Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Long Now Foundation

The slow road to the stars

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In the 1980 edition of The Whole Earth Catalog, which is one of the two or three books that I’d bring with me to a desert island, or to the moon, the editor Stewart Brand devotes three pages toward the beginning to the subject of space colonies. Most of the section is taken up by an essay, “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” in which Brand relates why he took such an interest in an idea that seemed far removed from the hippie concerns with which his book—fairly or not—had always been associated. And his explanation is a fascinating one:

What got me interested in space colonies a few years ago was a chance remark by a grade school teacher. She said that most of her kids expected to live in space. All their lives they’d been seeing Star Trek and American and Russian space activities and drew the obvious conclusions. Suddenly I felt out of it. A generation that grew up with space, I realized, was going to lead to another generation growing up in space. Where did that leave me?

On the next page, Brand draws an even more explicit connection between space colonization and the rise of science fiction in the mainstream: “Most science fiction readers—there are estimated to be two million avid ones in the U.S.—are between the ages of 12 and 26. The first printing for a set of Star Trek blueprints and space cadet manual was 450,000. A Star Trek convention in Chicago drew 15,000 people, and a second one a few weeks later drew 30,000. They invited NASA officials and jammed their lectures.”

This sense of a growing movement left a huge impression on Brand, whose career as an activist had started with a successful campaign to get NASA to release the first picture of the whole earth taken from space. He concludes: “For these kids there’s been a change in scope. They can hold the oceans of the world comfortably in their minds, like large lakes. Space is the ocean now.” And he clearly understands that his real challenge will be to persuade a slightly older cohort of “liberals and environmentalists”—his own generation—to sign on. In typical fashion, Brand doesn’t stress just the practical side, but the new modes of life and thought that space colonization would require. Here’s my favorite passage:

In deemphasizing the exotic qualities of life in space [Gerard] O’Neill is making a mistake I think. People want to go not because it may be nicer than what they have on earth but because it will be harder. The harshness of space will oblige a life-and-death reliance on each other which is the sort of thing that people romanticize and think about endlessly but seldom get to do. This is where I look for new cultural ideas to emerge. There’s nothing like an impossible task to pare things down to essentials—from which comes originality. You can only start over from basics, and, once there, never quite in the same direction as before.

Brand also argues that the colonization project is “so big and so slow and so engrossing” that it will force the rest of civilization to take everything more deliberately: “If you want to inhabit a moon of Jupiter—that’s a reasonable dream now—one of the skills you must cultivate is patience. It’s not like a TV set or a better job—apparently cajolable from a quick politician. Your access to Jupiter has to be won—at its pace—from a difficult solar system.”

And the seemingly paradoxical notion of slowing down the pace of society is a big part of why Brand was so drawn to O’Neill’s vision of space colonies. Brand had lived through a particularly traumatic period in what the business writer Peter Drucker called “the age of discontinuity,” and he expressed strong reservations about the headlong rush of societal change:

The shocks of this age are the shocks of pace. Change accelerates around us so rapidly that we are strangers to our own pasts and even more to our futures. Gregory Bateson comments, “I think we could have handled the industrial revolution, given five hundred years.” In one hundred years we have assuredly not handled it…I feel serene when I can comfortably encompass two weeks ahead. That’s a pathological condition.

Brand’s misgivings are remarkably similar to what John W. Campbell was writing in Astounding in the late thirties: “The conditions [man] tries to adjust to are going to change, and change so darned fast that he never will actually adjust to a given set of conditions. He’ll have to adjust in a different way: he’ll adjust to an environment of change.” Both Brand and Campbell also believed, in the words of the former, that dealing with this challenge would somehow involve “the move of some of humanity into space.” It would force society as a whole to slow down, in a temporal equivalent of the spatial shift in perspective that environmentalists hoped would emerge from the first photos of the whole earth. Brand speaks of it as a project on the religious scale, and he closes: “Space exploration is grounded firmly on the abyss. Space is so impossible an environment for us soft, moist creatures that even with our vaulting abstractions we will have to move carefully, ponderously into that dazzling vacuum. The stars can’t be rushed. Whew, that’s a relief.”

Four decades later, it seems clear that the movement that Brand envisioned never quite materialized, although it also never really went away. Part of this has to do with the fact that many members of the core audience of The Whole Earth Catalog turned out to be surprisingly hostile to the idea. (Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at Space Colonies, a special issue of the magazine CoEvolution Quarterly that captures some of the controversy.) But the argument for space colonization as a means of applying the brakes to the relentless movement of civilization seems worth reviving, simply because it feels so counterintuitive. It certainly doesn’t seem like part of the conversation now. We’ve never gotten rid of the term “space race,” which is more likely to be applied these days to the perceived competition between private companies, as in a recent article in The New Yorker, in which Nicholas Schmidle speaks of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic as three startups “racing to build and test manned rockets.” When you privatize space, the language that you use to describe it inevitably changes, along with the philosophical challenges that it evokes. A recent book on the subject is titled The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, which returns to the colonial terminology that early opponents of O’Neill’s ideas found so repellent. The new space race seems unlikely to generate the broader cultural shift that Brand envisioned, largely because we’ve outsourced it to charismatic billionaires who seem unlikely to take anything slowly. But perhaps even the space barons themselves can sense the problem. In the years since he wrote “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” Brand has moved on to other causes to express the need for mankind to take a longer view. The most elegant and evocative is the Clock of the Long Now, which is designed to keep time for the next ten thousand years. After years of development, it finally seems to be coming together, with millions of dollars of funding from a billionaire who will house it on land that he owns in Texas. His name is Jeff Bezos.

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.

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