Stewart Brand: The Long Now

April 20th, 1999 | Category: Interviews

Stewart BrandAfter chronicling the innovations of M.I.T in the late eighties, Stewart Brand turned to the aging of old buildings, and thereafter, to the aging of civilization for his subject matter. He is often called “the least recognized, most influential thinker in America.” Whether we’re talking about the Internet, technology in general, architecture or Sociology, Stewart’s insights abound.

Roy Christopher: What can you tell me in advance about your forthcoming book, The Clock of the Long Now?

Stewart Brand: It’s a brief book on a large new subject: civilization learning how to take long-term responsibility. It’s also a book about the early stages of building a 10,000-year Clock, the world’s slowest computer, designed by Danny Hillis.

RC: I’ve been asking most everyone this, but being a pioneer on the Web, do you feel a loss with all the corporate interests now involved where it used to be a hip-geek phenomenon?

SB: Shoot, like all the other geeks, I get paid (at Global Business Network) to educate the corporate interests. They’ve been playing catch-up for five decades now, and that doesn’t seem about to change, what with the all-empowering Internet revolution overlaying on the ongoing Moore’s Law revolution. The fastest minds continue to guide.

RC: Your book The Media Lab is all about different aspects of media and information. Tell me about How Buildings Learn. It seems a most curious turn from the context in which you’re usually found.

SB: I was fleeing Versionitis in the infotech biz, where one winds up paying too much attention to what goes on in a weekly time frame. Buildings flow at about a 30-year turnover rate, and are the main capital event in every advanced economy. Since no one had looked systemically at what happens with buildings over time, I had a scoop, and I had it all to myself for six working years. That project led directly to The Clock of the Long Now, where the subject is what happens to civilizations over time, and to Civilization as a whole, which is just 400 generations (10,000 years) old.

How Buildings Learn has had a surprisingly strong following among software engineers, along with Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which is also about architecture.

RC: Who do you admire writing right now?

SB: Ellen Ullman (Close to the Machine), for her programmer’s insight and her deeply literate and original writing style.

James P. Carse (Finite and Infinite Games), for the finest manifesto idea and style since Martin Buber’s I and Thou

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