The Case for a Maintenance Mindset
A conversation with Stewart Brand, one of the most influential thinkers and pioneers of our time, still known for his 1968 creation, the Whole Earth Catalog. We talk to him about his latest project: a book, being publicly drafted online, entitled "Maintenance: Of Everything"
Written by TODD OPPENHEIMER
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, once called Brand’s best-known creation, the Whole Earth Catalog, “one of the bibles of my generation…like Google in paperback form 35 years before Google came along.” A couple of decades later, Brand helped launch one of the world’s first online communities, a forum and email service called “The WELL” (acronym for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link).
Stewart Brand’s dreams, as well as his influence, began during his years in San Francisco as an integral member of what might be called the 1960s’ counterculture intelligensia. His associates then, and in the decades since, include names that are now legend: the Grateful Dead rock band; author Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters; Buckminster Fuller, an architect, philosopher, systems theorist, and prolific author; and Kevin Kelley, founding editor of WIRED magazine.
Initially educated in biology, at Stanford, Brand ended up using that background to anchor his work as a writer and social thinker. Over the years, he founded or helped start a long string of groundbreaking ventures. Today, his primary enterprise is The Long Now Foundation and its Millennium Clock, both of which dare to look at our history, and our future, over millennia rather than centuries. Brand has also published several books, including “How Buildings Learn,” “The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility,” and “Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.”
In much of his writings, and with each venture, Brand consistently harkens back to his work more than five decades ago on the Whole Earth Catalog, which appeared with a very simple phrase under its title: “access to tools.” The publication (as much a magazine as a catalog) was released several times a year under Brand’s leadership from 1968 to 1972, and occasionally thereafter by others until 1998. In issue after issue, the catalog’s pages were stuffed with detailed information, photos, essays, and articles, large and small, all in extremely fine print, focusing on tools for just about anything.
By 1972, the Whole Earth Catalog—which served, perhaps unwittingly, as one of the best ways to tune into the era’s counterculture—had sold more than a million copies. That year, it also won the first National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs, the only instance of a catalog winning such an award.
To keep the Whole Earth Catalog’s achievements and its place in history alive, in October 2023, a complete archive of the publication, as well as its various offshoots (such as CoEvolution Quarterly, and Whole Earth Review) was put online. All are available for free at wholeearth.info.
To this day, Brand continues to think about tools, and what they can do, in their broadest sense. That focus brought him to his latest writing project—a book, which he is drafting publicly, online, called “Maintenance: Of Everything.” As the title implies, Brand argues that if people can develop a kind of enlightened “maintenance mind,” we can improve our lot in many of our endeavors—ranging from how we work and play to how we care for the planet, or even wage war. As he continues to refine the book, Brand is inviting comments from readers (and it looks like, so far, he has managed to reply to most if not all of them).
Craftsmanship’s Editor and Publisher, Todd Oppenheimer, recently met with Brand (via Zoom) to discuss his findings, and how a maintenance mindset might help us revive a culture of repair. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TO: What inspired you to take on a subject like maintenance?
SB: A friend suggested it. I had written a book about how buildings learn, and it had a chapter called “Maintenance.” That book was basically a photojournalistic book. I was trained as a photojournalist; that was my first calling. So to be able to do this book online with even better imagery than I could manage with “How Buildings Learn” appeals to me.
If you don’t mind my asking, what was the other book idea that you were going to do instead of this?
It was going to be called “Hacking Civilization.” But this is way more interesting.
I know you’re not nearly finished, but what are your favorite bits in the book at this point?
I think the retelling of the Golden Globe race in 1968 [the first race to circumnavigate the globe requiring entrants to sail solo, with no assistance, and no pit-stops for supplies]. It compares the maintenance styles of the three major winners and losers. That just worked out like a charm.
You spend quite a bit of time in the book writing about manuals. What draws you to that subject?
The earliest manuals, in 17th-century England, were trying to take down the barriers between the classes. Diderot [the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who edited one of the early encyclopedias] was trying to instruct his fellow aristocrats on how the world really worked, and how much they owed to people that they looked down on. And to get over that. So the leveling aspect of early manuals was a surprise to me, and I hope to the reader.
As the world gets further and further away from mechanisms that we can fix ourselves, do we lose some piece of the human spirit? And is there any way around that?
This is now being much discussed in the context of artificial intelligence. Because these large language models and other forms of AI, they’re coming in, they’re building on basically massive data structures and then doing very adroit things to deal with it. How they actually deal with it is invisible to us.
On the other hand, how our body works is invisible to us. And we are constantly figuring out, well, if you do this, that good thing happens, and if you do that, that bad thing happens. So you’re negotiating with these systems. Now we’re figuring out how to negotiate with climate to be a little less out of whack. So the negotiation, which is what we do with anything we care about, is always with us. We just have different kinds of leverage.
So you feel like, eventually, even with AI, people like Kyle Wiens [founder of iFixit, an organization that fights to make devices repairable by anyone, and produces manuals and workshops so everyone can do such repairs] will figure out ways to tinker with the inside of AI, and have it not so hidden from the general public?
It’s too early to say. Some of the systems say take it or leave it, here it is. Other systems invite you in to mess around and improve it. I think you’ll have a mix of those. Often that’s a cost thing. The wooden tugboat that both my wife and I live on, we bought for $8,000 because people thought it was about to sink. Then we put a couple of $100,000 of work into it in the last 40 years.
I’m curious to hear how your current work stems from what you’re most famous for, which of course is the Whole Earth Catalog. I cannot believe you put that much material together, even if it wasn’t frequent. You must have had to fight yourself every day not to acquire every single item you wrote about.
Well, we did acquire them, mostly they were books, which are incredibly cheap, considering how valuable they are when they’re good. The crappy ones I threw in the woodstove that heated the garage where we worked.
What changes did you make in your own life, you know, from studying maintenance?
I’m a relatively terrible maintainer compared to my wife [Ryan Phelan]. And it’s partly because I’m an optimist and she’s a pessimist. And pessimists, in regard to things like maintenance, are much more realistic. I did come to realize that maintenance-mind versus neglect-mind is embedded in certain cultures. In Japanese culture for example, maintenance is embedded so deeply, they barely have a word for it.
With Swiss culture, and somehow across all three [neighbors]—French, German, and Italian versions of Swiss—they’re all very meticulous about taking care of things. And likewise personalities, which I may try to look at later, but I’m not sure there’s much to be found there. I just know that whatever it is, I haven’t got it.
I was fascinated by your cultural findings, especially in your chapters on various wars, and how that stemmed from a cultural difference between the Israelis and Arab countries in general. Can you talk about that a little?
I wound up having to come around to weapons, time after time, at war after war. I was fortunate in that I was a professional rifleman when I was young. I was an officer in the infantry in the U.S. Army for two years just before Vietnam. So I sort of had the basic frame of mind of understanding things in military terms. The military takes maintenance very, very seriously, and they keep discovering new levels of seriousness they have to apply.
This turned out to be an issue in both the Ukraine war going on now, and in the October war in 1973 between Egypt and Israel, in that they’re deploying a lot of tanks under not only combat but desert conditions. The Egyptians would just walk away from a tank that wasn’t behaving the way they thought it should. Or if it ran out of fuel, they’d say, ‘Well, the camel’s dead, so we have to walk back.’
The Israelis were more in a sort of underdog mode of ‘take advantage of everything you’ve got’—and everything that you can capture. Today, the whole subject has been elevated by the military with this concept of sustainment, which is what they used to call support. They’re elevating it to damn near a principle of war.
How do you think these ideas can apply to the bigger challenges we’re facing today? I think of climate crisis and international conflict, of course, but also economic inequality, even the heated disruption in politics. Are you are you planning on going there with this book?
Yeah, I’m giving a talk later this week to the Santa Fe Institute on the difference between a global civilization and a planetary civilization. The shift from one to the other is because of climate change. We’re having to take on planetary duties that we’ve never really acknowledged before.
One of the links is the idea of infrastructure. We’ve gotten fairly good at figuring out the economics and practice of providing infrastructure—clean water coming in, dirty water going out; electricity priced to manage usage, and all the rest. What I think we’re going to be taking on now is the concept of natural infrastructure.
We’ve done this with rivers, and we’ve done it to some extent with watersheds. You have nice clean water because the watersheds that feed the reservoirs that then feed the system are maintained in pristine, don’t-go-piss-in-the-reservoir conditions. Likewise, a stable climate can be thought of as infrastructure. And an unstable climate is infrastructure in need of some work.
In other words, you think we need to look at our climate problems dispassionately, almost clinically, as just another system that needs to be fixed?
Yes, I think we’re going to be finding that out increasingly, with a lot of different natural systems. People might be able to say, ‘Well, we don’t completely understand the climate. So how can you do things like geoengineering?’ That would be somewhat like saying, ‘Well, we don’t completely understand the human body. So don’t go doing surgery, or trying to come up with drugs that will get rid of your depression or your headache or whatever, because you’re playing God, and you’re screwing around with a mysterious system, and there’ll be unintended consequences, and you’ll be so sorry.’ Well, with medicine, by now the intended consequences are pretty much what happens.
The same thing applies in wildlife conservation. Today, wildlife biologists are good at what they do. And we now usually get what we want. I think that is how it’s going to play out with climate. We try a little of this, a little of that, and watch some of the natural experiments happening anyway.
Volcanos are a good example. When a really big volcano goes off and sends a lot of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, it cools the whole world. OK, that’s good to know. Lately, we’ve removed a lot of the sulfur oxides from shipping [tankers], and suddenly the oceans are getting hotter. We did not intend that, and we don’t know what to do about it. But if we decide to become our own artificial volcanos, and put various kinds of aerosols in the stratosphere, at the appropriate time and level, we can buy a little more time while we stop burning fossil fuels.
Sulfur dioxide and other pollutants actually help cool the ocean?
Well, this is what made Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning climatologist, decide that we had to do geoengineering. He had done the research that revealed how much heating was going to happen from pollution from coal-fired plants and so on. As those were phased out, we were going to get a lot of extra heating that was directly human-caused in this funny way. So we needed to offset our own improvement.
So maybe the goal is to control the coal pollution, so you get the pollutants you want and trap the ones you don’t want?
No, we stop burning coal, period. While cleaner air causes short-term heating, stopping fossil fuel combustion is necessary to stop long-term heating. So, to offset the heating that comes with cleaner air where we live, in the lower atmosphere, we can temporarily add a relatively small amount of aerosols way up in the stratosphere. It’s a straightforward process to research, and it’s incremental and reversible.
I’d love to hear you talk about craftsmanship in general, and mastery. What does craftsmanship mean to you? Especially at a mastery level, how do you think about it? How do you find it?
Somebody once asked Norman Mailer if he considered himself a professional writer. He said, “Yeah, I can work on a bad day.”
With my background in journalism, as a writer, if I’m not feeling inspired, it doesn’t matter. I can fake it perfectly well. I did a lot of that in writing for the Whole Earth Catalog, because I was doing so much writing. I cannot tell the difference between when I was inspired, and when I was faking being inspired. In a way, that’s part of what mastery came down to for me. I can work on a bad day.In written definitions of craftsmanship, the three requisite qualities I most commonly see are “beauty,” “functionality,” and “durability.” That pretty much defines it for us. And we take that term “durability,” and stretch it out to serve as a lens for exploring the world of sustainability. Those are the realms we play in, and I’d like to invite you to refine it, or critique it, or add to it.
Part of what you’re talking about with durability is not just that the thing is well-made and will stay together for a while, but people will keep caring about it. One of the things I’ve discovered with buildings, particularly your so-called “high-road buildings,” is they can become more amazing as time goes on. As that process proceeds, they are buildings that come to be loved. And once they’re loved, they’re safe, by and large. So the quality of mastery can be in the quality of the materials and crafting of a thing that invites that kind of caring, that will keep the thing going.
But most things don’t. Most buildings are gone before their potential lifespan is reached. They often live less long than humans do. So there’s a lot of constant material sifting, especially in cities. I’m fine with that. In “How Buildings Learn,” I wound up kind of venerating “low-road buildings” that are built to be temporary. You know, the trailers that were on all the college campuses during World War Two, when those GI Bills came in afterward. That’s where a lot of the best science was done, because they could screw around with the space in a way that they couldn’t, you know, in some grand old building. So I’m pretty comfortable with many aspects of a throwaway culture.
What about the ecological consequences of a throwaway culture?
Well, I’m exploring the concept that landfill is a good thing. Especially for plastics. Plastics lock up carbon in a pretty solid way. We are right to complain about what’s in the ocean, getting into the creatures that live there in a deleterious way, and and and… But if you bury it in the ground, you’re really fixing carbon.
It is also the case that cities have processed material. In the Middle East, you have all these tels. A tel is an artificial mound out in the middle of the desert. It’s formed when people build and rebuild their houses and other structures on top of the ruins of previous ones. They just kept building on top of all the crap.
They had fast food then, and it was served in these really trashy little clay cups that you would eat your whatever, and then just throw away the cup. Over the centuries, that adds up to a mountain of basically old cups and buildings with the current state or city just built on top. Well, we’re building those tels now. They’re just the landfill. I think they’re probably fine.
I don’t know if you got a chance to glance at our issue on “The Art of Repair,” and efforts to revive the values of durability. The issue’s big umbrella story is called “Throwaway Nation,” which basically attacks the principle of planned obsolescence from a every angle we could.
Worth doing. I agree with that.
Oh, so you see a distinction between the throwaway culture and planned obsolescence?
To some extent. You may have seen in the “Maintenance” book, the three most popular cars in history were the Model T, the Volkswagen Bug, and the Lada, the clunkiest car ever built, but incredibly cheap, and robust, because it was built to handle the Russian landscape, plus situations where you can’t even get good gas.
Ford grew up on a farm in Michigan, and he knew that people have the capability of fixing things. And he just built for that. He figured out a way—with the assembly line and the precision and what-not—to do it. At a very massive, very inexpensive way.
A lot of art and craftsmanship likes to sneer at mass production. But thank God for it. We can all afford things that couldn’t happen any other way.Interesting. Yeah, Ford certainly threaded that needle. Could one argue that he was able to do that because there was such a big market for him to fill back then? He could both build for durability and do mass production. I wonder whether that’s possible anymore. It seems like any company that builds things to last as long as they possibly can basically maxes out their customer base.
In tech, you don’t worry about your iPhone falling apart too soon because it’s made in a way that would. You worry about not getting the incredibly cool new features that are not just cosmetic. One of the best cameras you can get now also happens to have the phone attached. The iPhone cameras. I used to be a professional photographer and I am continually astounded at the quality of photography you can get in a totally point-and-shoot way.I have this question about the economy in general. Is it possible to first build a business, and then an economy, around things that are really built to last? Can you do that with today’s growing world, with all the people who need jobs, with the kind of money you need to make to keep a business going? Is that a pipe dream, or is it possible?
There’s no simple answer. Fashion is just constantly putting things out. ‘Here, try this now. And don’t forget to try this.’ That’s where a lot of exploration and innovation, and being used to temporary-ness goes on.
There’s a lot of art that plays that way out there, maybe not so much craft. That kind of turnover is actually part of a healthy culture. So I would look at sort of a case by case basis. And you’ve got some important cases where it feels wrong. There are other cases, I think, where throw-away and obsolescence is just fine. It’s not just a bad thing. It’s actually part of how things get discovered.
Another example is the light bulb. General Electric, famously, at one point, had two different divisions in their plant. One was building light bulbs that could go on for 2500 hours, like they had always done, and one was creating light bulbs with a limited lifespan of 1,000 hours, so that they could keep selling light bulbs. It became a big scandal. What about that?
Welcome to LED light bulbs, which effectively do last for years and years. They use very little energy, are just as bright. They’re even okay to touch. They’ve got such overwhelming benefits over the incandescent lights. It took a lot of really serious engineering and innovation to accomplish but once that happens, now you have light bulbs that don’t need many spares around the house. And they might be even better by the time you do need a spare.
So on this one, it was a technical fix, driven in part by a political-social demand, which was cleaner energy, less energy to get the same thing. So, look for the cases where the technology, which often gets frowned upon, delivers the kind of durability that you’re looking for.
What distinction, if any, do you see between craftsmanship and art?
I tend to be interested in craft and art in different ways. The story goes, there’s a pottery class, and a student hands you a cup. You’re the teacher, and you wonder, ‘Is this craft or is it art?’ The answer is: if it holds water, it’s craft. If it leaks, it’s art.
For a more complete look at Brand’s life, work, and thinking, we recommend “Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand,” by veteran New York Times technology writer John Markoff (2022).