John MarkoffMay 24, 2022
The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
Stewart Brand has long been famous if you know who he is, but for many people outside the counterculture, early computing, or the environmental movement, he is perhaps best known for his famous mantra "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." Steve Jobs's endorsement of these words as his code to live by is fitting; Brand has played many roles, but one of the most important is as a model for how to live.
In Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand (Penguin, 2022), the contradictions are striking: A blond-haired WASP with a modest family inheritance, Brand went to Exeter and Stanford and was an army veteran, but in California in the 1960s he became an artist and a photographer in the thick of the LSD revolution. While tripping on acid on the roof of his building, he envisioned how valuable it would be for humans to see a photograph of the planet they shared from space, an image that in the end landed on the cover of his Whole Earth Catalog, the defining publication of the counterculture. He married a Native American woman and was committed to protecting indigenous culture, which connected to a broader environmentalist mission that has been a throughline of his life. At the same time, he has outraged purists because of his pragmatic embrace of useful technologies, including nuclear power, in the fight against climate change. The famous tagline promise of his catalog was "Access to Tools"; with rare exceptions, he rejected politics for a focus on direct power. It was no wonder, then, that he was early to the promise of the computer revolution and helped define it for the wider world.
John Markoff was one of a team of New York Times reporters who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. He has covered Silicon Valley since 1977, wrote the first account of the World Wide Web in 1993, and broke the story of Google's self-driving car in 2010.
Caleb Zakarin is the Assistant Editor of the New Books Network (Twitter: @caleb_zakarin).