inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #0 of 139: Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sat 21 Jan 23 15:30
    
Our next conversation will be with John Markoff, author of "whole
Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #1 of 139: Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sat 21 Jan 23 15:36
    
John Markoff has written about technology and science since the late
1970s. He grew up in what would become Silicon Valley and worked for
The New York Times from 1988 until 2017. Before that he wrote for
Infoworld, Byte Magazine, and the San Francisco Examiner. He began
using the WELL when it opened its doors in 1985 and in 1994 he
watched as computer security researcher Tsutomu Shimomura tracked
Kevin Mitnick’s misuse of the WELL. In 2022 he published The Whole
Earth: The Many Lives Of Stewart Brand.

John will be interviewed by Howard Rheingold, who joined the WELL in
1985, 5 months after it started. He wrote an article on “Virtual
Communities” for the Winter 1987 Whole Earth review, was recruited
by Kevin Kelly to replace him as editor of Whole Earth Review in
1991. He published the book “The Virtual Community” in 1992, and was
editor of Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, 1994. More complete bio at
<http://patreon.com/howardrheingold> and
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Rheingold>.

We are so happy to have these two Wellpern join us for this
conversation.

Welcome John and Howard.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #2 of 139: Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sat 21 Jan 23 15:37
    
A few questions to get us started:

1.  What are your favorite outtakes? The parts of the book that
weren’t published because of length, but which avid readers of the
book would appreciate?

2. What does Brand consider to be his proudest/favorite/most
influential/
most significant  venture? (whatever superlative you want).
(suggested by arturner@well)

3. Stewart's work was both influential in its own right and an
advance signal of the zeitgeist that would take hold. How did he
feel about how these ideas were picked up and developed? Was he
frustrated? Excited? Proud? Dismayed? Some mix of the above?
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #3 of 139: John Markoff (johnm) Mon 23 Jan 23 10:47
    
Thanks for inviting me. The WELL was an early online home of mine,
and so it is very nice to be back. 

Here are answers to Howard's first three questions:

1. I think I wrote about 190,000 words, of which something like
130,000 made it into the published version the biography. There were
many anecdotes and nice details that went over the side during the
editing process. A number of them dealt with Stewart's adventures
during the 1960s and 1970s, when he was single. One that I was sad
to see go was an account of a weekend spent double-dating with an
army buddy while Stewart was briefly based in Washington D.C. as a
Pentagon photographer. In the Virginia countryside for the weekend,
Stewart's date had gone home and so he found himself in a motel in a
room adjacent to his friend (who was in Army Intelligence) and his
friend's date. Stewart retired to his room for the evening. After
about 15 minutes his friend's date told his friend she would really
rather spend the evening with Stewart, and so you came next door for
the remainder of the night. Eventually he was able to patch things
up with his Army friend, but the relationship with his late night
visitor did not survive. 
I wrote at length about his family’s history and most of that
vanished. I also had many stories from his childhood in Rockford
that didn’t make it.  I also regret not including the story of
Stewart’s involvement in Walt Disney’s lawsuit in response to the
Dan O’Neil’ Mouse Liberation Front.

2. Of Stewart’s books, he is proudest of How Buildings Learn: What
Happens After They’re Built. From the perspective of a biographer it
is a great example of Stewart zigging when every one else zagged.
Published in 1995 at the onset of the dot-com era, Stewart had
flirted with the idea of writing a book exploring the new world of
digital information. His friend Danny Hillis argued that in writing
about the worlds of “high road” and “low road” architecture, he
would go somewhere that others weren’t pursuing. It is a book that
has stood the test of time well and it led to his theoretical work
on “pace layers,” an important framework for understand historical
change.

3. Stewart takes a great deal of pride in his impact upon the world.
He sees himself as an instigator and an intellectual explorer and
during the 1960s and 1970s he was able to follow his curiosity in
wide range of directions. (When Brian Arthur once asked him what he
did, Stewart replied, “I find things and I found things.”) He was
repeatedly early to discover trends and technologies, ranging from
American Indian culture (which was in the process of being
assimilated), to psychedelics, to personal computing (he was the
first journalist to use the term), to the impact of computer
networks (his 1972 “SpaceWar” Rolling Stone was the first
inclination a young generation (including myself) had that hackers,
personal computers, and networks were on the horizon.) A couple of
examples that are interesting: I was at the 1984 Hackers conference
where Stewart is reputed to have said “information wants to be
free,” in a comment in response to a point that Steve Wozniak was
making.  That’s not what he said. He actually said (I’m
paraphrasing) “Information wants to be very expensive, and
information wants to be free.” He was channeling his mentor Gregory
Bateson, who is famous in part for the idea of the paradoxical
“double bind” -- you lose even when you win. The dot-com era picked
up half of his phrase and ignored the second part. Stewart never
pushed back on this misconception, but it would have saved us all a
great deal of agony if we had listened more carefully. He has been
frustrated by the refusal of parts of the environmental movement --
which he played a role in creating -- to follow in his shift on the
value of nuclear power. He has stood his ground, but it ended a
number of close friendships including his association with Amory
Lovins. 
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #4 of 139: Tom Howard (tom) Tue 24 Jan 23 03:17
    
John, welcome (back) to the Well and thanks for coming here to
discuss your book. I thoroughly enjoyed learning so much about
Stewart. (Thanks also to Julie and Howard.)

I joined the Well in 1997 (and am on just about every day), but
missed an awful lot of excitement, heh, in those first dozen years.
I'm more than happy to stay for the regular ole discussions with
some relatively bright people. I very much wanted to read about the
beginning of the Well, with Stewart, on top of his life and works
surrounding that one wonderful thing for me, the Well.

By the bye, I just listened to the discussion with you and Stewart
and Alexander Rose on the Long Now podcast (27 Apr 2022). The
podcast is a delight and a real delight to listen to Stewart. His
vibrancy and excitement with/for life comes through so dramatically.


Now. A question! How much time did you spend with Stewart before
this project and how much time during the project? (I envy you.)
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #5 of 139: Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Tue 24 Jan 23 06:26
    
John, thank you so much for doing this. I wonder if you could
discuss Stewart as a sort of techno-utopian. Is that a fair
description of him? As your book notes, he foresaw some real
problems (with social media, for example) that later come to pass.
But if memory serves, he kept those predictions private. 

I ask in part because I've been reading a lot of Theodore Roszak
since we last spoke. Roszak was more of a techno-skeptic, and in
"From Satori to Silicon Valley" (1986), he wondered about Stewart
and the Whole Earth Catalog. Unlike Stewart, Roszak considered
Buckminster Fuller a crackpot. (He called him a "sociological
illiterate" and compared him to P.T. Barnum.) Some of Roszak's dire
predictions about tech also came true, but he made them publicly. 

Stewart obviously wasn't a crackpot, huckster, or sociological
illiterate, but one of the things I got from your book was his
libertarian streak, especially early on, and his belief that
Fuller's focus on new tools was much more promising than trying to
address intractable social and political problems. As you show, he
wasn't much concerned about dramatic concentrations of wealth and
power, including in the tech sector. When he finally did come around
to the importance of political activism, especially around climate
change, it seems like he had to shed some of his libertarian
baggage. 
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #6 of 139: John Markoff (johnm) Tue 24 Jan 23 09:06
    
I was aware of Stewart, the Catalog and the Truck Store in college
and I went into the Truck Store a couple of times, but I didn't
actually see Stewart (I didn't meet him then) until I was at
InfoWorld and I was at my first or second COMDEX. I went to an
industry party on the Las Vegas strip hosted by Epson, the printer
company. I had been a starving freelancer writing for alternative
publications like Mother Jones, The Nation and Pacific News Service.
Now I was standing in front of the largest bowl of cooked shrimp I’d
ever seen and I looked up and Stewart was standing on the other
side. (John Brockman had recently talked him into launching the
Whole Earth Software Catalog, which would be one of his most
significant failures). I thought, “oh, I get it.” The PC industry
was becoming what John Doerr would describe as the largest legal
accumulation of wealth in history and a lot of people who had been
on the edge were being sucked in to the industry.
I began the biography after Kevin Kelly called me and suggested the
project. I had been thinking about leaving the Times and this was a
good opportunity. I moved to Palo Alto, because he had donated his
letters and journals to the Stanford Library and I spent a year and
a half or so in the reading room. We got into a rhythm where I would
should up one morning a week for more than a year to discuss what I
had read and that was the spine of my research. I think Stewart
enjoyed these visits (there were more than 70, all recorded).
Previously I had written all my books in very compact timeframes
because I had to get back to my day job. This one was open ended and
I was not very efficient. In any case they were unstructured and
often we were going over material he had long since forgotten. I was
super lucky he was a pack rat. He had thrown everything into a
shipping container on Gate 5 road until the Stanford librarians
arrived.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #7 of 139: redraw Gantt charts in his head (nanlev) Tue 24 Jan 23 09:22
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inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #8 of 139: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 24 Jan 23 09:25
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inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #9 of 139: WELL Conferencing Team (confteam) Tue 24 Jan 23 09:39
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inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #10 of 139: John Markoff (johnm) Tue 24 Jan 23 09:40
    
Apologies I’m still learning the Well’s interface. The past post was
a response to Tom and this one is a response to Peter. (is there a
simple way to append an answer directly?)

In any case I think Stewart would quarrel with the “utopian” label.
He sees himself as a pragmatist and so I think he could live more
comfortably as a “techno-optimist.”  But whatever, I think the
question is still at the very heart of a lot of the debate that
surrounds Silicon Valley today. When I began my research in 2017,
after Trump’s election, two books were published that framed the
shift in the zeitgeist: the nation had gone from believing the
Valley could do no wrong, to seeing it as being able to do no right,
almost overnight. In 2017 two books were published that were
emblematic of this view of the world: Franklin Feuer’s World Without
Mind and Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things. I was
dumbfounded that both books began with short biographical
descriptions of Stewart as the Valley’s original techno-utopian. For
a lot of reasons that I’ve gone into both in the biography and
elsewhere, I see this as 180 degrees wrong (which I will get to in a
minute). However, 
I also want to distinguish between the two writers. Feuer was just
pissed off that Chris Hughes had purchased the New Republic and was
looking to get even. Taplin had a more nuanced argument: he
distinguished between those he believed were the original
techno-utopians (Stewart et al) and the Paypal Mafia, who emerged
from Stanford in the run-up to the dot-com era. He described them as
“techno-libertarians.” I think that is closer to what has happened
ideologically in the Valley. (Although it is important to reject any
monolithic ideological interpretation of Silicon Valley (Adrian
Daub’s recent What Tech Calls Thinking, is an example of an
ahistorical analysis).
What both books missed, I believe, is the causal arrow actually runs
the opposite direction. I see the Whole Earth Catalog as an
outgrowth of the forces that Stewart spotted first that were
bubbling on the mid-peninsula in the late 1960s. (Silicon Valley was
named in 1971). I found what I called his “lost notebook,” in which
he decides not to go back to the land like all of his friends in
1967, but to instead settle in Menlo Park in what would become
Silicon Valley at just the right moment. He wrote in his journal;
“I’m moving to Menlo Park to let my technology happen here.”  How
the hell did he know to be at the right place at that precise
moment? He couldn’t explain, and I can’t either, but his timing was
impeccable. The Catalog grew out of that and it was one of the first
expressions of a pro-technology viewpoint that was emerging in
tandem with the microelectronics industry. 
Back to Stewart, I agree with Peter’s perspective. Stewart as
relatively pure libertarian in the Sixties -- although specifically
in the context of personal freedom -- If you read the introduction
to the Catalog, that pours through. Although he had already broken
from an infatuation with Ayn Rand at that point, he never had an
interest in classic entrepreneurship as in “let’s do x to make
money.” That wasn’t Stewart. The larger shift in his worldview
happened when he joined Jerry Brown’s first administration for a
year. He came away from his time with two shifts in perspective.
First was his break from the “small is beautiful” view of
alternative environmental technologies and second was his new
understanding that government could be powerful force for good in
the world.  That is visible most clearly in his 2007 book An
Ecopragmatist Manifesto. He doesn’t pound on the table about this
but you can see his climate argument is being made within the
context of the necessity of international governmental structures.
Stewart’s current view on how to assess and control new technologies
can be summed up in the way his wife Ryan Phelan has redefined the
“unintended consequences” worldview of many of technology critics
with the perspective of “intended consequences” -- which of course
is a riff on Stewart’s original “We are as Gods and might as well
get good at it.”
&#8232; 
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #11 of 139: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 24 Jan 23 11:39
    
Do you have more to say than you said in the book about Stewart's
time as an advisor to Jerry Brown?
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #12 of 139: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 24 Jan 23 12:05
    
This is something of a personal question: Did Stewart every say
anything about the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog? He never said
anything to me. I never told him that the reason we went ahead with
the Harper contract, despite our accountant telling us we would lose
money in the long run, is that Richard Nilsen, our editor who taught
all of us about editing, had AIDS and would run out of health
insurance when Whole Earth went out of business.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #13 of 139: Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Tue 24 Jan 23 13:10
    
> (is there a simple way to append an answer directly?)

No. The Well's interfaces are completely serial. You can make a back
link to Peter's post by its number: <5>
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #14 of 139: Administrivia (jonl) Tue 24 Jan 23 14:24
    
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inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #15 of 139: John Markoff (johnm) Tue 24 Jan 23 15:17
    
Answers to <11> and <12>

There is LOTS more there (about his time working for Jerry Brown).
Stuff about the San Francisco Zen scene where Stewart met Brown
initially. There was a lunch scene that Richard Baker Roshi held
that I think was dubbed the “invisible university.”  It was one of
those wonderful moments that San Francisco has. (had?) I probably
should have written more about the California Water Atlas, which
Stewart was deeply involved in and is probably his most significant
legacy from the first Brown Administration.

I actually didn’t speak with Stewart about the Millenium Whole Earth
Catalog version. I pretty much did not go down various paths after
he departed from them focus-wise.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #16 of 139: E. Sweeney (sweeney) Tue 24 Jan 23 15:53
    
I would be very interested in anything else on the SF Zen connection
- I had no idea there was a Richard Baker tie-in.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #17 of 139: Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 24 Jan 23 16:00
    
wrt #9, um dont see a link to thie conversation. the live link is to
state of the world; and the featured inkwell convo is from aug.

am sure everyone is swamped but...
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #18 of 139: John Markoff (johnm) Tue 24 Jan 23 16:12
    
<16> There is a passage in the biography about Stewart’s role in the
Baker Rossi scandal. Both Stewart and Ryan Phelan, were very close
to Richard Baker and they were married at Green Gulch. Stewart did
not make it very far in Zen practice. He found meditating boring.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #19 of 139: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 24 Jan 23 16:54
    
What were you most surprised to learn about Stewart, John?
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #20 of 139: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 24 Jan 23 16:55
    
Tom Valovic <tvacorn> asks:

“It seems clear that Brand was a bit of a polymath delving into many
different areas and acting as a catalyst to a wide array of new and
interesting developments. But one struggles to find a clear and
consistent narrative that ties together all of these various
initiatives and to summarize the narrative arc of his life’s
purpose. One that springs to mind is the notion that much or even
most of his work has been to further the cause of what we now know
as transhumanism. Curiously, however, Markoff does not mention this
at all and the word itself is not even found in the index. Why is
there scant mention of it in the book? And <in Markoff’s view> is
Brand a quintessential transhumanist and/or a strong supporter? Why
or why not?”
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #21 of 139: John Markoff (johnm) Tue 24 Jan 23 20:54
    
Stewart reads a lot of science fiction, but if you are to call his
orientation “Transhumanist” it would have to be with a very small t.
I think technology optimist is a much better framework for Brand’s
thought. Of course he was influenced by Fuller and Engelbart early
on and them more deeply by Bateson, but if I was to look for a
throughline in Brand’s through it would have to be the Outdoor Life
Pledge, which he took as a child and can still recite from memory:
“I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend
from waste the natural resources of my country—its soil and
minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife.”
Even Revive & Restore, which has been a recent passion is at most
Transhumanist adjacent, but with respect to other species.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #22 of 139: John Markoff (johnm) Tue 24 Jan 23 20:57
    
<19> I think what surprised me most I think is his diet. We would
frequently get lunch on Gate 5 Road and he would allows get a
cheeseburger with quack mole fries and a shake. He’s really into
soft drinks. When we travelled he frequently ate steak. At the same
time he never ate more than half of anything he ordered. But I’m a
pretty nuts and granola kind of guy, which I kind of thought was
closer to a Whole Earth Catalog style diet!
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #23 of 139: Tom Howard (tom) Wed 25 Jan 23 00:01
    
John, thanks again for this. Hope it's not too much like work.

About those 70 recorded visits with Stewart. Are they at all decent
quality? I think this podcast thing is going to take off (haha) --
might it be at all possible for you to package them up, with
commentary, or something? As I was trying to say about the Long Now
podcast, it's a delight to listen to Stewart.
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #24 of 139: Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Wed 25 Jan 23 05:52
    
In response to 20: Another clear and consistent narrative theme or
through line that John identifies is the idea of planetary
consciousness. Not so different from the Outdoor Life Pledge, but
not limited to America and its resources.     
  
inkwell.vue.524 : John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand, with Howard Rheingold
permalink #25 of 139: Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Wed 25 Jan 23 06:45
    
20:Thanks for that John. I think there are a number of commentators
out there who have noted that the “We are as gods” mantra
essentially echoes the core belief systems of the transhumanist
movement. Brand's powerful belief in the value of genetic
engineering of course is foundational to transhumanism. And his
interest in terraforming and the re-generation of extinct animals
also point heavily in that direction which is to say seizing the
foundational controls of life itself via synthetic biology and then
shaping it “as gods”. His confluence of thought with Kevin Kelly is
also telling. Kelly's book "Out of Control" is essentially a
Transhumanist bible.
  

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