[CYBERBANNER]

[IMAGE OF STEWART BRAND]


STEWART BRAND

Interviewed June 15, 1995
in San Francisco, California

Brand is the founder of the WELL, a popular online service in San Francisco, and a pioneer of the electronic frontier.




Q: What is at stake here? Who wins and who loses?

SB: The sense I get of who wins and who loses is that the companies that are basically generous win where generous leads, prosperity tends to follow on the net. This means that often you start out without a business model, if you're a business operation and you get on the net and you try to explain to somebody about the business model either you tap dance and tell stories or you say we don't know yet, we're going to find out. And I suspect that the companies that take that attitude are going to do better in the long run....They're just going ahead on a do it and we'll find out what it means later.

My guess is that the information revolution is so pervasive that you don't have to worry about being on its cutting bleeding edge. It'll get you anyway and that's fine if you've got a comfortable way to sort of go along with it. You don't have to get version 1.0 of everything. In fact you're much better off usually getting 3 point something when all the bugs have been sorted out.

Q: When you say generosity what do you mean?

SB: Generosity means on the net the nature of how it's grown over 25 years is, is basically a gift economy. It hasn't been an economy with money changing hands up til now. But it's a thriving world of 30 million people. What are they doing, they're giving each other information so that's the nature of transaction on the net now. For a company or business to get into the net, they need to join that way of doing things and so typically it means giving away software as the people that are now in netscape did by originally giving away mosaic. It means often giving away content. Many authors now reporting full chapters or even all of their book on the web and this is treated as advertising so then what actually do you get paid for? You get paid for other things that emerge later. Personal relationships, authentication, follow up support, some kind of thing that happens outside of the net that is a transaction. So if I put part of a portrait I'm writing on the net and people are intrigued by that, they may go to a book store and buy the actual finished book.

Q: Is there an advantage to being there first?

SB: One of the peculiarities of a taking off domain in technology like the net is that microscopic players, people you've never heard of can suddenly become a major player just by making a product so good that everybody wants it. And major players with no end of money and no end of expertise might stumble around for years trying to catch up with that. And again, this is a replay of what we saw with personal computers whereas Xerox had the personal computer at Xerox PARC and basically were corporately too heavy-handed to take advantage of it. So, upstarts like Apple could snatch the market and run with it.

Q: What does this [revolution] mean for the economy?

SB: I think we're still finding out what the information economy wants to be. We've sort of got a pretty good idea of how a manufacturing economy works and recently when we came into fiercer competition with Japan, the U.S. economy and the manufacturing sector pretty much sucked in its gut and got adaptive. Where more and more of the economy is basically just bits flying around rather than atoms being shipped in Nicholas Negroponte's terms. We don't know a lot of that yet. One of the major differences is the fact that you can replicate bits endlessly without a big economic event happening and manufacturing is a big economic event every time you make another widget. But if you and I can make copies of a number of something that we like that's purely digital that changes the game. I think another part of what's happening is large companies can make it like Motorola or Hewlett Packard if they're mainly interested in constantly reinventing their own future. And large companies like IBM lost it in part because they seem to be spending a lot of their time protecting their own history and that's the difference that we're looking at here is fast moving, future oriented. And the first is slow moving, protect what you've got.

Q: Is this shift related to the critical importance of high tech in all businesses?

SB: I think a way to think about what's happening with the whole economy is it's as if chips are permeating absolutely everywhere. You can actually think within terms of computer chips. There are now more of them outside of computers than there are in computers. They're scattered all through all sorts of equipment and through robotic manufacturing and through wristwatches and automobiles and all over the place and one of the things they've being set up to do is start communicating with each other. And that means then that our entire environment basically comes through a massive parallel processing computer of which we're part of that processing and we're immersed in it.

Q: You seem to have a vision of a world out of control.

SB: When I look at the pace of change constantly increasing it's both awesome and exciting and I think -- how do we keep up, how do I keep up? As I get older, I'm 56 now, how am I going to keep up? You know another ten years with all this stuff coming along. By competing with 16 year olds ...there's a kind of gymnastic ability just mentally that's needed to stay with this kind of thing so there is a frightening aspect to it. I think part of what we'll be doing over the next decade or so is figuring out some ways to somehow make ourselves comfortable with that either by slowing down the pace of change.

We don't want to live with things that break that bad, if a whole net goes down it takes down the international currency with it, things like this. OK, that's a problem, let's slow down. That's one way it might slow down. Another one is just people saying this is too fast, I can't bear it. And that's I think the likelier way it'll go. You'll see a number of things that hold still. Like building preservation has come on as a major movement because a lot of people just want the physical reality that they live in to just hold still and be recognizable and if they got that, if they've got a place to stand, buildings that you know they feel comfortable with around them, then all this technological change is changing in relation to something. Instead of just being the whole world. And then that becomes a more attractive way to live. Nostrums and solutions and partial corrections like that as we go. The risk is jumping in with both feet, that's the big attraction. It's getting out on the absolute cutting edge and being sliced to bits by it often. That's the fun part. But a lot of the rest of the cilvilization is going to say great, take those chances, we're following every drop of blood here and let us know when you got it sorted out.

Q: As impossible a question as this, what do you think the future is going to be like?

SB: Well I think technology may settle down fairly quickly because people just demand it, they can't stand all the change. Or it may settle down later because it evolves, it comes to a point where people are kind of comfortable and a number of things hold still and that's fine. Or it may simply not settle down at all. And then we're forced to just become used to always surfing a constant wave, it's never calm. And that would be a very interesting thing for civilization because we've never done that before. We've always had the experience of a new technology always settling down so cars are all alike, airplanes are all alike and television was always the same for about 30 years and you can do business in that way. But now, they don't hold still that long and it may be that it's becoming smaller and smaller in time--of how long you can count on something staying the same. The great thing about the future under these circumstances is that it is fundamentally unknowable and that's both terrifying and very attractive. There are several ways that the technology could go. There are several ways that people's responses to the technology could go. And the global business network, which is the group I work with, has been looking at this and we've been talking about the change in the technology is so dismaying to so many people to so much business that there may be an attempt to just lock it in and say "ok Bill Gates run the world. Everything's going to be Microsoft, everything's going to be on the net, and the computers-- that's it. Let's have one standard and slow things down so versions come at a predictable pace." There's not a lot of competition which drives things too fast, it's too confusing. Let's just make it stable.

Q: So you'd have people asking for a monopoly.

SB: That would be people asking for a monopoly in order to manage creative technological change. It's one pretty reasonable solution and I think there's a lot of pressure in the marketplace to do that. At the same time it may be impossible to maintain any kind of technology lock in and then you're looking at a situation where basically because the technology is continuing to improve so rapidly, the attempts to lock in always fail and so there's -- "{let's have a standard so and so." Yes, that would be great because we can't because the competition is so much better and it just keeps going on like that. Well that could eventually stabilize. You might get standards that emerge that have taken time to evolve that people are really happy with and great, this is good, let's stick with this part of it. Let's stay there. Well that may be impossible. The technology is so fundamental and so rapidly self accelerating that even an attempt at later stabilization can't hold and basically what you've got then is permanent transition and then people becoming accustomed to -- "well ok, it's always going to change, it's never going to settle down. How do I live with that?"

Q: We're entering into a very uncertain and unsettling time.

SB: It would be dangerous and uncertain time that we're facing if there wasn't a lot of self correction built into not built into but grown into the system. It is such a bottom up self organizing even more self corrective than the standard market system that it seems to have ways of keeping up with change that you would not expect from a straight hierarchical government run or large corporation run only situation. It's --and fast keeping out of control--as the roboticist Rodney Brooks says.

Q: What are some of the shifts in society that we might expect?

SB: Well if total public cryptography and lots of financial transactions come to the net, will you pay taxes in the future? You won't. This is one terrifying fantasy from the government stand point. It may not be a fantasy because if lots of transactions go on to the net and they're completely encrypted in a way that they can't be tracked, a whole lot of financial activity basically goes black, goes underground. And then you can't tax transactions, you can't track transactions, all you've got left to tax basically is possessions at that point and so you may see sort of property taxes going up and sales taxes disappearing.

Q: That's a revolution.

SB: That's a revolution.

Q: So back to your vision of the future, you seem optimistic while aware of some extremely negative possibilities.

SB: The people who are reading and running and building computer and communication technology are basically optimists not just in their own personal sense of they're going to do well in this world but I think in a sense that it's a better world they're building. They're not flat out ideologues but the people who made a personal computer revolution have been and the people who are now making the net revolution happen are pretty public spirited characters who want the best for the world and the feeling is that as you get this really significant power to practically everybody that's good for everybody in the long run.

Q: What would make them be wrong.

SB: I think there are possibilities of technologies in the system that because these systems are new we don't know what they are yet and so there's always a kind of fretfulness about what if terrorists do this or what if viruses do that or what if from the revolutionary side, what if some big corporation or big government does it all their way. All these are various scenarios that emerge. That's good, that's all good cautionary thinking--to think about what would be the consequences of different ways that things might go. But the underlying optimism is pretty wide spread.

Q: Are you an optimist?

SB: Yes.

Q: Do you ever question your optimism?

SB: Sure, if you don't you're an idiot.



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