Stories of Abundance: The Power of YOU

Do you know why I'm so insistent on the notion that one person -- one bold entrepreneur -- has the power to change the world?

Because world history is riddled with examples of how a single DIY innovator has shaped the future.

Take Stewart Brand, who I wrote about in Abundance.

Brand singlehandedly transformed the public's perception of the computer from a corporation- and government-only tool to a powerful, adoptable technology for everyone. He even termed the coin "personal computer."

I've included the full excerpt below for some perspective.


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Abundance Excerpt: Stewart Brand

In the opening pages of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe describes "a thin blond guy with a blazing disk on his forehead too, and a whole necktie made of Indian beads. No shirt, however, just an Indian bead necklace on bare skin and a white butcher's coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it." This guy is Stewart Brand: a Stanford-trained biologist, ex-army paratrooper, turned Ken Kesey cohort and fellow Merry Prankster who was about to become the voice of one of most potent forces for abundance the world has yet seen: the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) innovator.

The story goes like this: a few months after Wolfe's book was published, in March 1968, Brand was reading a copy of Barbara Ward's Spaceship Earth and trying to answer a pair of questions: How can I help all my friends who are currently moving back to the land? And, more importantly, how can I save the planet?

His solution was pretty straightforward. Brand would publish a catalog in the vein of L.L. Bean, blending liberal social values, ideas about appropriate technology, ecological notions of whole systems thinking, and -- perhaps most importantly -- a DIY work ethic. This ethic has a long history, dating back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 essay "Self-Reliance," resurfacing again in the Arts and Crafts renaissance of the early twentieth century, then gaining even more steam with the hot-rodding and home improvement movements of the 1950s. But the late 1960s marked the largest communal uprising in American history, with conservative estimates putting the number at ten million Americans moving back to the land. All of these transplants soon learned the same lesson: agrarian success depended on one's DIY capabilities, and those capabilities, as Brand so clearly realized, depended on one's access to tools -- and here tools mean anything from information about windmills to ideas about how to start a small business. "I was in the thrall of Buckminster Fuller," Brand recalls. "Fuller had put out this idea that there's no use trying to change human nature. It's been the same for a very long time. Instead, go after the tools. New tools make new practices. Better tools make better practices."

Out of all of this was born the Whole Earth Catalog (WEC). The first version, published in July 1968, was a six-page mimeograph that began with Brand's now legendary DIY statement of purpose: "We are as gods and we might as well get good at it," and then a selection of tools and ideas to facilitate exactly this kind of personal transformation. Because so many people were then interested in such ideas, the catalog had the downstream effect of uniting once disparate DIY-ers into a potent force. As TED founder Richard Saul Wurman explains: "This was a catalog for hippies that won the National Book Award. It was a paradigm shift in information distribution. I think you can draw a pretty straight line from the WEC to a lot of today's culture. It created an aroma that was sniffed by an awful lot of people. It's so pervasive that most don't even know the source of the smell."

At the center of that scent was the WEC's embrace of personal technology: most importantly the PC. Brand is credited with inventing the term "personal computer," and while some of this had to do with his scientific background, more had to do with the Stanford Research Institute. In 1968 SRI was both at the cutting edge of computer research and located just around the corner from the Menlo Park offices of the WEC. Brand was a frequent visitor. On these trips, he was exposed to the computer mouse, interactive text, videoconferencing, teleconferencing, email, hypertext, a collaborative real-time editor, video games, and more. Brand saw the amazing potential of these tools and, in the pages of the WEC, told the world about what he'd seen.

"Stewart is singlehandedly responsible for American culture's acceptance of the personal computer," says Kevin Kelly (who was a WEC editor before founding Wired magazine). "In the sixties, computers were Big Brother. The Man. They were used by the enemy: massive, gray-flannel-suit corporations and the government. But Brand saw what was possible with computers. He understood that if these tools became personal, it flipped the world around into a place where people were gods."

Brand's marriage of self-reliance and technology helped shape the DIY innovator into a force for abundance, but just as important was the movement's adoption of two more WEC principles. The first was what would later become known as the "hacker ethic," the idea -- as Brand famously put it -- that "information wants to be free." The second was the then strange notion that business could be a force for good. "Brand united the idea that you can do it yourself with new Utopian society," explains technology writer Howard Rheingold. "He really believed that given the right tools, any change was possible." And, as a man named Fred Moore discovered, the personal computer was exactly the right tool.