Stewart Brand interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba
Stewart Brand is a self-proclaimed spokesperson for the advancement of civilization through technology. In his highly influential 1968 publication, Whole Earth Catalog, the popularized the Do-It-Yourself approach to exchanging knowledge by promoting open source information and tools. Often cited as an early prototype for the internet, the WEC and the resulting Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) captured the spirit of the ‘start-up’ business already burgeoning in countercultural spheres. Seemingly immune to the divisions between the mainstream and fringe, Brand runs in countercultural, governmental and business circles, applying entrepreneurialism in the name of what he refers to as ‘ecopragmatism’: whatever works for the Earth, right now. As a result of this pragmatic view, many of his opinions conflict with conventional definitions of sustainability; for example, in his most recent book, Whole Earth Discipline (Viking Penguin, 2009), he argues for the use of nuclear
Jeffrey Inaba: Looking back in time is one way to inform decisions that are made in the present. First of all, do you think it’s worth examining the past to address contemporary concerns? And secondly, do you think those who were active in the 60s counterculture were aware of historical precedents?
JI: In hindsight, what’s your assessment of 60s counterculture?
SB: Counterculture as a construct was a little strange to me at the time, and it’s even stranger to me now. Free love went very badly. The drugs pretty much dead-ended. The Bucky Fuller domes leaked. The Communes failed. The music was good and the computer stuff was good.
JI: It’s argued that certain aspects of the counterculture found their way into current mainstream culture. Do you think there are counterculture-like activities today that operate as alternative communities?
SB: Probably the most visible and influential continuation of counterculture is Burning Man. It has all sorts of remarkable qualities, one of which continues the premise of Ken Kesey’s acid tests: put together a bunch of creative people and a minimum of rules, and everybody generates as nifty a party as they possibly can.
JI: Earlier you mentioned Buckminster Fuller. Certainly he is well remembered for the geodesic dome. What do you think of his lesser-known idea of 'ephemeralization' (i.e., that advances in technology will enable us to do more with progressively less, and that our quality of life will continue to improve while requiring fewer resource allocations)?
SB: Ephemeralization is an idea that has gone unnoticed lately but boy is it playing out more than any of Fuller's other pronouncements. It has become the norm, and people have forgotten that it was Bucky who said it. Doing more with less is so embedded to the point that many things, such as software, are nearly invisible.
JI: Many would say that in comparison to other countercultural figures, you've prioritized entrepreneurial activity over politics. Some would even say that, with regard to the political discourse of the time, you 'sold out'. How would you respond to that?
SB: I never bought in! I had friends like Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman1, but they would never have expected me to show up at a rally! The less ideological things are, typically the better they go.
JI: So unlike the New Left, you saw business as a way to take action?
SB: One countercultural value that seems to have continued is a certain kind of honesty. People in business were the first to acknowledge and honor hippies because they found through doing business with them that they were honest. Hippies then became business people themselves. A lot of entrepreneurial zeal and zest and creativity came out of that period and carries on to this day.
JI: From the Whole Earth Catalog, to the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, to the Global Business Network and now with some of the policies you advocate in Whole Earth Discipline, you’ve pursued contradictory agendas that have been sympathetic to counterculture at times and to big business at others. Do you see yourself as an intermediary between these disparate realms?
SB: I leave the interpretation of my role to others. I just do one thing after another and I’m not sure they’re all consistent – I simply look for something that will easily work. My client is civilization and my approach is that of a hacker: to figure out the shortcuts that make things happen.
JI: One of the operative countercultural antinomies was man versus nature. The environmental effects of the military-industrial complex were said to threaten the survival of Mother Earth. The idea that civilization jeopardizes the health of the environment is now stronger than ever with today’s critical factors being population growth and climate change, as you mention in Whole Earth Discipline. Your book assumes that the only resolution to this adversarial relationship is the informed use of new technology, but some would contest that this rhetoric is self-perpetuating. Can you explain your faith in technology? What’s to say that just as the use of old technologies now threaten Earth, the use of new ones won’t do the same in the future?
SB: I don’t think we have a choice of whether or not to look into new technologies. I agree with Kevin Kelly that technology has its own life and momentum. But it’s still a human decision to choose to take one path over another. I encourage the vigilance principle: keep an eye on everything, especially something new. You want to look at new technologies early, follow them and respond accordingly. If you do that you can stay ahead of the game in most cases. So it’s not like all technologies are good, but some emerge that can undo the deleterious effects of a previous one; venture capitalist Vinod Khosla makes the point that you can try to change the laws to have cleaner energy, but it’s just much more effective to invent a new technology. [Laughs]
JI: The back-to-the-landers reacted against mainstream patterns of urbanization by attempting to live in a more natural environment. For them, the Whole Earth Catalog offered an informational toolkit of new technologies for living off the land. Does Whole Earth Discipline have a different message by calling for a direct technological intervention? It’s about changing the natural world, not adapting to it. For example, it advocates the use of genetically modified organisms.
SB: The back-to-the-landers were mostly terrible gardeners. So the idea that they were going to live off the land didn’t last very long. Organic is good, not for the reasons they thought it was and for which people pay extra today. It’s because organic really does reduce pesticides. But it will be a lot better when they can use better seeds, engineered seeds. Monsanto has just come out with a soybean that will allow us to get omega-3 fatty acids without killing fish. And of engineered seeds today, about 90% are used on small, 3-5 acre farms throughout the developing world. I see those as benefits.
JI: So you’re suggesting that while GMOs are developed by and for corporations, they ought to be accessible to many?
SB: I just read a story about Bt Cotton being tested by Monsanto in India. They kept losing their plants, and it turned out the locals were nabbing them and then breeding them with their own. Suddenly, there were a couple dozen local varieties of bollworm-proof cotton. And the best example of a grassroots-driven transgenic crop development occurred when the papayas in Hawaii were struck by Ringspot virus. An engineer at the University of Hawaii developed the technology to save the papaya and then distributed it to everybody for free.
JI: Today’s approach for addressing the environment is indebted to the values promoted by the counterculture. In Whole Earth Discipline you offer different strategies, if not also differing underlying values. For example, while you opposed nuclear power then, you now promote nuclear power as the cleanest form of energy. What changed your mind?
SB: It’s a case where I borrowed an opinion and thought that the way people described nuclear waste and the effects of radiation were correct. But I have since realized what nonsense the whole public discourse about energy is. Right now, the way to stop burning coal is to make it expensive. It takes government to do that, so elect governments that will make coal expensive.
Some of the capital cost barriers to building a big nuclear power plant can be overcome by building a couple of small modular reactors in the 25-125 megawatt range. That could be especially important in the developing world, which is where new energy use is coming online; they are either going to use coal or something clear, like nuclear. Drilling bore holes three miles deep into what’s called basement rock is now possible. You can dig one of these bore holes on a reactor site and start heaving the spent fuel rods down into them and then you can pour in some concrete and forget about the whole thing. Perfectly reasonable thing to do. Or we can reprocess the rods or use them as direct fuel once 'integral fast' reactors come along. So basically the waste problem is dissipated.
JI: Okay. Such technological applications would necessitate policy interventions. In the 1970s, you held a position with the State of California as 'special advisor' to then Governor Jerry Brown. How did that experience affect your interest in policymaking?
SB: Well, the Whole Earth Catalog had been a kind of libertarian bible. Unfortunately, the window that most people have into government is the grotesque electoral process, which is quite removed from the daily work of civil servants. Typically the pathologies that you see in government come from elected officials, not from appointed ones. What I saw when I worked in government were tremendously skillful, public spirited, effective people working decade after decade. I have enormous admiration for what they do and how they do it, most of the time. I think we’re now in the process of rediscovering, with the Obama administration, the usefulness of good government. Hopefully we’ll have a couple decades of this to get over the Reagan years. But the Reagan years were also necessary in maintaining the usual impulse of government to deregulate and then re-regulate in a more effective way.
JI: Earlier, you refer to yourself as a hacker, which typically connotes short-circuiting a system, be it a government or a computer. What’s your definition of a hacker?
SB: Lazy engineer. The aspect of hacking that appeals to me is looking for the fiendishly clever shortcut. A ‘real’ engineer will do the homework – do the calculations, run the prototypes – all the necessary stuff to make something work. A hacker is usually looking for an easy solution. The code still has to run – it has to do whatever it is you’re attempting. But a hacker tries to find a way to do it with minimal effort, which is considered good; or with great cleverness, which is considered extra good. Fun is finessing an outcome. Stuff like that is just being lazy, and lazy is not necessarily bad.
I was trained in the army to be a lazy officer. The worst officer is stupid and industrious. The best officer is brilliant and lazy. I don’t think I would be accused of industry.
JI: LSD was treated by 60s mainstream media as a recreational drug for the lazy: those who dropped acid were dropping out of work life, among other things. But back then as well as recently, some in the scientific community have claimed that the LSD experience is productive because it can improve creativity and empathy.
SB: That all sounds pretty familiar. When you’ve heard it five or six times you get more cynical. One of the few documented cases where someone on LSD had an idea that amounted to anything was my Whole Earth photograph notion.2 It was very much un-purposeful and recreational and a nothing-better-to-do-afternoon kind of thing. But today, pharmaceuticals are appropriated with purpose: drugs that were designed to treat Attention Deficit Disorder are now used by young people to study for exams. The drugs that seem to be stirring now are part of a whole new generation of mind-enhancers like the do-without-sleep aid Modafinil™. Clearly the pharmacopeia [laughs] of the young is on the increase and is likely to keep going.
JI: So you’re saying that in contrast to the use of LSD and other mind-enhancers in the 60s, pharmaceuticals are being repurposed with the intention of finding shortcuts to be productive. Are we in an ethical free-fall when it comes to hacking digital technologies and ourselves?
SB: You see in the growing community of biotech-hackers a certain ethic emerging. Just as I have said in World Earth Discipline, biotech wants to be free', soon enough genetic engineering will come into the garden shed. Pretty soon you’ll have people bio-hacking their own bods in interesting and strange ways. [Laughs] I am encouraged by the work of DIYbio or MIT's BioBricks Foundation, which allows basically anybody to get DNA elements and assemble them like Legos. Bio-hackers today are so responsible it takes your breath away. They have meetings all the time about the grave responsibilities they must all bear in mind as they do these things. Even Eduardo Kac was pretty careful when he made a glow-in-the-dark rabbit.
JI: Would you consider yourself a hacker of policy? From what you say in your book, stewardship of the planet involves vigilance in monitoring all technologies and then deciding to employ some with great speed. Do you look for shortcuts to to put into service technologies because the process of governments, institutions, and concerned individuals carefully weighing a technology’s consequences takes time?
SB: Some technologies take off on their own. Cell phones took off in very short order to the great benefit of all. Wikipedia and Google took off that way. The things that people see as beneficial and that don’t do recognizable harm can move quickly. But like you say, by far the best approach with complex systems is diplomatic negotiation with a lot of vigilance to ensure that things don’t go astray.
JI: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline is on statecraft. You start it with the Marshall McLuhan quote: 'After Sputnik there is no nature, only art'. What significance does that statement have in relation to the responsibilities of governance and policymaking?
SB: It’s probably the most radical comment he ever made. Sputnik was shorthand for acting at a planetary scale. We consequently bear a completely different relation to everything on Earth and can no longer treat it, meaning nature, as existing independent of our own artifice – our own purposeful intentions.