Stewart Brand

Whole Earth Vision For the 21st Century

If ever there was an environmentalist perfectly comfortable with technology, it is Stewart Brand, the founding editor of the legendary Whole Earth Catalog and later, The Whole Earth Review. Sympathetic with the plight of the plundered Earth since studying biology at Stanford University in the late ‘50s, Brand has always been an enthusiastic proponent of putting tools into the hands of worthy users. Anyone who’s gotten their hands on those catalogs—whether they’re from the ‘60s or the ‘90s—knows Brand believes wholeheartedly that putting the right tools in the right hands can change the world for the better. “We are as Gods and might as well get good at it,” he wrote in the 1968 edition of the catalog.

Brand has been optimistic about the transformative power of computers since 1972, when he published an article called “Computer Bums” in Rolling Stone. In 1985, he co-founded a bulletin board system called the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) as a “pioneering experiment in electronic discussion.” At present, his projects include the Global Business Network, a management consulting firm. An extremely broad-minded and generous thinker, Brand’s perspective undoubtedly derives in part from his life experience, which includes a stint as one of the Merry Pranksters featured in Tom Wolfe’s classic Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Brand has some provocative ideas about how future technology might change our world, ranging from newspapers that are continuously reprinted on the same paper to vastly more efficient cars. To put the recycling responsibility in the hands of manufacturers, he envisions consumer goods—from carpets to refrigerators—rented to consumers, then returned to their makers when they wear out. Whole Earth thinking, he says, is all about finding innovative and Earth-friendly solutions to some notoriously vexing human problems.

E caught up with Brand on a day he was in his office, a landlocked fishing boat propped up in a parking lot walking distance from his converted tugboat home in Sausalito, California. On four weekdays out of five, he telecommutes via PC and modem to his office at the Global Business Network, across the bay in San Francisco.

E Magazine: When you consider present and future developments in computer and communications technology, what environmental impacts do you envision?

Brand: It depends a lot on what environmentalists do about it. If they wade in and participate, they’ll have tremendously favorable environmental impact. If they demonize it, then it’ll be a mixed bag—the reason being that most of the computer and communications technology has the possibility of lightening the load on the environment and increasing efficiency. You don’t have to do as much physical travel to undertake your economic and intellectual pursuits. You can get quite wonderful industrial ecology results because of the unlinking of markets for waste. But what’s waste in one industry is regarded as raw material in another industry. Via the Net, they have much easier access to each other.

In your opinion, how has computer-based technology affected our environment thus far?

We’re still in the early part of the curve on these things. Computers have made for greater material and energy efficiency, less need for physical transport, more widespread intelligence basically throughout civilization and culture. All of those things are good news for the environment.

What do you mean by “more widespread intelligence”?

One of the homilies of the information age is that industry is more and more a matter of knowing than “stuff.” Knowledge is much less environmentally damaging than stuff, and is very often environmentally enhancing. If you get out the knowledge that forest fires are actually a good thing some of the time, and you get enough people knowing that’s the case, then you get over the Smoky the Bear problem of [building] up 60 or 70 years of highly flammable understory that wouldn’t have happened if we let a few fires burn. That’s a standard piece of knowledge within the environmental movement these days, but how do you get it out to the people? More and more by computer-mediated communications. Anything that enhances global communication is clearly good.

In what ways may the current mass acceptance of the Internet affect the global environment?

It makes it more aware of itself as a global environment. We saw the photograph of the Earth from space that we got from the Apollo program—a highly computerized activity—in…1969. The first Earth Day was in 1970. This is not an accident. The ecology movement really took off once we had those photographs from space. To the extent that with the `Net we more and more live with the whole Earth, that’s good for Whole Earth thinking.

You’ve written that networked personal computers are making everyone an author and perhaps extending the freedom of the press to an unprecedented degree. Do you have any thoughts about the quality of online information?

Online information is both worse and better than edited information. I think that makes it better overall; because when it’s better than edited stuff, it’s just priceless. It’s so specific that you could never imagine it getting through to some broadcast media, or it’s so wonderfully quirky that you could imagine it never getting through editing. Some of it is worse, and that puts you in the mode of actively figuring out what information is good and what information is not so good for your purposes. But that’s better than taking it as it’s provided in both respects.

Do you believe that the paperless office is coming closer to being a reality?

Well, it goes two ways. One trend is toward printing things like newspapers, magazines and books much closer to the customer, either in the home or the local copy shop. [If the printing distribution system] is less centralized, you save the costs of physical distribution. So far, paper is still a better display and storage medium than computers for most people. The paperless office was much vaunted 25 years ago, and instead it went the other way. With computers, people print even more paper. It certainly makes me print more paper.

On the other hand, the Media Lab [an interdisciplinary think tank headquartered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the subject of a book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, by Brand in 1988] is now working on paper which is basically an electronic display medium. It’s paper that you can read, write and erase and use over. Whenever you want to read it, you get up-to-the-minute news printed on the paper, and there it is folded up. And the next time you want to use the same paper, it’s got a new set of news and photographs and everything else. So that seems to be coming. It’ll take a while, but that could be a future alternative. I’d ask all sorts of questions about what it’s made of, but that’s a subject for another conversation.

Any comments on the garbage and the waste that’s created by the planned obsolescence of computing equipment?

One of the things that we’re headed toward is equipment—hardware—that you rent rather than own. We’re already seeing, for example, a company that makes carpeting they rent to you. It comes in square tiles so it’s easy to replace parts of it. They always own it, so when you’re tired of it or it’s worn out, it goes back and they recycle it into fresh carpet. Some German automobile manufacturers are doing the same thing with cars. Again, if environmentalists embrace technology and participate, they can help computer manufacturers take the same approach to their hardware. For example, in airplanes, basically, there are no new airframes being built. In extreme cases, B-52 bombers which were built in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s are still being used and will probably still be used up until 2030 or 2040. They have a very robust airframe, beautifully designed and very effective; they just keep swapping new avionics in and out.

You could probably do this with computers. You can do it, I know, with buildings because I did a whole book on that subject [How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, published in 1994].

So there’s two ways to go. One is the manufacturer always owns the physical tool and they have to take it back. That makes them design them in such a way so that it’s easy to take apart and reuse it and recycle everything. Or you build things so that the basic skeleton is really robust and then you can just keep swapping the high turnover stuff in and out. That way you keep much less material having to move around.

An example of this kind of thing is glass fiber replacing copper as a major communication medium. So the copper mines have come to a standstill. [Buckminster] Fuller pointed out a while back that the main copper mines are the walls of old houses and wiring that are already out there. It’s cheaper to recycle it than to mine new stuff. And glass, we’re really not hard up for silicon. So glass is more efficient all around, and most of the rest of the copper will stay in the ground.

Environmental groups have a very limited online presence. Why do you suppose that is?

I’m not surprised that some environmental activist groups are a little slow to move quickly on this because there is often a bias against new technology among some environmentalists. But on the other hand, EcoNet has been around for a long time. EcoNet and PeaceNet were relatively early players on the Net.

It’s easy to blame technology in general, and especially computerized technology, as being a major contributor to the reality that three-quarters of all households have had “a close encounter with layoffs since 1980” (as reported in The New York Times). Do you think that’s fair?

Three years ago, people were wringing their hands that the vaunted improvement in productivity that was supposed to come from technology had not actually occurred, and probably was never going to occur. And that turned out to be correct, but only temporarily correct, because greater productivity from information technology is now arriving. Some people are being replaced by machines, but often it’s one person and one set of machines replacing 20 people and no machines. And what are the other 19 people doing? Many of them are out of work, and often what higher productivity means is fewer people and the same amount of work being done.

So we’re seeing the other side. The first side was: `Gee we’re not getting an improvement in productivity and Japan is eating our lunch, blah, blah, blah.’ Now we’re getting the higher productivity and Japan has got problems. We’re ahead, that’s great. But there’s a whole lot of people who thought they were going to keep doing the same job for another decade or so, and that’s not happening.

Do you think computerized technology will help mitigate this job loss issue in the future?

Well, yeah—if environmentalists will help everybody get computer literate. Many of the new jobs are in the knowledge industries and many of them are in start-ups. There’s a wonderful book [Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 by AnnaLee Saxenian, 1994] that compares [Massachusetts’] Route 128 high-tech companies with [California’s] Silicon Valley high-tech companies and explains why Route 128 companies basically died. Silicon Valley businesses—the same businesses, same situations—flourished from decade to decade and went from platform to platform and they’re now flourishing with multimedia and the Net and so on.

There are a number of reasons that are cited. One of them is that Boston is a very discouraging environment for start-up small companies. Silicon Valley is a highly encouraging environment for start-ups. A really good start-up environment requires lots of cooperation, as well as competition. So, for example, a bunch of six-person companies that are sort of inventing a whole new platform in Silicon Valley will get together—even though they’re competing—on a standard because they don’t have the ability by themselves to create a whole new standard the way the Route 128 companies—like Data General and Wang—used to do.

So they’re forced into a collaborative situation, and it’s a fairly classic ecological kind of dense, rich set of relationships they have, with diversity and rapid change and all those cool things. Which turns out to be also much better as a job environment for people. As they say in Silicon Valley, you can change jobs without changing your parking lot. You can just move down two floors in the same building with a completely different company and probably a different platform and a different industry, but you’re still working and still driving the same distance from your house.

What are your thoughts on the potential of telecommuting?

I’m living in it. I work in an office that is an old dead fishing boat a hundred yards from the tugboat that I live on. I telecommute to the office the Global Business Network has on the other side of the [San Francisco] Bay and I go over there physically just one day a week. For me, this means much higher yield on my time. I’ve got my own environment that is highly productive, also highly idiosyncratic and they probably go together.

Who are the most interesting environmental innovators these days?

Amory Lovins is now probably the single most effective environmentalist we’ve got. He’s a flat-out techno-nerd, and really, really good. He and Paul Hawken are working on a book together called Factor 10, and it is all about improving the efficiencies and intelligence of all kinds of design by at least a factor of 10. All of the possibilities are there—it’s not just energy, it’s materials, it’s recycling, all of this stuff. And Amory has lately been on the case of cars…The car that we have now spends more than 90 percent of its energy just getting out of its own way. Very little of the energy that you’re drawing from the gasoline goes to moving the passengers anywhere. And that’s not necessary. If you go through and redesign every component, treat it as a whole system, there’s fabulous efficiencies that you can gain. And this is true of buildings, it’s true of power grids, it’s

true across the board.

So you do all those things and they have the capability of greatly lightening the load that human technology puts on the land. And it completely reverses Paul Ehrlich’s formula that says that population times technology equals impact. You go then in the direction of population times technology equalling reduction of impact. And to do that kind of thing right is as good as it gets.