Wondering where to find the best tools for starting a garden? The best book on Zen? The best way to build a teepee? For the past 15 years The Whole Earth Catalog has been the place to look. Subtitled “Access To Tools,” the Catalog is aimed at what founder Stewart Brand calls “enhancing practicality,” and features straightforward and good-natured critiques of everything from “agricultural tools” to “zomeworks.” Its motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
Since The Last Whole Earth Catalog sold an astonishing 1.6 million copies in 1968, it has been an important tool for self-education and one of the most potent counter-cultural reference points since marijuana. Now, after years of publishing a series of Whole Earth Catalogs and CoEvolution Quarterly magazines, Stewart Brand and crew are embarked on a new project — a Whole Earth Software Catalog of computer goods. An abrupt change of pace? Talking with him it doesn’t seem so — just another set of tools in need of cataloguing.
Brand was university trained as a biologist and served as a photographer in the peacetime Army. His first experience in communications was working to publicize the plight of the American Indians through multi-media events. When the psychedelic days struck, he roamed the country with Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters wrecking havoc on ordinary consciousness. At one point, he spearheaded a campaign asking the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Why don’t we have any pictures of the whole earth taken from a spaceship?” Believing that such pictures would change people’s ideas about life on the planet, he gave out buttons and wrote letters. As a result, he was investigated by the government. The investigative report ended with the question, “Why don’t we have any pictures of the whole earth yet?”
The idea for the Whole Earth Catalog first possessed him on a plane returning to California from his father’s funeral. “I was reading Spaceship Earth by Barbara Ward,” he writes. “Between chapters I gazed out the window into dark nothing, and slid into a reverie about my friends who were starting their own civilizations hither and yon in the sticks, and how could I help. The L.L. Bean Catalog of outdoor stuff came to mind. . . . So many of the problems I could identify came down to a matter of access. Where to buy a windmill? Where to get good info on bee keeping? Where to lay hands on a computer without forfeiting freedom? Amid the fever I was in by this time, I remembered [Buckminster] Fuller’s admonition that you have about ten minutes to act on an idea before it recedes back to dreamland. I started writing on the end papers of Barbara Ward’s book (never did finish reading it).”
He began by investing some of the money he had gotten from his parents in a small quarterly catalog which culminated in 1968 with the Last Whole Earth Catalog (and on the cover, the promised picture of the whole earth). Its unprecedented success prompted him to continue putting out updated editions for the next three years. After that, he decided to end the Catalog and held a demise party for it at which he gave out $20,000 in one hundred dollar bills (most of the money was returned later that evening by friends wanting to support the Catalog). He established the Point Foundation, to dispense with the Catalog’s immense profits. Why kill it off? “Personal burn-out,” Brand answers, “and a diabolical curiosity to see the effects of chopping off a business success at its peak.” The “demise” of the Catalog coincided with a difficult period in Brand’s life — a divorce at the age of 34 and his whole world, falling apart. A year later the Whole Earth Catalog was the controversial winner of the National Book Award.
Brand had been confident that something would come along to fill the niche created by the whole earth philosophy, but that hypothesis proved wrong. The Catalog’s popularity grew as its information became increasingly outdated. In 1974, Brand decided to fill the gap himself and publish an updated Whole Earth Epilog. He founded CoEvolution Quarterly magazine soon after. CoEv carries on the review format of the Catalog, as well as publishing articles on a wide range of subjects. A former CoEv worker, asked to define the content, said, “Whatever Stewart wants to be in it.” [CoEvolution Quarterly, Box 428, Sausalito, California, 94966, $14 a year.]
In 1980, the Catalog returned with a modernized Next Whole Earth Catalog. The style and quality were the same, but some of the emphasis had changed. Computers and space exploration were in; geodesic domes and psychedelics were out.
Now, nurtured by the largest advance ever received for a trade paperback (from Doubleday) the Whole Earth Software Catalog is on its way. What next?
Brand seems to always be working hard, and has a reputation for running a stern ship. He’s a man who, when asked what he does to enjoy himself, finds that “the question doesn’t compute.” We spoke in his office, a quick hour punctuated with phone calls, snatched from an amazingly hectic schedule. He had been up until 4 a.m. the night before meeting a printer’s deadline but today, though slightly sluggish, he was moving full steam ahead.
— Howard Jay Rubin
Sun: How did the birth of the first Whole Earth Catalog come about — the original idea, the obstacles?
Brand: There weren’t any obstacles, except ignorance, I guess. It sprang out of a sense of wanting to do something with the money that my parents had been giving me all along. When my father died I figured I was supposed to use it to do something useful. And the people I wanted to be useful to at that time were starting communes and going back to the land. I knew that they were as woefully ignorant as I was about how to do that. So the notion was to set up an instrument that would both learn how and teach how to do those kinds of things. That was the Whole Earth Catalog.
Sun: So people starting communes were your intended audience. Is that who you actually reached?
Brand: That was the specific set of my buddies that I was directly speaking to, but I had in mind a whole generation that was dissatisfied with college and went looking for something better, and found something better very quickly. I was trying to be useful to that whole bunch, and then it turned out that it was a fairly general service needed by lots of people.
We’re embracing the computer like it was an improvement on L.S.D., which it is. Maybe at last we’ve found a way to expand consciousness.
Sun: One of the courses in your new School of Uncommon Courtesy is about business as service. What does that idea mean to you?
Brand: Through a series of conversations I had with Paul Hawkens and Mike Phillips and other people that we deal with, we noticed that the concept of service keeps a business honest, and the concept of business keeps a service honest. The difference between Paul Hawkens’s tool company — Smith and Hawken’s Tools — and CoEvolution Quarterly is slight. CoEvolution Quarterly is a non-profit public education foundation and Smith and Hawken Tools is a for-profit business. He comes at tool peddling with very much of a service frame of mind, even more than us in some ways. And we come at the service of education from a business frame of mind. I think that’s part of what makes both of our projects successful. If you look around, there are hundreds of small businesses and small and not-so-small services that have this mixed frame of mind. After more than 15 years of doing it, a certain amount of technique, as well as inspiration, comes out of it. We put together a two-day bus tour that goes around and visits a number of those operations and thinks about them.
Sun: You said that combining the two ideas has helped to make for success. What do you mean by success?
Brand: As a business it means we’re still here. It means we were able to perform the initial service of the Whole Earth Catalog — giving access to tools — and then being able to perform the service with CoEvolution Quarterly, a magazine that could print anything we thought was good. We’ll see if the service of the Whole Earth Software Catalog is realized.
Sun: What does co-evolution mean?
Brand: Co-evolution operates as a metaphor for us, but it’s a technical word from population biology coined by Peter Raven and Paul Ehrlich, mainly as a discipline-jumping concept for both of them. Raven is a botanist and Paul is primarily a zoologist, a population bug zoologist. Raven noticed that the plants and grass were spending a lot of their precious energy on making very strange compounds that were of no use to the plants at all, apparently. But when you looked at them in relation to the bugs, they turned out to be chemical warfare, poisons, barrier shields and what-not. And the bugs would respond to this chemical warfare with their own chemical warfare, back and forth. They were evolving in relation to each other, rather than in relation to the climate or the soil. When they looked at it, they realized that most evolution is like that. And metaphorically, I think, most interaction between human sentient beings is that; we’re responding to each other. It’s a game that never holds still. The metaphor has served pretty well for the ten years we’ve been using it — as a metaphor, as a title, as a point of reference.
Sun: How do you, as an editor, strike the balance between what you think people want to read and what you think you need to print?
Brand: Those two are so tangled up, you’d never be able to really dissect them. I’m not a liberal, so I don’t have a strong sense of what would be good for other people; I imagine I might be somewhat of a courteous conservative. So I start with what I think is of real interest to me or to my body of folks — what’s news to us, interesting, true, compellingly presented. If you go through it you come out a little different on the other side. And then the courteous part is seeing if the way it’s presented leaves anybody out, or mortally offends anybody to no benefit. If it mortally offends them to benefit then that’s fine. And if it’s just going to be of interest to a few people, and not even of great interest to them, then it’s a disservice to all the other readers to have something like that squatting in the middle of their living room. That’s pretty much how I strike the balance.
Sun: As an editor you’ve seen countless articles come past your desk. Is there anything that you can pick out as the mark of a good article, or of a good writer?
Brand: I can hear their voice. And as I’m reading it, internally aloud to myself, I stop every once in a while and go “Hmmm!” Maybe I turn to someone else and say, “Listen to this.” It’s news.
Sun: Publishing a nationwide magazine from this particular location in Marin county, how do you avoid the myopia of Northern California, where change and progress are, if not the reality, at least the fashion. How do you keep in touch with the little old lady in Duluth?
Brand: I don’t try. CoEvolution is a regional magazine. We’re the New Yorker of Sausalito. If somebody doesn’t like California, then they’re not going to like our magazine. But lots of people with no particular interest in Arizona read Arizona Highways, and lots of people who think that California is a hot-tub cesspool read Sunset magazine.
Sun: You’ve been working with so many talented and idiosyncratic people at Co-evolution, and before that the Catalog. How do you keep it together, keep everyone from splintering off as often happens?
Brand: Most of them couldn’t get jobs anywhere else (laughs). Far from it. Partly it’s the hourly wage and letting people set their own time. Also, it’s letting people be supervised by product rather than by process, and bearing a lot of lateral responsibility to one another rather than reporting to a closely supervising boss. They stay because they like the product, they like what we do. A lot of them stay because they like each other. And I think that part of the attraction may well be that the product itself, as well as the process, changes. So we’re not locked into doing the same thing year in and year out. We’re not a Reader’s Digest or a Mother Earth News. They’re all perfectly O.K. magazines, but they feel a strong obligation to put out a set product with each issue, and we feel an obligation in the other direction.
Sun: Over the years you’ve given away a lot of responsibility for the magazine to your co-workers, including design and editing. Has this been a ripping process or a shedding?
Brand: It’s always a relief. It usually comes out of a sense that I’m not doing it as well as it should be done, or that I’m just stretched too thin. I keep being rewarded when I pass on responsibilities. I was a prima donna too long.
Sun: What weaned you from that?
Brand: Necessity. Plus the sheer ability of the people around me. Every time someone was given something new to do, or just took it, they’ve done it well. Then they do more and I do less. This is not to say that this movie does not have a director, because it does.
Sun: I appreciate your attempts to make the workings of the magazine more visible than most, by publishing open financial statements, and an office gossip column. What are the backstage stories that still aren’t told?
Brand: What are our dirty little secrets? (laughs)
Sun: Yes, or the clean ones. What doesn’t come across?
Brand: That’s always a difficult balance. What I want to avoid is having a group that is so taken with itself that it goes on and on preciously about every little detail of its existence. That’s the bane of a lot of hippie books, and other people’s books. At the same time I do feel a responsibility to have our process be both friendly and transparent. What isn’t in there is material that would feel uncomfortable to the person who is being gossiped about. Sometimes we press that a little bit, otherwise it wouldn’t be gossip. I suppose one thing that doesn’t get in there are schemes not pursued. We’re always thinking of things that might be attempted and then losing interest, or realizing later that there’s some inherent contradiction in the idea and backing out.
Sun: What are some of the funniest things you can remember?
Brand: Something that keeps amusing me is the Mouse Hotel And Graveyard in the oven. There seems to be no way to keep mice from making their homes in the insulation around the ovens and stoves here. They die in there, and you just can’t be in the same room. Cakes come out unspeakably foul. It seems to be uniquely our problem.
Our dirtiest little secret is that, like everyone else, we’ve not figured out a way to get everyone to wash their own dish. So in the space of a day-and-a-half the sink will fill with everyone’s coffee cups, dirty dishes, crusted spoons. You can never quite identify who doesn’t wash their own, never quite change that behavior, so you hassle people, argue and bitch, put names on things, sigh, and give up. Then whoever hauls off and washes them all rants and raves, ducks their head, feels bad. Nothing changes.
Sun: I’ve seen dishes be the rise and fall of many a communal household.
Brand: To me it’s a sign that we’re a long way from Eden, and world peace, and all that. That was a conversation that Anne Herbert reported in the Catalog. I said that if everyone would wash two dishes then there would be no wars. She said, “Yeah, but they won’t.”
Eternity has been missing from our considerations for a while. Now that’s coming back, not so much in terms of a heavenly eternity, but as a design consideration for life on the planet.
Sun: How about some advice for someone who is starting a magazine that they really love and would like to see survive.
Brand: The only way to find out is to do it. It’s a lot cheaper to start a magazine than they tell you. When I took magazine writing courses at Stanford in the Fifties, they said you needed a minimum of a million dollars to start a magazine. They quoted a similar figure to start a farm. And they say that the minimum figure these days to start a computer software company that will be a major player is five million dollars. I’ve talked to some software company presidents about that and asked them what they thought the amount was, and they said 20 dollars. That’s about what it takes for the right magazine at the right time. It’s finding two things: a service needing an audience that doesn’t know it needs that service. That way you have a whole new niche you can fill without any competition. And you need people who are in love with the subject.
Sun: What magazines do you find worth reading?
Brand: I read the town newspaper, and I write for it. I read the county paper, The Pacific Sun. I read the San Francisco Chronicle and contribute a weekly feature — a Chronicle Whole Earth Catalog. I read the Wall Street Journal for my news: I read Science magazine and New Scientist. I get Manas every week. Sometimes I see Not Man Apart. Info World I’ve got to study every week these days, and I scan some of the other computer magazines.
Sun: Which people do you think of as major influences on your work and thoughts?
Brand: Gregory Bateson.
Sun: What is it about him?
Brand: Both the ideas and the intellectual discipline of the man. He’s an exemplary epistemologist, and philosopher. I’ve spent the last ten years trying to pick up some of his mental habits.
Sun: Such as?
Brand: Looking at relationships instead of things. He forces you to keep looking at the context and not get hypnotized by the content of the situation.
Sun: Does anyone else come up? Buckminster Fuller?
Brand: I haven’t read much of Fuller in years. I’m still consistently amazed by him. Paul Hawken is someone I’ve been learning a lot from. He has a business savvy that I never had, and hadn’t bothered to explore. I’ve always been lazy about that. And the whole business-as-service frame of mind comes from Paul. The enjoyment of the economy, revelling in it, studying what’s going on with it. Reading the Wall Street Journal with glee.
Sun: Have any particular spiritual traditions influenced you?
Brand: Well, I’m in my forties, so I’m secular as all hell. In the past I’ve born relation to Zen Buddhists. I’ve been set on some courses by the Native American Church. I studied Christian mysticism in college, and I’m still, in some ways, more comfortable with that tradition than a lot of these more exotic Pacific Basin ones. But I don’t practice.
Sun: You labeled yourself a courteous conservative. What’s your definition of conservative?
Brand: I’m really interested in continuity and balance. Part of that is wanting the world to stand still long enough to be able to try things. It’s just the biologist in me, the marine biologist, the political biologist, that keeps me conservative.
Sun: Anne Herbert made the joking comment recently that you don’t hire anyone who thinks you’re groovy. How do you deal with people who look at you in a wide-eyed, celebrity fashion?
Brand: I kick them with my clay feet. It’s just a nuisance for us both. It’s like treating a woman as an object. It’s hard to be a woman when somebody’s treating you like a thing. Someone pointed out recently that no one ever treated Katherine Hepburn like an object. You have to develop whatever sass it takes to keep that from happening.
Sun: Do you have any comments about the whole cult of celebrity in our society?
Brand: Well, I understand it from a media standpoint. I use it myself. On the last cover of Co-evolution Quarterly, we had Ken Kesey, Ursula LeGuin, Gary Snyder, and Paul Hawken: That’s quite a pile. And it sold magazines. But they were all really in there, and they were interested in being in each other’s company. I get a little weary of having my name stand for the work of dozens of people — I’m sure not nearly as weary as they get of it. But we all understand the kind of shorthand that’s used in doing that.
Sun: Are you a shy person?
Sun: A shy person can often seem arrogant. Do you get that kind of feedback?
Brand: Oh, sure. Jerry Brown encounters the same thing. Well, it’s true. Part of what we’re doing by being shy is avoiding small-talk situations that bore us witless. Shy is the easy out, saying, “Oh, I’ll just sit here in the corner and read this interesting book.” Jerry Brown comes into a room, finds the books, and sits down. I do the same thing, to the despair of our polite friends. That’s arrogance, no doubt about it.
Sun: You have had a good amount of experience working within the local political structure. . . .
Brand: No, I’ve just been around its edges throwing darts.
Sun: Does the political system seem an effective avenue for change, or is it just frustrating?
Brand: Local politics is the opposite of frustrating, because a few people can make a big difference in a relatively short time just by being of like mind. And the difference that you make is not something that happens at an abstract distance, but something close and specific. And it can last, if you want to stick with it.
Sun: Any examples from your experience?
Brand: I’ve been party to the third generation of waterfront saving in Sausalito, against seemingly large odds because it hasn’t happened in other places. Usually the property values just go up and that’s it for the waterfront. And here, through hook, crook, political sophistication, and sheer obstinacy, that hasn’t happened.
Sun: What do you see as the most effective means of bringing about change?
Brand: Through the media. One of the most effective things that we did was start a little Sausalito land trust and have waterfront representers at all the city council meetings. Starting a column in the local paper called The Sausalito City Council Review, remarking after every meeting how the city council was doing its business. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance; that column was the structure of eternal vigilance.
Sun: I read in today’s paper that Jerry Brown is heading a national commission on industrial and computer growth and technology. You’ve been an ardent supporter of his. Have your views changed any? Is Jerry Brown still a great white hope?
Brand: He’s been a great white hope all along. He hasn’t greyed any. He’s done an enormous amount for California. His commission is one that he started on a state level where it did very well. It’s basically what he’s been doing since he lost his bid to become senator. Obviously I’m in complete harmony with the effort. I’m involved in something similar myself.
Sun: Who else do you turn to in politics now?
Brand: Alice Rogers, on the city council. I turn to her a lot. There are many people I become interested in on the local scene, but I’m not very interested in national politics.
Sun: So even if Jerry Brown were president, Stewart Brand wouldn’t accept a cabinet post?
Brand: That’s dubious. I’m not cut out for that kind of work, that toilet seat position. It’s always a buzz. If I was invited to be around some I would. I’ve been in the White House, and did photography at the Department of the Interior and the Pentagon during the Kennedy presidency and part of the Johnson presidency. It’s fun. It’s terribly consequential and worth the effort, but unless I have some kind of privileged access like that, I don’t pay very much attention to it.
Sun: Your name is associated with the Merry Pranksters and the psychedelic Sixties. Beneath all the fads and fashions, what do you think is the enduring message of the Sixties?
Brand: Everything except dope and revolution . . . and some of sex. I can’t think of any generation that has kept its premises so operational and intact. What Peter Drucker claims — in a sort of capsule biography of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan and his own life called Adventures of a Bystander — is that everyone thought that the Sixties was about this generation that rejected technology, when actually the Sixties generation was about the embracing of technology. We were the first ones to pay attention to Bucky Fuller and to Marshall McLuhan. Both of them had been howling in the wilderness for decades, and while people were being amazed by their intellects, they were despairing of ever getting an audience. We were their audience because we were in the process of taking technology seriously. That’s why we’re embracing the computer like it was an improvement on L.S.D., which it is. Maybe at last we’ve found a way to expand consciousness.
Sun: And now a Whole Earth computer software catalog?
Brand: Yes, I’m always looking for a place where I can get on a vertical learning curve. This is definitely one of those. I’ve worked with computers on and off for years. We’re just wading into it and trying to perform a service in the middle of an exploding medium. It’s both impossible and great fun.
Sun: Give me, as one who hasn’t quite made his peace with computers, an introduction to them.
Brand: It’s tough, because there’s a real schism, like the old dope schism, between folks who think that it’s the hope of the universe, and folks who think that it’s the scourge of mankind. There are a lot of arguments on both sides.
Sun: What do you think it is?
Brand: More in the direction of hope. I guess it’s part and parcel of my enthusiasm about space technology. I find it completely compatible with ecological concerns, and the overall good. The kind of program you can now get on personal computers has been called “augmented human intellect.” It might better be called augmented human intelligence. They can be tools to feed intelligence.
Sun: Why do you think there’s so much fear of computers?
Brand: Because it is profound. Ivan Illich has said he’s realized that computers are deeply new. Flying was not that new, telephones were not that new, industrialization was not that new, cars were not that new. But computers are really new, so we have no immunity to their virulence. Here I am coining money on their virulence.
Sun: Besides computers, what do you see as the important tools for change right now? What trends do you see as being on the cutting edge?
Brand: Local politics has been getting better for fifteen years. It’s where all the activists went. That, over decades, can make a real impact on the texture and strength of the fabric of society. Computers may become consequential. I think that space will become consequential by the end of the century. It has been consequential already in giving us an expanded view — it’s not just ourselves or our tribe. Science fiction books are now on the best-seller list. They didn’t used to be there. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we really are sticking our toe into space. Then, of course, there’s the working out of the nuclear dilemma in one way or another over the next generation, where the consequences are quite great.
Sun: So, do you have any gut feeling about what the future is going to bring?
Brand: No. The future’s on its own. Well, that’s a cheap answer. I do think that we’re extending the range of future that we’re willing to take responsibility for. The Now Generation was worthless in that respect. You know, “Now, man.” Now we’re starting to think about the long-term history of continents forward and back. Eternity has been missing from our considerations for a while. Now that’s coming back, not so much in terms of a heavenly eternity, but as a design consideration for life on the planet. Instead of designing for a four-year business cycle, we design for the possibility of perpetuity — like making the portion of the wilderness we protect big enough to make sense for perpetuity. That’s positively medieval.