Stewart Brand, The World Earth Catalog and the Birth of the New Age

Computing has often been seen as an ostensible sign of the decline of civilization, but the idea that technologies could produce new structures for new projects – those of collective progress – gained ground.

In the 1970s, a turning point took place in the world. The personal computer has become more widespread, and the hippie movement, adept at a better world, seems to be one of its driving forces. Silicon Valley, home of the 1960s counterculture, skillfully underlines this rupture: computers are gradually becoming the symbol of a kind of individual freedom, where technology, art and music mix.

It is in this context that Stewart Brand[1] came to embody this fusion between hippies and technophiles. He placed himself in the space between different cultural currents. In 1995, he wrote an article for the Times in an essay titled The counterculture’s contempt for centralized authority provided the philosophical basis for the entire personal computer revolution…We owe it all to the hippies…The communalism and libertarianism of the hippies formed the roots of the modern cyber revolution […] Most people of our generation despised computers as the epitome of centralized control. But a tiny group of us – later called “hackers” – adopted computers and set out to turn them into instruments of liberation. What turned out to be the right royal road to the future […] young programmers who deliberately steered the rest of civilization away from large, centralized computer systems.”

Stewart Brand lived at the intersection of several cultural movements, an exciting intersection between technology and performance art. He was therefore the leader of the Californian celebrations, mixing technology and sound and lighting techniques during the monumental shows he organized, including rock concerts, a kind of prophet of the new age. Moreover, already at this point, innovation and rock often form only one by hybridizing mutual influences. It’s a bit like the Rolling Stones. In 1970 they invented the concept of the mobile recording studio. They are the first to use the 45 as a teaser. Finally, they are the first to visualize the interest in the video, long before the creation of MTV. The commercial (we are not yet talking about a clip at that point) of “Jumpin Jack Flash” remains a model of its kind! We can clearly see how a period in history mixes music and innovation in a perfect hybridization, just like in Stewart Brand’s work.

Stewart Brand also succeeds in uniting mystery and technology to create a new form of communication. The technology was supposed to promote creativity, including music. This period was particularly unusual: it was the one of abundance, abundance of ideas. A period when geeks also began to gain power over institutions. It was the real line of forerunners of technological romanticism, a movement that combines both art and technology, to quote Walter Isaacson: “The innovations of the digital, if one draws inspiration from the life of Ada Lovelace (Countess of Lovelace, 1815 – 1852 , daughter of computer science pioneer Lord Byron) will come from people who can connect beauty with engineering, humanism with technology, and poetry with processors. “It will come from creators who are able to flourish where art and letters meet the sciences, and endowed with a rebellious sense of wonder …”.

In San Francisco, the idea of ​​affiliation would quickly become synonymous with free spirit. Brand, for his part, dreamed of spreading the technophile spirit inherited from the hippies. He even managed to get hold of the image of the Earth by Naza, which would symbolize liberation, freedom and the discovery of the world in contrast to a bureaucracy, a company that considered technology only in the spirit of confidentiality and closed networks. . Meanwhile, Brand was kicked out of Berkeley and wondered why no one had seen a picture of the whole Earth yet. Element all the more strange that NASA basically possessed the means to carry it out. It was through his unfailing ambition that in November 1967 NASA relented and its ATS-3 satellite took a picture of the Earth from an altitude of 34,000 kilometers. The latter also served as the cover of the book he wanted to write “Whole Earth Catalog”.

The first cover up The Whole Earth Catalogue

In his book, Brand dreamed of a completely liberated and fulfilled world, free of consumerism, happy with technology. The symbol of this fulfilled and liberated world was the Earth. Earth and technology could coexist. The hippies could therefore ally, associate, make common cause with the engineers, because the future world was to be multi-connected. Originally, it was not a question of criticizing consumerism in a grotesque way, but of rising above it by explaining that the future of the world rested on the marriage of the engineer and the hippies. From there, the most beautiful of promises was born, designed by a computer! The computer was then presented on the occasion of its sound and light show, as if to announce a formidable new era. Then it’s Douglas Engelbart[2] who would step in to help him find the means of human progress through the computer. Douglas Engelbart was an American computer engineer, famous for inventing the mouse, which so well symbolizes the complementary connection between man and machine. The concept of human-machine interface develops in a perfect harmony that is almost playful and creative.

Are we living today in a world close to the world of 1960s California?

Like 1960s California, recent disruptive innovations, including AI, have struggled to catch on. They are seen as a tool that serves crowd traceability and mainly tax bureaucracy. We also see that in the 1960s many groups of technophiles were formed, but is not the case in the current period also with its cohort of think tanks, speakers, events dedicated to human innovation and social. If it is true that the technophile hippies of 1960s California had a certain disdain for bureaucracy, today we can make an interesting connection with the ecosystem of start-ups, which, if we remove it from Start-up Nation, continues is quite protestant. , a kind of counterculture. In general, the phenomenon of uberization is not ultimately a protest movement and against the outcomes resulting from situational rent.

Because in this general movement of humanism applied to technology, the environment and the green have never been far away. As such, the World Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand also included a list of products, “useful and green” works. So it is quite obvious that we almost live in a similar time. When we say that AI must be green, that AI must first enrich the professions, we are saying that we want a step back from the traditional Fordism of the capitalist world, so that there is also today a bit of Stewart Brand’s spirit today. As for the California festivities, technophiles with sound and lighting engineers, the prophet of the new age, we also experienced this recently. Perhaps some gurus of that era had a “Turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra.[3], but don’t we have in France, Jean-Michel Jarre in synth music! Today, the latter would also work for major car brands of electronic vehicles to design a new generation of sounds for these vehicles. He also brings all his knowledge in the design of hybrid cars with original and attractive sounds and specially adapted to the place you are and the speed you are driving at. Just like in the 1960s geeks also started taking power over institutions, everything they said: freedom of spirit, liberation, freedom to discover the world, the image of planet Earth that Stewart Brand had requested and given by NASA does not do everything this has an echo in our recent world: everything points to a rather identical world with similar principles as well as the image of the Earth in the past, today symbolizes the Internet soon in 3D with the Metaverse! Like the principle of marriage between technology and man symbolized so well by Douglas Engelbart with the invention of the mouse, these ideas remain completely contemporary with the development of the principles of technological inclusion and the role of emotion and art in professional learning.

[1] Born December 14, 1938 in Rockford (Illinois), is an American author, publisher and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog (the catalog of resources in French). Steward Brand has founded many organizations, including The WELL, one of the oldest virtual communities.

[2] Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925-2013), is an American engineer, a great pioneer in computer science. He is particularly famous for inventing the mouse and developing human-machine interfaces.

[3] Four technology gurus manage to impose themselves, not in lectures, as one would think, but in university residences. It is Norbert Wiener, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Herbert Marshall McLuhan. In the 1980s, they were joined by Timothy Leary, the famous evangelist known for his mantra: ” Turn on, tune in, drop out shall be understood as ” Connect, initialize and log in “. Is technology finally a creative and poetic movement? This is where Stewart Brand comes in.

Leave a Comment