Who is Stewart Brand, the man who imagined Silicon Valley first of all

Who is Stewart Brand, the man who imagined Silicon Valley first of all

Who is Stewart Brand

There is a common thread that unites the beat movement of the 60s (that of Jack Kerouac and his companions) to the hippies of the following decade, and which, going further on, also connects the pioneering early hackers and techno-enthusiasts of the Silicon Valley digital revolution. , which has its peak between the end of the 90s and the first decade of the new millennium.

What is this common thread? If we were to think of a place, the answer would be all too easy: San Francisco. But if we were to think of one person instead, the figure who has gone through all these eras becoming an icon of Californian ideology (a form of countercultural libertarianism) can only be Stewart Brand.

He is certainly not as famous as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, did not play a major role in the spread of the network like Tim-Berners Lee, he was not an engineer, nor a programmer, nor a computer scientist, nor a hacker. Yet it is to him that even today the most enthusiastic adepts of web culture turn in an attempt to find a figure who embodies over half a century of cultural and information revolution (as evidenced by his participation in an Ethereum conference in 2018). br>
Studies and the beat generation Stewart Brand, then: who is he? Born in 1938 to a wealthy Midwestern family (his father was a partner in a large advertising agency), Stewart began secondary education at the Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, where - despite being recognized as having a marked intelligence - he was unable to shine ( unlike his three older brothers). It is at this stage, according to a recent authorized biography, that Stewart senses that, instead of a second level student, it would have been preferable to be an eccentric and difficult to classify person: a strategy for success that he will pursue throughout his life.

From a conservative family but willing to support his eccentricities, Stewart ends up studying Biology at Stanford University, California (graduating in 1960). But be careful: if today Stanford is considered the forge of Silicon Valley, at the time - we are not yet in the 60s - it was instead a small and rural private second level university. However, the climate was starting to change both at the industrial level (Palo Alto was the emerging center of the electronics industry) and at the political level, among other things favoring the diffusion of the texts of an ultra-libertarian thinker like Ayn Rand.

At the same time, Stewart came into contact with the San Francisco beat scene, discovering a much less bizarre environment than it was portrayed by the fearful mass media of the time and starting to be hosted in the homes of writers, artists and future hippies. Her life at this moment seems marked, were it not that suddenly Stewart briefly decides to try, unsuccessfully, a military career; for which she discovers, however, that she does not have the necessary tenacity and perseverance.

On the contrary, it becomes increasingly clear that Stewart is a person who thrives on brief enthusiasms and infatuations, both professionally and personally (her friendships and her youthful relationships are all short-lived). Back in San Francisco after a fleeting experience in the army, he begins to consider himself first as a journalist-photographer (but without ever getting commissions) and then also tries to compete with his musical career, again without success.

Psychedelia Also in that period, he began to study art in San Francisco and above all to go around the Bay on a rented boat and to move through the woods on a classic red Volkswagen van, following in a certain sense in the footsteps of Kerouac. In the meantime, the hippie culture and fascination with LSD is being born from the beat generation, which Stewart Brand himself will experience in a bizarre way: by paying $ 500 to participate in a government experiment on the subject.

L ' interest in psychedelics led him in 1966 to participate in the organization of the Trip Festival, conceived by the group of Merry Pranksters (a bizarre Californian psychedelic collective) in an attempt to do "an experiment with LSD the size of a concert" (during the which the Grateful Dead also played). It is not easy to find a logic in the actions of Stewart, who in the 60s and 70s dedicated himself in an almost schizophrenic way to different activities. Among these, one will prove to be crucial: inspired by a revelation he had after hiring LSD, he decides to send important figures in science and politics a pin that reads "Why haven't we seen a whole photograph of the Earth yet?" (and curiously going around dressed to promote this campaign, selling the pins at 25 cents each).

In those years, in fact, NASA had not yet released photos of the Earth from space, even though there were already satellites in orbit: according to Stewart, finally seeing an image of this type would have changed the way we think about ourselves and the planet (the first photo will be released shortly after, in 1967). Shortly after, in 1968, Steward spends a summer driving his van around rural communes in Colorado and New Mexico (part of the "back to earth" movement) selling camping gear, books, tools and supplies of all kinds. .

The catalog of counter-culture Back in California - in the city of Portola where he had begun to associate with characters of the counterculture, but also computer researchers and others - Stewart combines his two intuitions to give life to the first in 1968 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog. Adorned on the cover with one of the first images of the Earth seen from space, the catalog - later defined by fans as Steve Jobs "Google twenty years before it existed" - was an archive that gave information for the purchase of agricultural equipment, tools mechanics, books related to life in Israeli kibbutzim, theoretical texts on the imminent information revolution and other material for do-it-yourself, hobby and commune life.

We are at the pinnacle of countercultural movement (and in the years of the Vietnam war) and in the Stewart Catalog we read: "A sphere of personal development is developing: the power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his inspiration, shape his environment and share their adventures with anyone interested ". These are words that - through a simple catalog for the sale of goods almost always of a practical nature - show the vision of the time of a new social order, which aimed to circumvent the institutions in favor of the taking of individual powers, obtained through the acquisition of skills and the use of tools for do-it-yourself.

The spirit of the times captured in the catalog - with its irreverence, its emphasis on the importance of self-study and subsequently the interpretation of computers as tools of personal liberation - it is the same one that had already contaminated the beat generation, the hippies and then it will also infect the hacker movement of the 80s and finally the techno-optimistic vision embodied in the 90s by a magazine like sportsgaming.win (founded by Kevin Kelly, follower of Stewart).

Published regularly until 1971 and then occasionally until 1998 (often edited by other people), the Whole Earth Catalog reported in epig rafe one of his most important mottos: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, which will then be fished out, as is well known, in the famous 2005 speech by Steve Jobs. Brand will continue his life as a Silicon Valley “secret icon” by creating a good number of publications, events and more. Among others, we find the environmental magazine CoEvolution, the Whole Earth Software Catalog dedicated to the world of information technology, the Hackers Conference and one of the first online communities, known as Well.

Still today, in the idealism of the origins of Facebook and Google, in the liberating vision of technology of Elon Musk, in the passion for bunkers for the self-preservation of billionaires like Peter Thiel, in the passion for the East and the yoga of Jack Dorsey and in the attempted individualistic revolution of cryptocurrencies, resonates strong that Californian spirit embodied and summarized in Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog.

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