Review: We Are As Gods (2022)

I reviewed the documentary about controversial countercultural “visionary” Stewart Brand – he of the Whole Earth Catalog, which I remember seeing piled around in people’s houses in my childhood – but beyond, to his spearheading of the computer revolution and now the so-called de-extinction movement. It’s an interesting doc in its presentation of Brand AND all of the issues surrounding his work. I think the film tends towards his POV – one I do not share – emphatically – particularly in regards to the idea that technology is essentially neutral. But I enjoyed the history lesson as well as the environmental lessons. I reviewed for Ebert.

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15 Responses to Review: We Are As Gods (2022)

  1. mutecypher says:

    Gotta say I’m more sympathetic to Peter Coyote’s viewpoint. I’ll put this movie on the list, though.

    • sheila says:

      Oh, you and me both! I was like, “FINALLY.”

      Would be interested to hear your thoughts – especially with your tech background. I’m sure you’re familiar with Brand already?

      • mutecypher says:

        I haven’t paid much attention to him in a couple of decades. I didn’t know about the de-extinction stuff you described. Yikes. Let’s also warm up and bacteria and viruses in the permafrost, I’m sure they’re all beneficial.

        I picked up a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog at some point in the mid ’80’s. I started singing like Brenda Lee – Is That All There Is? I didn’t get what the buzz was about. But he’s captured the minds of some influential folks, so it’s worth looking again.

        • sheila says:

          // Let’s also warm up and bacteria and viruses in the permafrost, I’m sure they’re all beneficial. //

          I know!! Where will it end?

          I was too young to really get what the Whole Earth Catalog was – the way Steve Jobs described it (a clip of it is included in the doc) is like it was a vision of the web before the web. So I’ll just take his word for it.

          apparently it had a bunch of cool projects – things you could do on your own – create a geodesic dome, or create your own solar panels – you know, cool projects, etc – making these new ideas accessible, blah blah.

          There’s fascinating footage on the “demise” party he threw for the closing of Whole Earth Catalog – in the mid 70s I think. It devolved really quickly and it’s all caught on camera. For example: he decided to give away $20,000 – and people had to declare what they would do with it. I’m not sure the point of all of this but one woman stood up and said, “I would get the Jews out of Miami and put the Puerto Ricans back in the way it’s supposed to be.” Charming. What a nice hippie! but she was just the tip of the iceberg of the ugliness on display from all of these socalled love and peace earth-hippies. Really interesting – I knew nothing about any of this.

  2. mutecypher says:

    Oh good. The CIA is funding de-extinction stuff.

    https://theintercept.com/2022/09/28/cia-extinction-woolly-mammoth-dna/

    They want the biotech capabilities. Mulder and Sculley need to rescue us from the Kryceks.

    Or Elon needs to speed up the Mars missions so we can get away.

  3. mutecypher says:

    I watched the movie. I thought it was sympathetic to him and also gently critical. The ambiguous comparisons that you that you mentioned in your review were appropriate. Zelig, Gump, Kilroy… sure. Da Vinci… nah. Maybe Lemprière or Bullfinch or some other author of a famous compendium. I love such things – so I don’t say it to denigrate him – just to place The Whole Earth Catalog in what seems an appropriate place to me. Brand got his praise, but we also saw him poked by Peter Coyote, and we saw the “don’t do de-extinction” side win the vote in that debate at the end, and the Hunter Lovins comments. We also got his first wife describing how he just woke up one day and decided he wanted a divorce. “I still feel cold” was her remark.

    As for the substance of his enthusiasms… I immediately got vibes of hubris from Brand and George Church (mentioned in the CIA article) when they weren’t wearing face masks around the mammoth remains – but the female techs were. If the people getting the frozen remains from the freezers needed to wear masks, why didn’t the famous guys?

    I don’t know how to evaluate the Zimovs’ theory about large herbivores stomping the ground enough to slow permafrost melting. I imagine you’ve seen some of the documentaries about how reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone has affected not only the ecosystem, but also the flow of rivers. So there’s an instance of an apex predator species having a big impact. But mammoth stomps and herbivores … I don’t know. I found a NatGeo article that says the Zimovs have mimicked mammoth stomps with a Russian tank, and that the temperature of the permafrost was lowered substantially. But the temp was lowered due to new grass growing, which reduces albido, and diminishes the greenhouse effect. I’m having a hard time connecting the dots from stomping to new grass growing to albido – but maybe the popular science explanations I’ve found are just poorly done. The film did not do a good job of connecting the dots and justifying resurrecting the mammoths. Doesn’t mean the idea is bad, but I’m unsold by what was in the film.

    I did like Brand’s observation about his time with Ken Kesey, “the charismatic character is writing the story everyone is participating in.” It’s intriguing to see Kesey as so charismatic that he outshone and disoriented Brand. Maybe the LSD and the nitrous helped with the disorientation. But Kesey did seem to be of an exceptional wattage.

    I don’t know if you ever watch any of Rick Beato’s videos on YouTube but he recently gave a eulogy for a listener and referred to the gentleman as having “aesthetic aptitude.” The guy knew good things when he saw or heard them. I think Brand has something similar for cool ideas. Now, that is separate from wisdom and judgement. In the middle section when Brand was saying that technology and people are neutral… I think he was hedging what he really thinks. He thinks technology and people are good. Including himself. And there’s the rub.

    • sheila says:

      // If the people getting the frozen remains from the freezers needed to wear masks, why didn’t the famous guys? //

      excellent observation!! I hadn’t clocked that.

      // The film did not do a good job of connecting the dots and justifying resurrecting the mammoths. //

      I agree. Granted, I don’t really understand the science – but the movie was made for people like me, to explain it to people like me, and I was underwhelmed by the case made. I’m with the environmentalist woman who knew him when who’s like “whatever this is, this is not environmentalism”.

      // when Brand was saying that technology and people are neutral… I think he was hedging what he really thinks. He thinks technology and people are good. Including himself. //

      This is very insightful.

      • mutecypher says:

        One of the open questions in anthropology is “why did it take so long for humans to develop civilization?” We’ve been anatomically modern for roughly 100,00 years but civilization is only 10,000 years old. Roughly when the mammoths became extinct. Maybe the wooly so-and-sos were holding us back somehow! ;-)

        I bet Stewart didn’t stop to consider that.

        In looking up stuff about mammoths I learned that Thomas Jefferson was the first person to use “mammoth” as an adjective when he described the gift of a large wheel of cheese as a “Cheshire Mammoth Cheese.” Go TJ.

        Back to the CIA thing. The husband of a friend of an ex-GF works for In-Q-tel, the CIA’s venture capital company. I asked the ex to find out if the guy knew anything about the Company investing in mammoth resurrection. He didn’t know about that particular funding but commented that they have lots of investments in biotech. A comforting thought, to be sure.

        • sheila says:

          This just adds to my general conspiratorial belief that JE was a “plant”, or at least an “asset”, with strings being pulled by intelligence ops in (possibly) three different countries. This is why I get so irritated when he is regularly referred to as a “financier”. No one on Wall Street had ANY record of ANY trades with him. He was fired from his one Wall Street job for basically “irregular” behavior, i.e. criminal.

          His connections with science – bio engineering – bio tech – the research he chose to fund – the women he chose to exclude from his science circles … all of it leads to this feeling that a much larger game was being played.

          People call this a “conspiracy theory” but honestly it makes way more sense than him being a “financier” – who had one client – and no record of ever trading anything with anyone.

        • sheila says:

          Okay so just out of curiosity I Googled Stewart Brand and JE together and … a lot of links came up. I’m just saying.

        • sheila says:

          Brand also signed the squirrelly support letter for Joi Ito and MIT’s media lab in 2019 – who took money from JE for “research”:

          https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/27/20835696/mit-media-lab-joi-ito-apology-petition-jeffrey-epstein

          I should have done more digging into this for my review.

          • mutecypher says:

            A lot of dogs not barking around JE.

            That twitter thread… I don’t know what to say. Someone who thinks we are as gods is probably going to have unconstrained ideas around a whole lot of behaviors. Ugh.

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