on and he tapped into a hacker community and a music community.
The Deadheads adopted The Well and I think The Well had a bit of out of scale impact because he did one brilliant thing as a marketing guy. He invited people like me and Steven Levy and other technology writers to The Well and gave us free accounts and so we hung out there and we wrote about it. As a result, The Well got an out of scale reputation. There were never more than 14,000 users of The Well, which on the scale of things, when you compare it to CompuServe or The Source or Prodigy was pretty much mouse nuts.
Jim: I actually started my tech career at The Source. I went to work for The Source in 1980 and I ended up becoming a member of The Well in 1989. I was tipped to it by Mitch Kapor, a guy whose company Lotus did 1, 2, 3. That was their claim to fame at the time was pitching him on a product that we’d created for my companies, which he bought. He said, “Oh, there’s this new thing. I’ve become a member. You’ve got to check it out. It’s called The Well.” So I went and joined up and I’ve been a Well member ever since. In fact, I’m even one of the member owners. A dozen of us came and bought The Well from Salon when they were going to close it down.
John: Oh, that’s cool. Well, so one of the things that drives me nuts as a biographer, this is crossing over from the print world to the digital world and the challenges of being a biographer, The Well lost a couple of years of their backup tapes and all of Stewart’s mail, because that’s where he was doing is his email. That’s never going to come back and it just drives me crazy.
Jim: There’s supposed to be an archiving way for the conferences, but it’s not been rigorously followed. I’ve said more than once, “Come on guys, you got to preserve this.” Graduate students of the future are being deprived.
John: And biographers too, that’s right.
Jim: That’s quite interesting. I actually made an offer to buy The Well in 1992. That was near the peak of The Well, probably right near the peak.
John: It was, and it was a year after Stewart walked away. That’s so interesting.
Jim: I remember that famous shitfest and you quoted little bits of it. It was actually way worse than what you quoted and The Well still had tremendous potential. It was on its way up, but they had no idea how to scale it. By that point, I had built and sold three startups and I was quasi retired at the ripe old age of 38 or something. I said, “You know what? This thing could be the basis for the next big thing.” I tracked down Nety who was the software provider and it was in bankruptcy and they owned 50% of The Well, and I cut a deal with the bankruptcy liquidator who was selling off the minimal assets of Nety. Amazingly, I got them to agree to sell me their 50% of The Well for three installments, one per year of $50,000.
John: What a deal. Did you go ahead with that deal?
Jim: No, here’s why. I said, “I’ll do it, but give me 60 days to convince Point Foundation to sell me their half.” I reached out to Point Foundation through the people that were managing The Well and very annoying, very opaque process. They basically just came back and said no. And I said, okay, well, and I would’ve paid them 150 cash, which was more than it was worth on a cash flow basis, but I could see the potential. I came back and said, all right, assuming we had a discussion and a meeting of the minds, I’d be willing to pay, in my own mind, a hundred thousand dollars for 1%. One thing I was not going to do is to get into a for-profit business with a not-for-profit as an equal blocking partner. That was my reply to Point. Didn’t put a number on the table and I said, I tell you a significant sum for 1%. You can have two seats on the board and I will appoint three and they came back and just said, no. No dialogue, nothing.
I said, okay, fuck you and went on to do other things and went on to have a very interesting career thereafter, but I’ve always wondered again, contingency, what would’ve happened if they’d said yes. Because I had the expertise, the ability to raise large sums of money and knew lots and lots of talented people in all aspects of online businesses, could The Well have become one of the premier companies of the early internet? I think the answer is, it maybe could have it. It would’ve been fun if we’d given it a shot. Instead, it just kind of [inaudible 01:05:04] through all kinds of weird and strange, I wouldn’t call it incompetent management, but it was just caretaker management. There was never any entrepreneurial management of The Well.
John: There was a point that they wanted to franchise The Well and the board turned that idea down.
Jim: Then people built clones of The Well using software clones of Picospan called Yap. There was one in Austin, Texas, and there was one in, I think Chicago. Anyway, it was interesting, but being on The Well was hugely important in my career. Here I was 92, I had another little startup, which I sold. That was a one man band specifically designed to be a personal coin collection agency as I called it. It was quite successful. I sold that and got sucked into being a corporate executive thereafter. I just went an entirely different direction, but I remained a member of The Well and it turned out it was hugely valuable because in this early days of the internet, no one really knew what it was. Just like the old joke, two hikers on the trail, the bear shows up and the first hiker starts putting on his running shoes, the second one says, “You can’t outrun a bear,” and he says, “Yeah, I don’t care if I outrun the bear, I just got to outrun you.”
Being on The Well kept me six months ahead of other people about what was actually happening on the internet. This was the days of EFF, which was founded on The Well as you pointed out, and truthfully a good part of the work for Wired was incubated on The Well, et cetera, Craig Newmark was on The Well, et cetera, et cetera, and so here I was being a tech exec at a big multinational publishing company and unlike most of my clueless peers, I actually was getting the straight shit from the people on The Well, and it really helped me take off in my career as a tech exec in a multinational publishing company. I did not regret, in some sense, not buying The Well instead just using it as a career accelerator.
John: That’s great. That’s a great bit of history.
Jim: It really was kind of fun, it really was. Let’s go on to the next topic, which is Stewart’s interesting and quite fundamental position, but controversial these days, in the environmental movement.
John: Absolutely. Steward sort of laid the… We’re going to jump to his book, An Ecopragmatist Manifesto in 2007, he increasingly found himself estranged from the environmental movement. There were significant parts of the environmental movement that were anti-technological for obvious reasons and Stewart maintained his pro-technology stance. He wrote a book that basically looked at GMO food, looked at nuclear power, looked at dense urban cities, and looked at geoengineering and endorsed all of them as ways forward toward an alternative green future. He split with some of his closest friends over this. Amory Lovins, in particular, in terms of nuclear power and he had a huge falling out and Stewart’s still bitter about Amory at this point.
Amory went after him for his pronuclear position and Stewart had been what he referred to as mildly anti-nuclear. Then Peter Schwartz, who had been at the Stanford research Institute (SRI), and then went to Shell Oil and came back and Peter wrote the first sort of endorsement of nuclear power technology as a sort of bridge across the chasm to get away from fossil fuels. Stewart came to basically believe that the nuclear waste storage problem was not as significant as the greens thought it was, so he shifted ground and shortly after he shifted, he’d written a piece about this and he ended up in a front page article in the New York Times as one of these former anti-nuclear people who had switched their position.
Jim: I thought it was quite interesting. I respect him for that actually, for being willing to be analytical and sensible and again, not resonate with the tribe. As you point out, I’ve always called them the hippies and the mud hut contingent, thinking that’s how we’re going to do it. It ain’t going to happen, people. Stewart knows what he’s talking about in this regard.
I don’t know if I’ve read one of his essays. Unfortunately, I never read the book where he lays all his out. I have to go do that. But he essentially described the transition as an engineering problem. It’s a bit more than that. It’s also a socioeconomic problem, but it’s significantly an engineering problem. As we used to say in business, you can wish in one hand and shit in the other and I’ll tell you which one will fill up first.
Making the transition to carbon neutrality without some base load mechanism like nuclear, it’s going to be damn hard. It’s going to be damn hard even with nuclear. There’s a whole bunch of issues, particularly the low energy on energy return of most of the alternatives. Now, of course, this could all be trumped by techno magic. Maybe fusion will suddenly happen. Maybe, I wouldn’t hold your breath, but it could happen. Or deep hot rock geothermal. I know people working on that type of work.
But if you want to bet on things that we know will work, fission ought to be a significant part of the plan. Though again, if I take the engineering mindset, if they can get the price to work because it’s essentially a race between nuclear and batteries. I happen to know, for odd reasons, a shitload about electrochemistry and battery technology, and it’s going to be a horse race. Battery technology does not improve at the rate of electronics, quite the contrary. It creeps forward. There’s some very promising, interesting new electrochemical technologies that people are working, but it’s the big bottleneck and to just rule nuclear out, that seems to me just absurd in principle, if you actually care about getting to carbon neutrality. I was very happy when I did read the essay that Stewart wrote, I don’t remember where it was, famous essay was in the New Yorker maybe.
John: It might have been an MIT tech review.
Jim: Oh, tech review. That’s where it was. I’m an MIT grad. I get the tech review. I remember that’s why I read it. And I go, holy shit, that goddamn hippie Brand has come out for nuclear power, good.
John: Well, the other thing that you can see, he didn’t really hammer it in his Ecopragmatist Manifesto, but clearly he’s not at this point and wasn’t then a neoliberal. You need a strong government to get there is what he said and that’s why when you try to figure out where to put Stewart politically, the closest person I can politically align him with is Jerry Brown.
Jim: You mentioned that one of the big changes in him was from his Ayn Rand influenced libertarianism, he worked as an advisor to Brown and he saw that government does have some important levers and it indeed does. Without those levers, a lot of things just ain’t going to happen or ain’t going to happen fast. I’m going to get on my soapbox here for a moment. To all you government people out there, and I know some of you are listening because I just know. Carbon tax, motherfuckers. If you would put a carbon tax that starts at $50 a ton and rises to $300 a ton over the next 20 years, rebate it to the consumers per capita. It will change everything, game over. We will solve carbon. Without that, with all these idiot Green New Deal bull craps and this and that. Maybe we’ll get there, but there’s one thing would do it. It’s in your power to do it, but you’re wimps, you’re pussies, you won’t do it. So do that. I suspect Stewart would agree with that.
John: He might well. I’ll ask him.
Jim: I’m going to email him after this and ask him what he thinks about that. But here’s an example of there’s a government lever, a simple one that if they could have the intestinal fortitude to push it forward, would so bring forth entrepreneurial spirit and capital that it would crush this transition to nuclear probably ahead of schedule.
John: Well, there are a lot of things on the horizon. I haven’t given up on fusion yet. I’m continuing to be intrigued. Although everybody says it’s the energy source of the future and always will be, I think I’ve seen a lot of interesting stuff in the last year or two.
Jim: Certainly there’s a lot of interesting things going on in the private sector finally, but it’s a big science problem. I’ve looked at them a little bit more carefully and I still say, okay, a little positive gradient, but still a long ass way to go. There’s all kinds of other problems, material science problems, for instance. The neutron fluxes that come off of fusion reactions are unbelievably dense and degrade material structures very rapidly, so what’s the actual useful life of the containers that you put these things in? Not a small problem. People defer that one until we get to positive energy breakthrough. But if you don’t solve that one, you don’t got a viable nuclear energy industry.
John: There’s a Japanese company that has an interesting approach to that question. I just spoke with them, so there’s some interesting stuff there too.
Jim: That’s very interesting. Stewart, for my money, is right on the number, which is to be a pragmatist and have an engineering mindset. Does it pencil out? Does it pencil out? Does your roadmap to zero carbon before we melt the planet, does it work? Can you make it happen?
My other pet peeves, I was a Bernie supporter in 2016. I actually worked for the Bernie campaign in 2016 and we carried our two counties, god damn it, in the primary against the Hillary landslide in the state of Virginia. But in 2020, I had to drop the guy like a hot potato when he put in his platform, just utter stupidity. I went, does something like this even have advisors? Right in his platform he said… You’ll love this as someone who obviously knows about these things, I promise that by 2030, that’s three zero, not six zero, we will achieve 100% renewables in the transportation and the electricity generation sector. I then talked to one of my experts and said maybe if he was Stalin and my expert said, nope, Stalin couldn’t have done it. The only one that could do it is Pol Pot. Kill off a third of the population and cut the per capita GDP by 80% for the rest of them.
John: I wish it were true. That would be great.
Jim: My point is that this stuff has to pencil out. When you read something like that, it’s just ludicrous on its face if you know anything about it. Stewart’s been a very important voice in saying this is an engineering problem. It’s a real problem, engineering, economic, political social problem, but it has to work and wishful thinking ain’t going to do it. I really respect him again, stepping away from his tribal resonances and not caring that some people he cares about denounced him and saying what’s right. A damn good thing, classic Stewart Brand. Well, we’re getting late in the story here. There are so many things we could talk about. Let’s talk briefly about, to my mind, it’s kind of a surprising turn in his later career, which was the Global Business Network.
John: Yeah, it’s interesting. Peter Schwartz decided to leave Shell, decided to come back to America, set up a business consulting firm called the Global Business Network, which was based on these ideas of scenario planning that Schwartz had been involved with at Shell and originally at SRI. This was actually good and bad for Stewart, I feel.
Stewart never really took a full-time gig there. He became the curator of their book club and he would provide two books every month to their members. He was sort of trotted out as sort of a grand old man figure for them, but he never took a line job as a consultant at GBN and it gave him the freedom to work on his book on architecture, How Buildings Learn, the book of which he’s most proud. Then it also gave him a 401k for the first time. It gave him some financial security. But there is that line on the back page of the last Whole Earth Catalog, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” He wasn’t quite as hungry during that period. He had a more comfortable situation. He was happily remarried to Ryan Fallon. He was sort of in midlife and GBN was sort of a departure from many of the things he’d done over a long period of time.
Jim: I got to know Peter Schwartz when he was on the board of the Santa Fe Institute when I was on the board there. He was an interesting character and particularly he wrote a very famous work called The Art of the Long View.
John: The Art of the Long View, yeah particularly bad timing. They had this notion about the long boom that was published just at the moment of the .com crash and that actually affected the fortunes of GBN. The Global Business Network rose and fell with the .com era and it fell into the arms of another consulting firm and was absorbed. Peter, now he’s at Salesforce. He’s sort of a strategist there, so he landed well.
Jim: Anyway, let’s go to the last section then we’ll exit after a little wrap up, is for quite a while last time I talked to Stewart, chatted with him for about an hour at his office, he’s involved with the Long Now Foundation and this seeming to me, what the hell dream to build this clock that you can run for 10,000 years. Why don’t you tell that story and why do you think he’s interested in this?
John: Well, this was the idea of a friend of Stewart’s, Danny Hillis, pioneer of massively parallel computing, the sort of proto design of the cloud. Danny was an early AI researcher and he became more and more concerned during the .com era that society as a whole was more and more short term in its thinking. He really felt you needed some kind of forcing function to get people to think long term. He came up with this idea of a clock and he sent out this email to a bunch of his friends and he took some reporters like me on long walks to describe this idea. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but Stewart came back to him. He’s the one person who responded positively. This is the early 1990s. He said, if you’re going to build a clock, you need to design a library. Stewart had been thinking about the design of libraries for some time and this sort of resonated.
The two of them started on this idea and kept the idea alive, built an organization. Once again, Stewart likes to create institutions. This was one that he got to design from scratch with Danny. Ultimately, they built some clock prototypes and ultimately Jeff Bezos liked the idea, then the world’s richest man, and he basically footed the bill to build a full scale clock in a mountain on the south end of his spaceport in western Texas in the middle of nowhere. It is almost finished. It will be one of the wonders of the world when it’s finished. It’s really a remarkable structure. It’s been criticized widely by some who feel like it’s a waste of money. Stewart’s held fast to the idea. The Long Now as an organization is a wonderful organization. It has the best bar I would argue in San Francisco. It’s in an international park. I love that idea of a bar in a national park. The Interval, which is next door to Greens. Up until COVID they were having regular talks at Interval. They still have regular events in San Francisco. It’s this nice forum.
Jim: Yeah, I’ve been to that bar. It is right next to Greens out there at Fort Mason. I’ve been in that bar.
John: That’s right.
Jim: They got a good collection of whiskey there, actually.
John: They have these events, they have a robot on the wall, they have a clock model. It’s just a fascinating place. It’s a nice place to hang out, too. Anyway, we’ll see if he’s built an organization that can sustain itself for the 10,000 years it’s going to need to be there to support the clock. That’s a challenge. They’re just going through their sort of first change in leadership now and so it’s an interesting design problem that he spent a lot of time on.
Jim: Yeah, it’s quite interesting. Again, he talked to me about it quite passionately and I said, well it’s sort of interesting, but unlike many other things he did, I could not imagine myself ever deciding to take on that mission, but hey, at that stage of your life, I mean he’s 84 years old, do what you want, dude. Like my dear aunt, when she was 90 something, her daughter tried to cut off her two shots of scotch per night and my brother who lived nearby would every couple of weeks smuggle her in a bottle. Our family view was Aunt Ruth’s 90 years old, but goddamn it if she wants two shots of scotch, let her have two shots of scotch, man. It’s my take on the Long Now with respect to Stewart. It’s interesting. Anyway, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’m really glad I read the book. I knew a bit. I knew about Stewart and Whole Earth and The Well, and I knew a little bit about the Long Now, but you filled in so many other amazingly interesting details and what a life, what a life he led.
John: And it’s not over, he’s working on another book. It seems like it might be a boring subject, the history of maintenance and its importance for civilization. He’s hard at work and really enjoying himself.
Jim: That’s cool. The only book of his I read was How Buildings Learn. That was a brilliant book. That was a really good book. One could imagine a book on maintenance and its importance of having that same kind of off-spin that it’s nonetheless quite a great work or it could be boring and it could suck, we’ll see.
John: The first chapter, which is on sailboats racing around the world is quite good. It’s out there for people to look at and read if they want.
Jim: Very cool. I want to thank John Markoff for coming on the Jim Rutt Show and talking about his relatively new book, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand.
John: Thanks, Jim. This was fun.