“Stewart Brand didn’t just happen to be around when the personal computer came into being; he’s the one who put “personal” and “computer” together in the same sentence and introduced the concept to the world. He wasn’t just a member of the world’s first open online community, the Well; he co-founded it. And he wasn’t just another of those 60s acid casualties; he was the definitive 60s acid casualty. Well, not casualty exactly, but he was there taking LSD in the days when it was still legal, with the most famous hipster of them all, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
For nearly five decades, Stewart Brand has been hanging around the cutting edge of whatever is the most cutting thing of the day. Largely because he’s discovered it and become fascinated with it long before anyone else has even noticed it but, in retrospect, it does make him seem like the west coast’s answer to Zelig, the Woody Allen character who just happens to pop up at key moments in history. Because no one pops up like Stewart Brand pops up, right there, just on the cusp of something momentous.
I discover this for myself when I go and hunt down my ancient copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s one of the defining pieces of new journalism, a rip-roaring ride through 1960s psychedelia in which Wolfe accompanies Kesey and the Pranksters across the States on a Day-Glo bus. And although I know about Brand’s connection to Kesey, I didn’t know he was in it. But of course he is, right there on page two, driving the Pranksters’ pick-up truck (“a thin, blond guy”, according to Wolfe, with “a blazing disk on his forehead” and “a whole necktie of Indian beads … but no shirt”).
“That is classic Stewart,” says Fred Turner, associate professor of communication at Stanford, who has written a book about Brand. “He only hung out with the Pranksters for about 10 minutes.”
And he’s right there on page two, of the definitive account of them.
“Exactly. He has a sort of genius for being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.””