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The Backward-Looking Futurism of Stewart Brand – aaafaqedmen

The Backward-Looking Futurism of Stewart Brand

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Now what, exactly, is Kama Sutra oil? Maybe it’s obvious, here in the semi-liberated 21st century, but to Dick Cavett, back in 1971, it was not. Presented with a bottle of the stuff on an episode of his classic talk show, Cavett exhibited a kind of scandalized perplexity. “Is that real Kama Sutra oil?” he asked, cheeks flushing. “What is the purpose of Kama Sutra oil?” In a series of follow-up questions, the entendres practically doubled themselves, until Cavett finally got a straight answer. “You make love with it, of course,” explained his guest—a 32-year-old hippie by the name of Stewart Brand.

Just a few seconds—not nearly enough—of this freewheeling interview appear in a pleasant, if not quite weird enough, new documentary about Brand’s life and legacy, premiering this week at South by Southwest’s online film festival. Its title, We Are As Gods, comes from Brand’s most famous creation, the Whole Earth Catalog, the multivolume manual whose pages featured “tools” for everything from arts and crafts to, naturally, ancient styles of lovemaking. (“We are as gods,” Brand wrote in a 1969 mission statement, “and might as well get good at it.”) Part of the catalog’s mystique was, and remains, its foreshortened lifespan. By the time Brand was offering mystery lube to Dick Cavett on national television, he had already shut Whole Earth down. “The idea of succeeding completely and then stopping … seems more healthy to us,” Brand told Cavett. Hippie prerogative, basically: When something goes mainstream, disown it.

In We Are As Gods, Brand emerges as one of the signature players of the technological age, in and out of the most important rooms at just the right moments in history. Most casual followers of his will know the rough trajectory. What they might not know are the tools of Brand’s farsightedness. Drugs, for starters. Also a gift for harnessing boredom. Finally, expert networking. Through the catalog, Brand linked up with Doug Engelbart, from whom he learned the potential of networked communication, which got him thinking about early social media, and so on. “The intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the counterculture,” someone calls him, seeding the land with thought-trends. Slightly in awe of their subject, the filmmakers, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, portray Brand as that rare kind of tech prophet, a man who never looks back. A true, uncompromising futurist.

Which he is—until he isn’t. Unprobed throughout We Are As Gods is the odd backwardness of Brand’s current circumstances, both personal and professional. Personally, he’s participating in a documentary about his 80-plus years on the planet, an inherently anti-futurist project. Professionally, he’s now a champion of the so-called de-extinction movement, and that work forms the doc’s narrative through line. For the past decade or so, Brand has helped fight—the environmentalists, the bioethicists—to resurrect long-dead species like the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth. If you keep marching forward, it seems, you eventually circle the (whole) earth and end up where you started.

In that sense, maybe there’s no contradiction after all. Both futurism and conservationism entail what Brand would call “long-term thinking.” “One of the problems now,” he says in We Are As Gods, “is that civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” A fundamentally weird, brilliant man, Brand has tried his whole life to force us outside the present moment, so that we might better understand how to fix it. Consider this photo of the whole Earth from space, he says. Imagine seeing a woolly mammoth again, he cries. Brand might not always be looking toward the future, but with the steady, loving hand of a hippie mystic, he lubricates the engine of progress.


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