The retrospective futurism of the Stewart brand
Now what, exactly, is the oil of Kama Sutra? It may be obvious here in the semi-liberated 21st century, but for Dick Cavett in 1971 it was not. Featured with a bottle of the substance on an episode of his classic talk show, Cavett showed a sort of outraged bemusement. “Is this real Kama Sutra oil? he asked, his cheeks flushing. “What is the goal of Kama Sutra Oil? In a series of follow-up questions, the hears practically doubled, until Cavett finally got a clear answer. “You make love with, of course,” explained his guest, a 32-year-old hippie named Brand Stewart.
Just a few seconds – not enough – of this freewheel maintenance appear in an enjoyable, if not odd enough, new documentary about Brand’s life and legacy, which premieres this week at South by Southwest’s online film festival. His title, We are like gods, comes from Brand’s most famous creation, the Whole Earth Catalog, the multi-volume manual whose pages featured “tools” for everything from arts and crafts to ancient styles of love. (“We’re like gods,” Brand wrote in a 1969 mission statement, “and we might as well make it.”) Part of the mystique of the catalog was, and remains, its shortened lifespan. By the time Brand was giving Dick Cavett a mystery lube on national TV, he had already shut down Whole earth down. “The idea of being completely successful and then quitting… sounds healthier to us,” Brand told Cavett. Basically, hippie prerogative: when something becomes mainstream, deny it.
In We are like gods, Brand is emerging as one of the iconic players of the technological age, in and out of the most important rooms at the right times in history. Most of its occasional followers will experience the difficult trajectory. What they might not know are Brand’s tools of clairvoyance. Drugs, to begin with. Also a gift to control boredom. Finally, expert networking. Through the catalog, Brand has partnered with Doug Engelbart, from whom he learned the potential of network communication, which made him think first social media, etc. “Counterculture intellectual Johnny Appleseed,” someone calls him, sowing the earth with tendencies of thought. Slightly impressed with their subject matter, filmmakers David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg describe Brand as that rare type of tech prophet, a man who never looks back. A true futurist without compromise.