'Whole Earth' founder strolls into 'empowering field of mind tools'

Stewart Brand - counterculture guru and newest oracle of the Computer Age - shows up to talk high-tech via a wobbly black 10-speed bicycle. Now that his ''Whole Earth Software Catalog'' is out, Mr. Brand holds forth on whether this new opus will do for hackers what the legendary ''Whole Earth Catalog'' did for hippies.

The Whole Earth shift from funky tools to high technology was not only logical but inevitable, Brand says. ''Personal computers are tools that empower the individual,'' he continues. ''That's been their function since day one. That there would be a 'Whole Earth Software Catalog' was inevitable. The question is - why did we wait so long?''

Brand is tall, bald, and lean as a crowbar, with a smile like quicksilver, and eyes as steely as the Sausalito Harbor on this cold late-autumn day. Inside his office, shedding his black bomber's jacket and Greek fisherman's cap, he tilts back in his desk chair, flashing white socks as he props his feet on the nearby futon couch.

A year and a half ago, Doubleday offered Brand a $1.3 million advance on the basis of a 12-page proposal for a ''Whole Earth Catalog'' of software. ''During that period of severe recession in the publishing industry,'' Brand says with a chuckle, ''we greeted the advance with a mixture of delight, awe, and disgust - disgust that an advance that large would go to something thought to be a nonsubject by nonbookmakers.''

Disgust aside, the Whole Earth crew accepted the advance, and within a year and a half put together their review of what Brand calls the ''empowering new field of mind tools.''

According to Brand, personal computer use is smack in the middle of what his bunch has been about all these years. ''Computer users are in their 30s and 40s, '' he says. ''A lot of them are 'Whole Earth Catalog' users. Now they have income, still have curiosity, . . . and they have no immunity at all to personal computers.''

Brand has been tracking the computer revolution since 1968. He wrote about hackers for Rolling Stone magazine in 1972, and in 1975 he included a personal computer section in Coevolution Quarterly, his journal of ''unorthodox cultural news.'' In 1983, he was given a Kaypro by the Western Behavioral Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif., to teach a class to senior executives via a telecommunications network. He became hooked.

''There I was with a computer finally,'' he recalls. ''I realized that telecommunications was the ideal medium for a seminar - the closest thing to the jacked-up atmosphere of Samuel Johnson's coffee shop.'' The constraints of the medium perfected the message. ''You reach out with your best ideas and writing to people you respect and want to impress. If you go on and on,'' he adds with a wicked smirk, ''you get punished. No one responds. You tend to get pithy.''

Doubleday's break-even point for the book is 340,000 copies. For the Whole Earth gang to start seeing more money, the book must sell 540,000. If it does that well, says San Francisco literary agent Michael Larson, it will do so because of the cachet the ''Whole Earth Catalog'' has - not because it is computer related.

At the time Brand received his advance, the computer book market was expected to eclipse the trade fiction market by the end of '84. But things have cooled. ''The number of books released in late '83 and '84 doubled and tripled,'' says Mike McCarthy, news editor of InfoWorld. ''The market is still growing, but everyone is getting a smaller piece of it.'' Plus, he says, the glut of computer books, many of them fast-produced trash, has produced a reader backlash.

Though the ''Catalog'' has already gone into a second printing based on a favorable New York Times review, most reaction has been mixed. The biggest objection is timeliness. ''The industry is moving so fast,'' says John Markoff, West Coast editor of Byte magazine and one of 162 ''Whole Earth Software Catalog'' contributors, ''anything on paper is bound to be dated, due to long lead times demanded by the publishing industry.'' John Barry, a book reviewer for InfoWorld, who wrote that the catalog suffers from ''a bad case of the counterculture cutes,'' says the book would be most useful to computer novices.

The back cover of the ''Whole Earth Software Catalog'' features a photo of a Wolverine adding machine captioned ''Personal computer, 1941.'' That same Wolverine sits in Brand's office, atop a bookcase containing several volumes of ''Who's Who,'' a dictionary and encyclopedia, and a book called ''Computer Wimp.'' On one wall is a map of the ocean floors and a brass ship's clock. On another is a framed certificate commemorating the National Book Award Brand received for ''The Last Whole Earth Catalog.'' He points to it and laughs.

''One of the judges resigned rather than consider the 'Whole Earth Catalog' a book,'' he explains. ''It wasn't proposed for the award by Random House - the other two judges asked for it. Their rationale was that when people look back at 1972, our book will date the time.'' He pauses. ''It's true in retrospect, but at the time it was thought radical.''

Brand has been called an advanced cultural scout, the bellwether for an entire generation. A decade ago, Sports Illustrated called him ''the pioneer, if not the catalyst in almost every fad of the past 10 years.'' He delights in putting new ideas before people.

In the early '70s, Brand founded the Point Foundation to give away the $1.5 million earned by the ''Last Whole Earth Catalog.'' Today he is packing up for a tour to hawk his book. That he wants it to sell is obvious, but whether he sees any money from it, he appears not to care. ''Occasionally we sell things expensively, but no individuals are getting rich,'' says Brand, who lives on a partly rebuilt tugboat named Mirene.

''Never be finished,'' he says of his home, with a satisfied shrug. ''It floats. We live there. Just ran out of money to pour into it.''

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