Steward Brand; A Keystone Individual

Steward Brand who is now 83, is the original Zelig, the deeper you dive into the roots of pivotal moments in technology, science and culture over the third of the 20th in American the more places he pops up. Brand was behind the camera for the mother of all demos, he was associated with Ken Kesey's Merry Pransksters and the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. He is, along with Brian Eno and Danny Hillis behind the Clock of the Long Now which is building a clock which is actually a mechanical computer that computes the time and is designed to run for ten thousand years with little or no human intervention. Brand is also working to bring back the Woolly Mamouth from extinction as part of a strategy for mitigating the effects of climate change.

The Whole Earth Catalog was responsible for steering the 60's counter-counter away from it's romantic anti-technological roots towards a kind of techno-optimism which was arguably responsible for shaping the open-source software movement and the Internet; the open-source saddle on the dotcom horse.

Brand has just done an interview (video) with Tyler Cowen and it is exceptional. If you've seen interviews with Brand (and there are many), each interviewer seems to ask the same boilerplate questions as the last, ad nauseum. It was a pleasent surprise to see fresh and insightful questions.

Unlike Zelig (or if you must, Forest Gump), Brand has never been just there; rather, he acts as a catalyst, as defined in Webster 1911 as "something that serves as a precipitating occasion for an event." Malcom Gladwell divided key people within social networks as either connectors, mavens or salesman. In a graph, such people would stand out because so many vertices would point to them. But an keystone individual doesn't quite bit any of these categories, though there is a great deal of overlap. This is because a keystone pulls together something that becomes larger than the sum ot its parts. Keystones can be thought of as an agent which triggers a morphogenic transformation which is sort of a raison d'étre for life itself. Life in its many incarnations is always dynamically changing; it is a system that is always in the process of becoming something else. A dead system is nothing more than a static data structure.

In an ecosystem, a keystone species is a species on which many other species depend. Removing a keystone results in a cascade that will destabilize or even crash an ecosystem. I have come to believe that there are all kinds of keystones, including keystone inventions such as the transistor, keystone patterns as defined in Christopher Alexander's pattern language, keystone designs such as the Chinese wheelbarrow and finally keystone individuals. If ever there was a keystone individual, Steward Brand is certainly worthy of inclusion among such ranks.

This is not the place to give Brand a proper introduction. But if he has never before shown up on your radar, there is something wrong with your radar. We will run into him time and time again along the Yellow Brick Road. It is hoped that this post will serve to pique your curiosity and act as a transom that once crossed leads down a very deep rabbit hole.

Refs & Rabbit Holes

  • Brand, S., Pace layering: how complex systems learn and keep learning, Journal of Design and Science, (2018).
  • Brand, S., How buildings learn: what happens after they’re built (1995), : Penguin Books.
  • Brand, S., Whole Earth Discipline (2010), : Penguin Books.
  • Cowen, T., Stewart Brand on Starting Things and Staying Curious (Ep,142), Conversations with Tyler (2022). [video]
  • Decker, K. D., How to downsize a transport network: the chinese wheelbarrow (2011).
  • Dyson, G., Analogia: the emergence of technology beyond programmable control (2020) : Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Dyson, G., Turing’s cathedral: the origins of the digital universe (2012) : Pantheon.
  • Markoff, J., Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart (March 2022) : Penguin Press.
  • Turner, F., From counterculture to cyberculture: stewart brand, the whole earth network, and the rise of digital utopianism (2006) : University of Chicago Press.