Silicon Valley has been taking a lot of heat lately for its power and elitism. That’s only natural for a region that has rapidly gained enormous economic and cultural clout. But it seems especially ironic that this is happening in the San Francisco Bay area, that one-time headquarters of flower powerwhere entrepreneurs have long fashioned themselves as rebels and iconoclasts battling robotic rivals (Microsoft, IBM) and liberating workers from the hierarchical ways of corporate life.
Thinking about this got me wondering how exactly those California hippies (I grew up in the Bay area in the 1960s and 1970s, so I’m allowed to make sweeping and largely inaccurate generalizations like that, right?) became The Man. So I asked Fred Turner.
Turner, a professor of communications at Stanford, is the author of a book I had been meaning to read for a while, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Now I’ve read it, and it’s great, an academic but extremely accessible history of ideas that explains a lot about how people in Silicon Valley think and talk. Its central character, Brand, went from Stanford student to one of author Ken Kesey’s LSD-poppingMerry Pranksters to founding the iconic Whole Earth Catalog to helping shape the Valley’s modern business ethos in innumerable ways. Other important figures in the book include Wired’s founding executive editor, Kevin Kelly, and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow.
Turner also has a new book out this month that he bills as a prequel From Counterculture to Cyberculture, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties, but I talked to him mainly about the lessons of the first book. What follows are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Is there something about the Silicon Valley ethos that was legitimate before and is less so now? Or is this kind of a conflict that’s always been there?
I think there’s always been a tension between the countercultural rhetoric of Silicon Valley and its insurgent but ultimately corporate ethos. It’s much easier to claim a kind of insurgent stance when you are in fact a brand-new industry and you’re taking on groups like Microsoft. At this point, Google is not a small player. It may have come on the scene quickly, but it’s huge, as are Facebook and a number of other local players. So the irony is that they’ve entered a place of corporate dominance with a rhetoric built from an era of business insurgency. That’s an irony that we’re living with at the moment. But I do think that there’s always been a tension between being a liberating force and being The Man. And that goes back to the counterculture.
I always thought the ‘60s and the counterculture were one thing. I didn’t understand until I started doing that book that in fact there were two actually fairly distinct movements, one, the New Left, doing politics to change politics, and the other, what I ended up calling the New Communalists, who were headed back to the land and wanted to change the world by changing essentially their minds, their consciousness. That first group, the New Left, believed in bureaucracy, believed in hierarchy, believed in organizations. The second group, the New Communalists, believed in doing away with all of those things and turning instead to small-scale technologies, LSD, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, etc. as technologies with which to kind of change our minds.
Having gotten our minds changed, having gotten our heads together, as the phrase went, we could then build communities oriented around the shared mindset. We would no longer need rules. We would no longer need governance. We would no longer need bureaucracy or hierarchy at all. Now the trouble is, when you actually do that, and folks discovered this on the communes, you end up embracing the very social norms that organize life outside of bureaucracy.
Bureaucratic systems are actually really good systems for distributing resources. You have to negotiate. You have to express explicitly what resources exist and how they should be distributed. In a communal system built around shared consciousness, what starts to happen is that people with charisma start to lead and cultural norms kick in. Communes ended up being places that were deeply racially divided, even though none of them would ever cop to being explicitly racist or wouldn’t even want to be. Gender norms were incredibly conservative on communes. I don’t know how many photographs I’ve looked at of young women, pregnant, barefoot, carrying loaves of bread.
One of the things that I think we’ve inherited from the ‘60s is a habit of seeing the cultural space as the space in which we do business and make change. And the trouble with that is that it makes it very hard to negotiate things like class or race or distribution of the kind of social goods that come from business.
A great example of this on the ground in Mountain View where I live today is Google. Google treats its engineers extremely well, offers extremely flexible work spaces, has built essentially a culture of collaboration and creativity that looks very communal and very wonderful, even as around those engineers it has cafeteria workers who are making something very close to minimum wage, and often lack the ability to get proper health insurance. That’s the kind of old communal mindset right there, where you bring together a kind of elite, give them a shared mindset, all the resources they need to live in that mindset, and yet surround them with folks who are relatively impoverished, often racially different, certainly members of a different class. In that sense, the communes were already The Man. And we’ve inherited their legacy.
But it’s not like Larry Page and Sergey Brin ever lived on a commune. They came along long after the counterculture. How do you draw that connection?
One of the great mistakes people made in reviewing my book was to say, “Wow, it’s great. Turner finally showed us how the hippies brought us computing.” Nothing could be further from the truth. What I think I did in the book was actually show how the research world that brought us computing also brought us the counterculture. In the ‘40s, we see military industrial research in and around MIT and around a variety of other centers being incredibly collaborative and open. It’s that style that actually migrates into and shapes countercultural practices. What the counterculture does for computing is it legitimates it. It makes it culturally cool.
What we’ve inherited in the contemporary setting are both of those features. We’ve inherited a very powerful, technology-centered research culture that is, in its own terms, very flexible, very creative, very collaborative. But we’ve also inherited a kind of ethos, a kind of ideology, a sense of cool that comes from the counterculture having legitimated that style back in the ‘60s. That’s what you see in Google. You see both the innovation and the ethos of cool.
Another thing, even though the Bay Area leans Democratic and culturally feels like it’s at one in certain ways with East Coast liberals, libertarianism is a big part of how people think there. And, reading your book, that’s been there for a long time.
A legacy from the communalist movement that I think is pernicious is a turning away from politics, a turning toward the self as the basis of political change, of social action. I think that’s something you see all through the Valley. The information technology industry feeds off it because information technologies can so easily be aimed at satisfying individual needs. You see that rhetoric leveraged when Google and other firms say, “Don’t regulate us. We need to be creative. We need to be free to pursue our satisfaction because that’s ultimately what will provide a satisfying society.”
That’s all a way of ignoring the systems that make the world possible. One example from the ‘60s that I think is pretty telling is all the road trips. The road trips are always about the heroic actions of people like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady and their amazing automobiles, right? Never, never did it get told that those road trips were only made possible by Eisenhower’s completion of the highway system. The highway system is never in the story. It’s boring. What’s in the story is the heroic actions of bootstrapped individuals pursuing conscious change. What we see out here now is, again, those heroic stories. And there are real heroes. But the real heroes are operating with automobiles and roads and whole systems of support without which they couldn’t be heroic.
I saw Stewart Brand at a conference a couple months ago. He was describing the difference between Berkeley and the Peninsula [what’s now called Silicon Valley] in the ‘60s. And his argument was that Berkeley was about power to the people. And he was about power to people.
My challenge to that view would be that power to people is a really good way of ignoring the structural differences between kinds of people. Structurelessness is a problem. And it’s less of a problem when you share cultural similarities with other folks, or genotypic or phenotypic similarities. So Stewart Brand’s circle tends to look a lot like Stewart Brand. It tends to be mostly white, often male. And that’s true for many elite Silicon Valley leaders. I don’t think that shared cultural similarity is a sufficient structure. It results in bad distribution of resources. It gets very hard to get resources to people who are different than yourself. I think our challenge is to find ways to reach out to folks who are different than ourselves, not to build clusters of likeminded people.
On the other hand, since both of us are kind of dumping on this ethos, it has beenenormously successful.
It’s so interesting to think about what success means in this context. I mean, has it led to technological innovation? Absolutely, an efflorescence of technological innovation. Has it led to an incredible diversity of consumer goods, and to the time for those who make them to enjoy them? Absolutely, really powerfully. Has it, on the other hand, done some of the things that used to be goals of business in the ‘40s and the ‘50s?
I’ve spent a lot of time researching the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I keep encountering these very civic-minded business leaders who see as their mission simultaneously the making of profit and the making of a better society. Has the rise of information technology and the expansion of what was originally the military-industrial complex substantially improved our lives? The jury’s still out on that. I can certainly connect with my friends more easily. But am I living in a world where more people have more resources? You know, the economic numbers don’t bear that out. What we see is a society bifurcating very rapidly between the haves and the have nots, and the middle class melting away. Have we built a society that is more racially accepting, more racially diverse? To some degree, less degree than I’d like to see. I think that even as we’ve innovated like crazy, we haven’t solved some of the problems of inequality and diversity that were core to the ‘60s and core to business in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
That seems like a good place to wrap it up. But I also want to give you a chance, since you have a new book coming out, which you’ve described as a prequel to From Counterculture to Cyberculture, to tell a little bit about it.
One interesting thing about the 1960s was how many people in that period were actually reading books from the 1940s. I was always told that the 1960s were a rebellion, that they overthrew this kind of gray, bureaucratic, mass-mediated era. What I discovered was that on the contrary, they embraced a whole series of collaborative, wild, socially benevolent ideals from the ‘40s and made them their own in the ‘60s. The book opens in the late ‘30s with a moment in which Americans are terribly afraid that mass-media technologies are going to turn us into fascists. And it shows how a whole series of American intellectuals and artists, John Cage and many others, build multimedia environments in the hope of creating a new kind of democratic person. Those multimedia environments and that person end up in the 1960s as Stewart Brand, building the kind of creative, technology-centered communities that become the basis of the world we see now.
Norbert Wiener is part of it. But the other part of it that I hadn’t known as much was anthropology and psychology. So they’re reading Erich Fromm. They’re reading Margaret Mead. They’re readingGregory Bateson. Those folks are, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, pushing back very hard and very publicly against the kind of right-wing stuff that we remember from that period. So they’re writing against racism. They’re writing in favor of a sexually diverse America. They’re writing in favor of personal satisfaction as the proper measure of a society’s quality. All of those become core ideas in the ‘60s. And they were all there in the ‘40s and ‘50s very publicly, in a way that we’ve simply forgotten. The other piece that I think is important in that book for the stories that we’re talking about today is the rise of multimedia as a mode. We live surrounded by screens right now. That kind of surrounding by screens is something that the intellectuals and artists of the ‘40s and ‘50s explicitly called for as an alternative to mass media, as an alternative to cinema and radio and newspapers, which they believe had empowered Germany and American leaders to create hierarchical, top down, potentially fascist sorts of societies. When I walk around Silicon Valley now and hear the critique of hierarchy, I’m hearing Margaret Mead again. And I’m hearing Ruth Benedict and I’m hearing Gregory Bateson talk about the need to build multimedia environments in which people can find themselves by selecting images and sounds from around them, fulfilling their individual destinies, and thereby building a more democratic, less hierarchical, more egalitarian sort of society. That’s the connection.
[Our conversation then went off topic for a while, but eventually returned to a discussion of the value of intellectual history. I said that studying it makes clear to what extent ideas and ideologies are the product of historical circumstance.] It gives you this feeling of “Oh, so this isn’t ordained by nature.”
I think that’s right. The ability to claim to be ordained by nature is something industrial players in particular strive for. This is where we get some of that early 20th Century social Darwinism, you know? My company isn’t just successful, it is ordained by nature. You can see that happening out here now in Silicon Valley all over the place. There’s this wonderful circular logic I see at Google, where the saying is, “Don’t be evil.” OK, fine, what’s good? Well, providing information is good. Who provides the information? Google. Oh, what’s good for Google is good for the world. You know, the natural order needs information. And who provides it? Well naturally, Google.
There’s quite a lot of that going around. So I think that the work of disenchanting that and sort of saying it could have been otherwise is important.