Stewart Brand: ‘Look At the World Through the Eyes Of A Fool’
Q: Has society become too eager to discard things and ideas?
(…) I think we have become too shortsighted. Everything is moving faster, everybody is multitasking. Investments are made for short-term returns, democracies run on short-term election cycles. Speedy progress is great, but it is also chancy. When everything is moving fast, the future looks like it is next week. But what really counts is the future ten or hundred years from now. And we should also bear in mind that the history that matters is not only yesterday’s news but events from a decade or a century or a millennium ago. To balance that, we want to look at the long term: the last ten thousand years, the next ten thousand years. (…)
When NASA released the first photographs of the earth from space in the 1960s, people changed their frame of reference. We began to think differently about the earth, about our environment, about humanity. (…)
There had been many drawings of the earth from space, just like people made images of cities from above before we had hot-air balloons. But they were all wrong. Usually, images of the earth did not include any clouds, no weather, no climate. They also tended to neglect the shadow that much of the earth is usually in. From most angles, the earth appears as a crescent. Only when the sun is directly behind you would you see the whole planet brightly illuminated against the blackness of space. (…)
The question of framing
I think there is always the question of framing: How do we look at things? The first photos of the earth changed the frame. We began to talk more about “humans” and less about Germans or Americans. We began to start talking about the planet as a whole. That, in a way, gave us the ability to think about global problems like climate change. We did not have the idea of a global solution before. Climate Change is a century-sized problem. Never before has humanity tried to tackle something on such a long temporal scale. Both the large scale and the long timeframe have to be taken seriously.
Q: Do you believe in something like a human identity?
In a way, the ideal breakthrough would be to discover alien life. That would give us a clear sense of our humanity. But even without that, we have done pretty well in stepping outside our usual frame of reference and looking at the planet and at the human race from the outside. That’s nice. I would prefer if we didn’t encounter alien intelligence for a while. (…)
Q: So we have to improve the extrapolations and predictions that we make based on present data sets?
We like to think that we are living in a very violent time, that the future looks dark. But the data says that violence has declined every millennium, every century, every decade. The reduction in cruelty is just astounding. So we should not focus too much on the violence that has marked the twentieth century. The interesting question is how we can continue that trend of decreasing violence into the future. What options are open to us to make the world more peaceful? Those are data-based questions. (…)
Q: When you started to publish the Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968, you said that you wanted to create a database so that “anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything.” Is that the idea of the internet, before the internet?
Right, I had forgotten about that quote. Isn’t it nice that I didn’t have to go through the work of collecting that information, it just happened organically. Some people say to me that I should revive the catalogue and my answer is: The internet is better than any catalogue or encyclopedia could ever be. (…)
I don’t think the form determines the triviality of information or the level of discussion. By having much more opportunities and much lower costs of online participation, we are in a position to really expand and improve those discourses. (…)
When Nicholas Negroponte said a few years ago that every child in the world needed a laptop computer, he was right. Many people were skeptical of his idea, but they have been proven wrong. When you give internet access to people in the developing world, they immediately start forming educational networks. They expand their horizons, children teach their parents how to read and write. (…)
Q: On the back cover of the 1974 Whole Earth Catalogue, it said something similar: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Why?
It proposes that a beginner’s mind is the way to look at new things. We need a combination of confidence and of curiosity. It is a form of deep-seated opportunism that goes to the core of our nature and is very optimistic. I haven’t been killed by my foolishness yet, so let’s keep going, let’s take chances. The phrase expresses that our knowledge is always incomplete, and that we have to be willing to act on imperfect knowledge. That allows you to open your mind and explore. It means putting aside the explanations provided by social constructs and ideologies.
I really enjoyed your interview with Wade Davis. He makes a persuasive case for allowing native cultures to keep their cultures intact. That’s the idea behind the Rosetta Project as well. Most Americans are limited by the fact that they only speak one language. Being multilingual is a first step to being more aware of different perspectives on the world. We should expand our cognitive reach. I think there are many ways to do that: Embrace the internet. Embrace science. Travel a lot. Learn about people who are unlike yourself. I spent much of my twenties with Native American tribes, for example. You miss a lot of important stuff if you only follow the beaten path. If you look at the world through the eyes of a fool, you will see more. But I probably hadn’t thought about all of this back in 1974. It was a very countercultural move.
Q: In politics, we often talk about policies that supposedly have no rational alternative. Is that a sign of the stifling effects of ideology?
Ideologies are stories we like to tell ourselves. That’s fine, as long as we remember that they are stories and not accurate representations of the world. When the story gets in the way of doing the right thing, there is something wrong with the story. Many ideologies involve the idea of evil: Evil people, evil institutions, et cetera. Marvin Minsky has once said to me that the only real evil is the idea of evil. Once you let that go, the problems become manageable. The idea of pragmatism is that you go with the things that work and cast aside lovely and lofty theories. No theory can be coherent and comprehensive enough to provide a direct blueprint for practical actions. That’s the idea of foolishness again: You work with imperfect theories, but you don’t base your life on them.
Q: So “good” is defined in terms of a pragmatic assessment of “what works”?
Good is what creates more life and more options. That’s a useful frame. The opposite of that would not be evil, but less life and fewer options.”
See also: ☞ Whole Earth Catalogue