This column is about a man who changed the world, at least twice. I want to focus less on the impact of his work, which is all around us, and more on how he did it, because he's a model of how you do social change. Stewart Brand was born in Rockford ...
But Brand and others imagined them launching a consciousness revolution — personal tools to build neural communities that would blow the minds of mainstream America. As Fred Turner says in “From Counterculture to Cyberculture,” “What the communes failed to accomplish, the computers would complete.”
Brand played cultural craftsman once again, this time first as a celebratory journalist. In 1972 he wrote a piece for Rolling Stone announcing the emergence of a new outlaw hacker culture. The hackers were another magic circle on the cutting edge of the future, a circle Brand would publicize and inspire others to join.
As my Times colleague John Markoff, who is writing a biography of Brand, notes, Brand is a talented community architect. In the 1970s, he was meshing Menlo Park computer geeks with cool hippie types. The tech people were entranced by “Whole Earth,” including Steve Jobs and Frederick Moore, co-creator of the celebrated Homebrew Computer Club.
Brand meshed the engineers with the Merry Pranksters and helped give tech a moral ethos, a group identity, a sense of itself as a transformational force for good.
In 1985, Brand and Larry Brilliant helped create the Well, an early online platform (like Usenet) where techies could meet and share. He helped Kevin Kelly organize hacker conferences, which attracted media attention. As Silicon Valley became more corporate in the 1980s and 1990s, he also helped form the Learning Conferences, Worldview Meetings, the Global Business Net and other convenings that gathered the multidisciplinary theorists and journalists who would define the wired culture: Kelly, Esther Dyson, Tim Berners-Lee and Nicholas Negroponte.
Brand’s gift, Frank Foer writes in “World Without Mind,” is “to channel the spiritual longings of his generation and then to explain how they could be fulfilled through technology.” Innovations don’t just proceed by science alone; as Foer continues, “the culture prods them into existence.”
Turner argues that Brand has always craved a sensation of wholeness, a feeling of belonging and authenticity. He has found communities that gave him that sensation and has encouraged millions to love what he has loved. He synthesized a cultural ethos, and then tried to embody and spread that ethos through festivals, conferences and organizations.
Brand vehemently disagrees with me, but I’d say that, more recently, the computer has also failed as a source of true community. Social media seems to immiserate people as much as it bonds them. And so there’s a need for future Brands, young cultural craftsmen who identify those who are building the future, synthesizing their work into a common ethos and bringing them together in a way that satisfies the eternal desire for community and wholeness.
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