Stewart Brand, a trained biologist, inspirer of the American environmental movement and cult figure of SiliconValley, has changed the world a few times.

In the 1960s he traveled around with the writer Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, the hippie commune from the very beginning.

And he started a campaign to get NASA to publish the pictures of the earth - with success.

He invented

Whole Earth Catalog

, which Apple founder Steve Jobs celebrated as the "Bible" of his generation.

As early as the 1960s and 1970s, Stewart Brand described the computer - once a symbol of centralized, bureaucratic control and military power - as a cool tool for personal self-empowerment and coined the term

personal computer

.

In the 1980s, he and the Google employee and epidemiologist Larry Brilliant founded one of the first online communities in the world called "The Well" and organized conferences for hackers.

Brand created a new kind of connection between counterculture and computer culture that shapes Silicon Valley to this day, as Stanford professor Fred Turner

demonstrates

in his brilliantly told story of ideas

From Counterculture to Cyberculture

.


The 81-year-old is currently working with computer scientists and technicians to design a gigantic clock that will strike for 10,000 years - a place of worship for long-term thinking, a symbol of deep times.

And he's working with celebrated Harvard geneticist George Church on the revival of extinct species through genetic manipulation.

In an interview with media scientist Bernhard Pörksen, he explains the techniques that can be used to solve the great problems of mankind.

Stewart Brand (left) in a zoom conversation with media scientist Bernhard Pörksen © Bernhard Pörksen

Bernhard Pörksen:

While we are talking to each other, you are sitting in the port of Sausalito in a decommissioned fishing boat that you have converted into your office and library.

I am sending in your direction from a hill in Tübingen.

We emailed, made phone calls, now we use Zoom.

Do you like that?

Stewart Brand:

Oh yes, this form of communicative effectiveness is a positive effect of the pandemic.

Neither of us have to leave the house or put on a white shirt and we can get straight to the point. Look, I'm 81 now. The clock is ticking.

My time is precious

Poerksen:

Then the crucial question right at the beginning: Will the Corona crisis create a better world?

Brand:

Possible, yes.

Because everyone is affected, everyone can spread the virus.

And all of them are needed to fight it, so it is a global shock that has some educational messages in store.

Poerksen:

Which exactly?

Brand:

That, as in the case of climate change, we need a mixture of professional competence and practical knowledge that shapes political action.

That we - on a global scale - need to compare the best strategies and urgently learn from the successes of others.

And that it is necessary to understand the difference between science and pseudo-science.

Belief in the wrong theory and the application of a wrong theory can be fatal, this is what is becoming clear.

And finally: It would be an illusion to expect quick solutions that work overnight, so it is time to practice long-term thinking in dealing with the dangers of humanity.

All of this makes the Corona crisis a lesson in civilization.


Poerksen:

But not all of them come to class in order to really take the lessons from this crisis to heart, do they?

There are the corona deniers, the conspiracy theorists, the populist bullshitters.

Brand:

Right.

And then our crazy president comes along and produces the next blizzard of absurd claims.

And yet: If you want, you can now see in real time and in detail how science works and how epidemiologists discuss and argue about the virus, corroborate hypotheses, drop them again, nuanced and how quickly some things become clear, but others remain mysterious.

And it becomes clear how responsive and adaptable individual nations act and to what extent scientific insight leads to political action - or not. 

Poerksen:

The world is now a gigantic laboratory ...

Brand:

... in which live experiments on pandemic control are carried out permanently.

The number of sick and dead people shows with brutal clarity what the situation is with the epidemiological know-how and operational expertise of governments and individual states.

We see all of a sudden, on a global scale, in terms of a single damn virus, what works and what doesn't.

We see how much democratic Taiwan has learned from its own mistakes in combating the Sars pandemic of 2002, what successes New Zealand, Germany or the authoritarian ruled South Korea have achieved in contrast to Italy or Iran.

It turns out that it is not the ideology or the form of government that is decisive.

What counts is the long-term preparation, the quick reaction in the form of tests and contact tracing, the expert and practical knowledge in combination with institutional learning ability and administrative effectiveness.