‘It’s wrong to wish on space hardware’: The power and failure of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth mythos

July 12th, 201112:43 pm @

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One aim of New Public Thinking is to create a space in which we can do our thinking in public, sharing work in progress, rather than waiting until there’s a polished artefact to present and defend. It is in that spirit that I want to share the following: a recording of the improvised talk I gave at the Nature Inc? conference in The Hague last week, and a loose transcript of what I had to say.

It’s a spirit which I think would be recognisable to the subject of the talk, Stewart Brand, and to the way he worked as founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and its various offshoots.

Although my purpose is to critique certain deep assumptions within Brand’s work, the choice to make such a critique is itself a sign of a certain kind of respect. My own work has been to create projects, publications, events and writings which offer people different ways of seeing and making sense of the world, and I can’t help but acknowledge Stewart Brand as, in many ways, a master of our craft. My fascination with his work stems from a respect for that mastery, as well as a desire to question the uses to which it has been put. And so when I talk about the power and failure of the Whole Earth mythos, the latter does not erase the former.

On its own, this piece is by no means a full statement of the arguments it sketches out. I have provided some references at the end to other parts of this larger work in progress, and I look forward to taking it further in my talk at this year’s Dark Mountain festival.

(Apologies for the low quality of the audio – this was recorded on my mobile phone.)

This audio is also available to download under a CC license from the Internet Archive.

The talk followed a presentation by Matt Szabo of his paper, published in Dark Mountain: Issue 2, ‘Sustainable energy will destroy the planet: discuss.’

History is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

The stories a society tells itself are not a cultural superstructure sitting on top of a hard material base, but are deeply entangled with the roots of those harder and apparently more foundational elements of reality: the material, the economic.

We are no more free from stories and beliefs than we’ve ever been, but perhaps we are less conscious of our dependence on them. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that we grew up as societies and left behind the childish religious world in which stories shape history.

I’m interested in Stewart Brand because the stories which he and those around him have told have been hugely influential. Despite the technological and rational framings of much of Brand’s work, I think it is worth reflecting explicitly on the extent to which he has played the role of a prophet — not in some diluted metaphorical sense, but in pretty much the way that the role of prophet has been played in many times and places throughout the history of religion.

The story of Stewart Brand himself is fascinating. This is a man who has had an extraordinary life. He first shows up in California in the early 1960s in the middle of the counterculture, organising “happenings” and travelling around with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters — and from then to the present day, he remains intertwined with and often central to the entanglements of counterculture, technology culture and environmentalism.

To give a few examples of that, the Whole Earth Catalog launched in 1968 and was very quickly a massive phenomenon, selling almost two million copies in its first three years. He went on to be co-founder of the Global Business Network, which took the “futures scenarios” tools developed at Royal-Dutch Shell in the 1970s and brought them to the wider world of business and politics. He was involved in founding Wired magazine which was central to the narration of the emergence of the internet as a social phenomenon in the 1990s; and with the Long Now Foundation, which seeks to cultivate thinking for a 10,000 year time horizon. There are plenty more: it sometimes seems like he is a kind of Forrest Gump character, Photoshopped into every moment in history since about 1962.

Now, when I first started to hear about the Whole Earth Catalog, I thought that “whole” was being used in some general sense, like “whole foods” or “wholesome”, or maybe “holistic”. It was a while before I realised that there was a much more specific story — which, I suggest, is really a religious story — about the founding of Whole Earth. Brand is sitting on his friend’s roof in California in early 1966, tripping on acid, and he has a thought: Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet? Why hasn’t NASA released an image of the Earth that would show the globe in its fullness, surrounded by the darkness of space? And he says, I was convinced that when we saw this picture it would change everything. That it would facilitate a shift to a higher state of consciousness, a new global awareness, and that this would lead to an ability to solve our problems.

And that is the story of the Whole Earth Catalog. It’s a story that has roots in Buckminster Fuller and ‘Spaceship Earth’. In the two years from having that vision, to the first Testament of Whole Earth, Brand made up button badges which said, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?” He walked around in San Francisco with a sandwich board with this question on it. He also posted badges to Fuller himself, to NASA staff, senators and all kinds of influential people. In 1968, NASA did release the first whole earth image, which appeared on the cover of the first Catalog. There are those who say that Brand’s campaign had some influence in that.

Once again, when I first began to encounter Whole Earth, it took a while to register the strangeness and the newness of that image. Growing up in the 1980s, it was on the front of every other factual book that was aimed at children. Being involved in the environmental movement, it’s the recurrent icon: the first slide in Al Gore’s presentation. So Brand was right in anticipating that this would be a defining image of the late twentieth century, an icon around which a movement to do something about the mess that we’re in could coalesce. And Whole Earth as a phenomenon — in the publications, the magazines, the events — did play a key role in the coming together of the environmental movement in the US.

But there is a problem, which is that it hasn’t worked. You can tell that it hasn’t worked, because Brand is saying the same thing now that he was saying in 1968, only with a greater urgency and sense of desperation. The opening gambit of the original Whole Earth Catalog was “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Forty years later, in Whole Earth Discipline, he says, “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” So it’s now moved from a playful approach to technological capacity, to a more desperate statement: we have to take the Promethean role.

Because that’s what it is: Brand’s invitation is to a Promethean response to the situation that we’re in. It’s worth unpacking that a bit. There’s an essay which I wrote for Dark Mountain: Issue 2 called ‘Remember the Future?’ which goes into this in more detail. Briefly, Prometheus is the Titan who steals fire from the gods on behalf of humanity and is punished for his hubris. In many ways, the iconic figure from Greek mythology for modernity. Less well known is his brother, Epimetheus, who accepts Pandora as a gift from the gods, and with her the jar from which come all the evils of the world; but also, the last thing out of the jar is hope.

Within the names in this story, there are clues. Prometheus means ‘forethought’ or ‘foresight’, so Brand’s role in the popularisation of futures scenarios work is entirely in continuity with the Promethean message of Whole Earth: the idea that we can solve our problems by using technology to look ahead into the future. Epimetheus means ‘hindsight’, ‘afterthought’ — and Pandora means ‘all-giver’, so there is some sense behind the depiction of Pandora as another slandered Eve, of the memory of another story in which Pandora is the embracing givenness of the world.

So, how to tie this up for now?

The Whole Earth mythos has been powerful, but it has failed. And I want to suggest that its failure is because this myth is like a bad map. What Whole Earth tells us is that the solution to our problems lies in using technology to achieve more distance from our situation. It offers us salvation through the satellite’s-eye view. And I am convinced that that is a repetition of exactly the move that got us into the mess that we’re in.

To go back to the myth, there is another strand — an Epimethean approach to our situation — which begins with accepting the unknownness and unknowability of the future, and the reality that we are walking backwards into it. This is the approach to which we are invited by another of the prophets of the same generation as Brand. I am thinking of Ivan Illich, who writes about Epimetheus in the final chapter of ‘Deschooling Society’. Here, there is a sense that getting to the moon is the easy bit: it’s coming back that’s hard. Finding each other and finding the actual lived experience of the ground on which we stand, through all the layers of intervening technology among which we are living.

Now within this there are echoes of another set of myths and archetypes, which Joseph Campbell systematised as The Hero’s Journey. Because in the Hero’s Journey, getting ‘far out’ is not the hard bit. The critical moment in this cycle — in which you leave behind the known, into the unknown, and return with something of value for the community from which you began — is the return, the reentry into the atmosphere. That’s the point where the gold in your bag turns to dust.

It seems to me that the environmentalism to which Brand invited us in the 1960s, which leaned on technology as a way to get perspective, is an incomplete version of the Hero’s Journey — and that that pattern of the incomplete cycle might actually be a repeating pattern that we find throughout modernity. Even the addiction to the upward curve of endless growth (and all of the other unplanned, unintended exponential curves which accompany it) might itself be a trait of a bad story, in which the goal is to get as far out as possible, to leave behind the place where you were born and come to the bright lights of the city, or whatever it is. And that in some strange way that I’m still working out, and that’s part of the conversation which Dark Mountain has been hosting, how we do the best we can at living through the unfolding of the unknown and uncontrollable future into which we are stumbling has to do with reconsidering those stories — and finding our way home, in some sense, whatever that may mean.

This transcript represents a work in progress. For other elements of the same work, see the essay ‘Remember the Future?’ (published in Dark Mountain: Issue 2) and the dialogue with Sajay Samuel, recorded two days after my Nature Inc? talk, ‘The Return of the Vernacular’.

I’ll be returning to the theme of ‘Wishing on Space Hardware’ in a talk at Uncivilisation 2011: The Dark Mountain Festival, which takes place 19-21 August at the Sustainability Centre, Hampshire.