At 2,350 feet, we take a break beside the remnants of "The Crookedest Railroad in the World," a 19th-century train that once brought sightseers up the mountain's switchbacks to this very spot. By now, I expect Brand to wow me with yet another gadget. He does not disappoint, placing on a picnic table before us what looks like a miniature rocket launcher. He twists it onto a thermal mug rigged with a French press, fires up a tiny propane tank, and, minutes later, pours me a cup of coffee.
As we sip our drinks, I bring out my notebook and read a question from a long list I've prepared. Brand raises his face to the sun and closes his eyes, remaining like that for nearly a half-minute without uttering a word. He looks so convincingly becalmed that I wonder if he's nodded off. I'm about to nudge him when Brand's eyes pop open, and he delivers a well-considered reply to my query, the subject of which I have by then forgotten.
"I'm allergic to repeating myself," he says, by way of explaining his not-uncommon reflective silences. "I'm going to raise awareness about, say, the importance of nanotechnology, but I'm not going to be 'Mr. Nanotech' the rest of my life." Which makes sense. You don't amass a résumé befitting the most interesting man in the world by being consistent. Rather, Brand has abandoned successful projects, radically revised his opinions, and broken with orthodoxies he helped create. He stopped regularly publishing the Whole Earth Catalog in 1972, the same year he wrote one of the first articles in a national magazine on computer hackers – "Spacewar," for 'Rolling Stone.' He co-founded the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), a primordial dial-up internet-service provider and influential online forum for Deadheads, techies, reporters, and often a compelling mix of Bay Area freethinkers. He organized the first Hackers Conference, in 1984, bringing together MIT computer geeks, 1970s-era hardware freaks, and a new clique of hardcore gamers, whom Brand recognized as part of the same creative continuum. It was at this conference that he coined the phrase "information wants to be free." Prophetically, he said it also "wants to be expensive." From 1974 to 1984, he edited another eclectic publication, CoEvolution Quarterly, which introduced ideas many of his admirers must have found unconventional, if not outright heretical: cybernetics, space colonies, ecogenetics, even the flat tax. Since 1988, he has helped run Global Business Network, a scenario-planning consultancy (think risk assessment, forecasting models, and something called "visioning") that brings the futurist outlook to Bechtel, General Electric, Siemens Westinghouse, the Pentagon – clients one certainly wouldn't associate with the Whole Earth Catalog. Then, in 2009, Brand published 'Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto,' in which he declared nuclear energy, genetically modified foods, and increased urbanization essential "green" solutions to global warming. Needless to say, some of those who considered Brand a fellow environmental traveler found these "solutions" troubling. Amory Lovins, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute and a longtime friend of Brand's, said the book's advocacy of nuclear energy ran contrary to "Stewart's reputation and prior contributions to clear thinking" and "can only worsen climate and security risks."
Still, I searched and found no trail of bitter ex-associates who felt betrayed or abandoned by Brand. He has an uncanny way of consoling those who don't see eye to eye with him. He wants his mind changed and is without ideology or ego. The open-source software activist Tim O'Reilly describes Brand as an "intellectual Renaissance man, interested in all aspects of human knowledge." Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who founded the WELL with Brand and later went on to run several companies and major philanthropic organizations (Brilliant also helped eradicate polio in India and spent time living on Wavy Gravy's commune, the Hog Farm), says, "Stewart's gift, his genius, is that he has given birth from his fertile, polymath mind to a dozen different cultural phenomena that have shaped our times."
The satirist Paul Krassner lived with Brand in the early 1970s, moving from New York to San Francisco to co-edit a supplement of the Catalog with Ken Kesey. Krassner could recall only one incident in which the roomies had any real tension, a conflict prompted by Krassner and his girlfriend "borrowing" Brand's bed. Not only did the woman in question turn out to have her period, but the two of them breakfasted on the sheets, leaving the bed, as Krassner put it, "bloody and granola-y." Brand was pissed when he returned home, but peace and understanding were restored through the use of a tool advertised in the Catalog: The two men brandished foam bats called "boffers" and harmlessly thrashed each other.
As Brand dries our REI coffee mugs with a Lycra headband he has been wearing around his neck, I ask him about the moments in his life when he felt he had a clear sense of the future. He does another one of his reflective pauses and then finally says, "An interesting question to ask is what predictions have I been wrong about in my lifetime." These would include, among others, Fuller domes, the geodesic shelters designed by futurist Buckminster Fuller, whose work inspired the first Whole Earth Catalog. "They leaked and made terrible homes," Brand says. The "no hope without dope" thing, he says with a laugh, seemed promising back when he was hanging with Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia, but turned out to be a dead end. There was the Whole Earth Software Catalog, which was almost wholly obsolete by the time it reached publication. Brand predicted that he'd live to see space colonies and nuclear fusion (he remains hopeful about the latter). He opposed the adoption of the metric system. More recently, the Long Now Foundation launched something called Long Bets, an online venue where people can wager on the accuracy of opposing viewpoints. In 2008, Warren Buffett used the site to bet a group of hedge-fund traders $1 million that the S&P would outperform their picks over a 10-year period. Brand thought Long Bets would take off, becoming a locus for the big debates of our time. "I don't get it," he says, sounding still surprised. "The site is totally lame and half-assed."