Review: Jamie Cohen on Stewart Brand
Several years ago, while conducting research on the history of virtual reality, I visited the famed SS Vallejo houseboat barge. The impressive wooden houseboat was the setting of a staged 1967 conversation between the boat’s owner Alan Watts, the countercultural priest who helped spread eastern philosophy in the US, psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary, and beat poets Alan Ginsburg and Gary Snyder, a moment that would envisage the “summer of love” and “hippie” culture. The ship is now permanently moored in Richardson Bay, north of San Francisco in Sausalito, and privately owned. The current owner graciously offered a tour, but before we began, he looked out across the marina and pointed to Stewart Brand’s houseboat. If the story takes place in the Bay Area, odds are, Stewart Brand makes an appearance.
Just a few years before the 1967 summit, Stewart Brand was invited on the barge by beat artist Jean Varda. Brand, after his years at Stanford mingling with international students and participating in the ROTC, found himself bored by mainstream activities but enamored of mystical-minded creatives. From there on, Brand’s nitrous-oxide-fueled confidence and family-inheritance-funded freedom helped weave his ideas into the fibers of Silicon Valley as it evolved from a nexus of countercultural thought and experimentation to the libertarian, technocratic force that digitally organizes our modern-day consumer experience.
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