Despite appearances, the counterculture was not homogeneous – even in the Bay Area. Sure, the men had long hair and most everyone smoked dope,dropped acid, and loved the Beatles. But if you look deeper, explains Professor Fred Turner, at least two countercultures emerged. There was the politically active New Left, that took to the streets to protest Jim Crow, Vietnam, and the suppression of free speech (among other issues). The New Left believed that it was possible to change the political system from within the political system. But another group said, “To hell with it – let’s go start our own societies out on the land.” These were the New Communalists, and it’s their idealism that informs the modern tech industry.
It’s hard to overstate the scale of the commune movement. Hundreds of thousands of people left their urban and suburban homes to partake in the experiment of communal living. And as people headed back to the land and formed new domiciles like Drop City, a man named Stewart Brand recognized that the Communalists would need help. His response was the Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968.
Prior to Whole Earth, Stewart had been on his own interesting journey. As a Stanford undergraduate, he encountered cybernetics: "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine." Later Stewart became involved with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and was at the center of the 1960s acid tests at which young people dropped LSD together in pursuit of shared consciousness (which sounds awesome, but what exactly does that mean?). As the commune movement gained momentum, Stewart and his wife, Lois, took a roadtrip to survey the needs of the communes. What they learned became the basis for the Whole Earth Catalog.
You might assume that the catalog was filled with anti-tech sentiment, since computers were often seen as tools of the military bureaucracy and weapons of war to be used in Vietnam. However, the catalog put forth a philosophy that endorsed what was personalized and small scale. Although the personal computer wouldn’t arrive for almost a decade, the Whole Earth Catalog laid the groundwork for the counterculture generation--and ultimately Silicon Valley-- to reimagine the role of technology in our lives.
As Americans, we are obsessed with the idea of freedom. Our history has been shaped by a series of generational debates about what freedom means and who has access under what terms. Every 50 years or so, it seems like we go through a period of profound questioning that evolves our notions of freedom. The understanding that arose in the 60s is embedded in the technologies we carry with us today.
Today we are asking some very different questions. Do the technologies that emerge from the Valley still advance the cause of freedom in America and beyond? Is something missing, and if so, what is it? How we understand and value freedom today underpins our entire Origins of Power in Silicon Valley series.
More on that in future posts...
Fred Turner, John Markoff, Kevin Kelly