Stewart Brand was by Ken Kesey's side when things got freaky. Then he stepped off the bus and brought the hippies and the computer geeks together. That's when he really changed the world.
Credit: Photograph by Jake Stangel

After our hike, Brand takes me to Sausalito, where he lives on a refurbished tugboat with his wife of 28 years, Ryan Phelan. (Brand has a grown son from an earlier relationship.) He describes Phelan as a "serial entrepreneur," which he means as a term of ardent endearment. The two bought the 100-year-old boat, the Mirene, in 1982 for $8,000. It now has a fresh coat of black-and-white paint with shiny red trim and sits in Richardson Bay amid 400 other houseboats. A low-rider bicycle covered in shaggy fur is tied up on the dock. It's a relic from Burning Man, the annual gathering in the Nevada desert that Brand describes, accurately, as a grandchild of the experiments in community that he organized.

"Life on a boat is environmentally sound," Brand says. "In California, it better protects you from earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides. It even will buffer you from global warming's rising tides."

The Whole Earth Catalog used to keep its offices just off the dock here, and Brand shows me the area where he and the staff played volleyball every day at noon. (The entire Googleplex/tech-start-up notion that a hard-driving workplace should also be a source of merrymaking and healthful recreation owes a debt to Brand as well.) When he lived across the bay, in Belvedere, he rowed to work each day. He now keeps two offices nearby, one in a cramped prefabricated building and another on a rickety fishing boat propped up on land. Farther down is a small industrial-design shop, where guys Brand has known since they were kids are building marine-radar systems and robotically navigated submarine vessels that map the ocean floor. At the Mexican diner a block away, where we eat lunch, Brand simply tells the owner, "I'll have the usual."

Brand served in the Army as an officer from 1960 to 1963. I'm initially puzzled by how early and often in our conversations Brand praises his time in the military, but I come to see how much this period in his life defines him. He credits the Army with teaching him how to judge character, how to accomplish goals. "I learned how to back the fuck off and let the 'sergeants' do their work," he says. Although in some respects a flower child, Brand never grew a beard or long hair, last dropped acid in 1969, calls Zen boring, and dismisses the New Left activists of his youth as all talk and no action – a failing Brand clearly cannot abide. In 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,' Tom Wolfe's book on the psychedelic peregrinations of Kesey and his hippie companions, Brand is identified as the "restrained, reflective wing of the Merry Pranksters." (Krassner describes his time rooming with Brand as "a New Age Odd Couple," with Brand as Felix.) It was Brand who organized the Merry Pranksters' famous Trips Festival, a music-and-light show attended by 10,000 people, many of whom saw their first (of many) Grateful Dead shows there.

Maybe most famously, during an LSD-induced vision in 1966, Brand wrote in his journal, "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" The first space launch was more than a decade old, and Brand believed the image would transform how humans conceived of the planet. He began distributing buttons displaying his question – they quickly became popular in the Haight, in Oakland, and eventually at NASA. Photographs from space were released in 1968 and soon appeared on the covers of both the first Whole Earth Catalog and 'Life' magazine (and later on your Mac screen), providing just the jolt to environmental consciousness that Brand had envisioned. Two years later, more than 20 million Americans attended rallies for the inaugural Earth Day.