Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Evan Osnos

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

The kitsch of survival

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Bomb Shelter

A few weeks ago, The New Yorker published a fascinating article by Evan Osnos on the growing survivalist movement among the very rich. Osnos quotes an unnamed source who estimates that fifty percent of Silicon Valley billionaires have some kind of survival plan in place—an estimate that strikes me, if anything, as a little too low. (As one hedge fund manager is supposed to have said: “What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.”) Osnos also pays a visit to the Survival Condo Project, a former missile silo near Wichita, Kansas that has been converted into a luxury underground bunker. It includes twelve private apartments, all of which have already been sold, and which prospective residents can decorate to their personal tastes:

We stopped in a condo. Nine-foot ceilings, Wolf range, gas fireplace. “This guy wanted to have a fireplace from his home state”—Connecticut—“so he shipped me the granite,” [developer Larry] Hall said. Another owner, with a home in Bermuda, ordered the walls of his bunker-condo painted in island pastels—orange, green, yellow—but, in close quarters, he found it oppressive. His decorator had to come fix it.

Osnos adds: “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. ‘windows’ that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park.”

As I read the article’s description of tastefully appointed bunkers with fake windows, it occurred to me that there’s a word that perfectly sums up most forms of survivalism, from the backwoods prepper to the wealthy venture capitalist with a retreat in New Zealand. It’s kitsch. We tend to associate the concept of kitsch with cheapness or tackiness, but on a deeper level, it’s really about providing a superficial emotional release while closing off the possibility of meaningful thought. It offers us sentimental illusions, built on clichés, in the place of real feeling. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has said: “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.” Even more relevant is Milan Kundera’s unforgettable exploration of the subject in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he observes that kitsch is the defining art form of the totalitarian state and concludes: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” This might seem like an odd way to characterize survivalism, which is supposedly a confrontation with the unthinkable, but it’s actually a perfect description. The underling premise of survivalism is that by stocking up on beans and bullets, you can make your existence after the collapse of civilization more tolerable, even pleasant, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It’s a denial of shit on the most fundamental level, in which a nuclear war causing the incendiary deaths of millions is sentimentalized into a playground for the competent man. And, like all kitsch, it provides a comforting daydream that allows its adherents to avoid more important questions of collective survival.

Family Fallout Shelter

Survivalism has often been dismissed as a form of consumerism, an excuse to play Rambo with expensive guns and toys, but it also embodies a perverse form of nostalgia. The survivalist mindset is usually traced back to the Cold War, in which schoolchildren were trained to duck and cover in their classrooms while the government encouraged their parents to build fallout shelters, and it came into its own as a movement during the hyperinflation and oil shortages of the seventies. In fact, the impulse goes back at least to the days after Pearl Harbor, when an attack on the East or West Coasts seemed like a genuine possibility, leading to blackout drills, volunteer air wardens, and advice on how to prepare for the worst at home. (I have a letter from John W. Campbell to Robert A. Heinlein dated December 12, 1941, in which he talks about turning his basement into a bomb shelter, complete with porch furniture and a lamp powered by a car battery, and coldly evaluates the odds of an air raid being directed at his neighborhood in New Jersey.) It’s significant that World War II was the last conflict in which the prospect of a conventional invasion of the United States—and the practical measures that one would take to prepare for it—was even halfway plausible. Faced with the possibility of the war coming to American shores, households took precautions that were basically reasonable, even if they amounted to a form of wishful thinking. And what’s horrifying is how quickly the same assumptions were channeled toward a nuclear war, an utterly different kind of event that makes nonsense of individual preparations. Survivalism is a type of kitsch that looks back fondly to the times in which a war in the developed world could be fought on a human scale, rather than as an impersonal cataclysm in which the actions of ordinary men and women were rendered wholly meaningless.

Like most kinds of kitsch, survivalism reaches its nadir of tastelessness among the nouveau riche, who have the resources to indulge themselves in ways that most of us can’t afford. (Paul Fussell, in his wonderful book Class, speculated that the American bathroom is the place where the working classes express the fantasy of “What I’d Do If I Were Really Rich,” and you could say much the same thing about a fallout shelter, which is basically a bathroom with cots and canned goods.) And it makes it possible to postpone an uncomfortable confrontation with the real issues. In his article, Osnos interviews one of my heroes, the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, who gets at the heart of the problem:

[Brand] sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

Survivalism ignores these questions, and it also makes it possible for someone like Peter Thiel, who has the ultimate insurance policy in the form of a New Zealand citizenship, to endorse an experiment in which millions of the less fortunate face the literal loss of their insurance. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When you look at the measures that many survivalists take, you find that they aren’t afraid of the bomb, but of other Americans—the looters, the rioters, and the leeches whom they expect to descend after the grid goes down. There’s nothing wrong with making rational preparations for disaster. But it’s only a short step from survival kits to survival kitsch.

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