The community of Internet bosses that make billions today were raised on psychedelic rock and LSD
One Friday last year, as San Francisco was still waking up, a 28-year-old, curly-haired publicist performed a ritual. On the table in her Richmond neighborhood room were a bag of magic mushrooms sitting next to tea bags. Lily regularly takes homeopathic doses before working.
“It helps me be more creative and to stay focused,” she says. A few miles away on the other side of the bay, the American novelist Ayelet Waldman, 52, follows a similar formula. In a book published in January 2017, A Really Good Day, she writes that small doses of LSD markedly improved her mood, her marriage, and her life.
These last few months, the practice has appeared in several media articles, each apparently amazed that LSD could gel with Silicon Valley startups. And yet, like most trends, it didn’t come from nowhere.
“It’s this branch of counterculture America, that of zen, of LSD, of happenings and of small, intentional, pastoral communities that are going to unite the American youth with budding information technology,” explains the sociologist Dominique Cardon in the French preface of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, a book by Stanford communication researcher Fred Turner. Without these three letters – LSD – the four giants of the web, or GAFA (Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon), would not exist.
The PC on LSD
Wednesday, December 2, 1964, San Francisco Bay. Standing confidently under the columns of Sproul Hall on UC Berkley’s campus, Mario Savio takes the mic. Three years before the arrival of Marin Luther King, Jr., this 22-year-old man who dreamed of becoming a priest preaches to 4,000 students. His hair is a mess but his ideas are clear. Guilty of refusing to link themselves to any civil rights activism, he calls out that the faculty “is just a group of employees.” His eyebrows furrowed, the Free Speech Movement militant launches into a long diatribe. “We’re the raw material that refuses this condition. […] There comes a time when the activity of the machine is so disgusting, repulses you so much that you can no longer participate. And you must throw your bodies into the cogs and the gears to make it stop.”
The tremors of the Free Speech Movement begat the hippie wave that washed over the country. It pulled together, under a psychedelic aesthetic, a variety of social critiques on consumer culture and authority. Chiefly, it pulled no punches in its opposition to the Vietnam War. “The slogan ‘Peace and Love’ was no longer used ironically,” recalled Danny Goldberg, author of the book on 1967 and the hippie ideal, In Search of the Last Chord.
In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner describes these students’ contempt for machines. Many believed, he says, “that the politicians of their countries reduced them to bits of abstract data.” But that wasn’t the case for everyone. While they “busied themselves with the creation of political parties and protesting the Vietnam War, other members of the fringe turned their backs on political action and adopted technology and transformation of conscience as natural springboards for social change.”
Stewart Brand considered himself in the latter category. The son of a publicist and an astronomy enthusiast, he grew up fascinated by the planets. After studying biology at Stanford, the ecology pioneer created a platform to connect both groups. Between two acid trips, he created the Whole Earth Catalogue, a mobile market containing everything he considered useful – tents, backpacks, hippie clothes, maps, books, garden tools, etc. – to share. Perusers could comment on products, adding them to the catalogue. This networking society, which resembled the Internet, “was one of the bibles of my generation,” said Steve Jobs in 2005. “It was sort of like Google in paperback form… with neat tools and great notions.” Brand returned the compliment by declaring computers as being the best invention “since psychedelic drugs.”
You couldn’t have one without the other. Before founding Apple in 1976, Steve Jobs had also taken his own cosmic journey. “LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin,” he said. “And you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know.” Sent by his adoptive parents to Reed College in Oregon, the young man listened to Bob Dylan, slept on the floor, and walked around barefoot. In his biography of the Apple cofounder, Walter Isaacson recounts: “Jobs firmly believed that his ultra-vegetarian diet prevented not only mucus but also all body odor, which allowed him to skip showering and deodorant. It was a flawed theory.”
Another quirk, Jobs devoted himself to the cult of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the world famous Indian guru known for four British disciples, the Beatles. With friend Daniel Kottke, he went to India where, failing to meet his idol, he shaved his head in a sign of purification. This purification took on another meaning upon his return to the US. “When Apple was launched, Steve put all of his energy into ensuring the success of the business,” Kottke remembers. “And he had no need for psychotropics to do that.”
Changing the World
Around the time that Apple, Intel, and Sun Microsystems were born in the San Francisco Bay, the myth of Silicon Valley was being forged: companies starting from nothing, often improvised in a garage, before becoming giants of technology. San Francisco, city of the Summer of Love, transformed itself into a paradise of entrepreneurs, but kept traces of its hippie past.
After the Whole Earth Catalogue, Stewart Brand gave birth to Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Linkau starting in the 1970s. Spurred on by the arrival of Richard Nixon in the White House, the hippies’ hopes were pinned on this paid “virtual community.” “What brings the virtual world into the possibility of emancipation as espoused in the 1970’s communities is the possibility of erasing the status of people, their position in society, and any trace of their inequalities in condition,” explains Dominique Cardon. The platform gave Brand the means to organize and monetize libertarian aspirations. In other words, the start-uppers founded the ideal hippie community as described in The New Spirit of Capitalism in 1999 by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello.
Having bounced between MIT and by Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the hacker Gumby remembers that a “culture of people that believed in sharing” still existed in the 1980’s around computers. “It’s always been around. It’s just the people doing the cool stuff. It’s how the network happened. We all passed patches around, different ideas. There weren’t clear boundaries in my life between being a Deadhead, going to shows, working on computers.” Thanks to the computer, the border between private life and work began to blur.
In 1983, Steve Jobs used his wallet as much as moral argument to shame the director general of Pepsi: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” he asked John Sculley. The following year, he purchased an ad spot directed by Ridley Scott which played at Super Bowl halftime in front of 90 million viewers. “He wanted to change the world but also to get rich,” says Chris Carcia, curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
While Apple offered itself to football fans, Steward Brand seduced information lovers by organizing one of the first hacker conferences in San Francisco. Two years later, the first flames of Burning Man were lit in secret on a San Francisco beach. Growing little by little and later moving to the Nevada desert, the festival carried the torch of Woodstock.
The culture of the slogan found itself in Apple’s “Think different.” Through innovation, taking risks, and work, these entrepreneurs had one ultimate goal: to change the world with new technology. “Today, our computers realize this vision, allowing the circulation of energy and information, and thereby bringing together nearly all inhabitants of the planet,” explains Fred Turner. “But chiefly, the belief in the beneficial powers of these technologies is spreading wide.”
For Kevin Dolly, who cofounded the magazine Wired with Stewart Brand in 1993, new technologies were nothing less than an ark made by God to allow human beings to communicate with one another.
The Cool Mask
Just like the hippies, the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley tried to engage in moral evolution. A successful bet for Mark Zuckerberg, since Facebook now has 1.86 billion users; and for Steve Jobs’ inheritors, with iPhone sales having reached one billion in 2016. As for Larry Page’s and Sergey Brin’s search engine Google, it’s used 40,000 times a second. “The use of smartphones and social media is a global phenomenon, starting in Silicon Valley, and which influences the way of life of billions of people,” says Justin McGuirk, curator of the London Design Museum, which displays the exposition California: Designing Freedom.
Just as the 1960’s brought a social rejection of traditional values and the way of life of earlier generations, Silicon Valley also wanted a clean sweep of the past. It put classical means of production aside and rejected pyramidal business structures to make way for a horizontal one in which employees would thrive in jeans and sneakers. But, as the sociologist of labor at CNRS Danièle Linhart points out, “the more subordination is individualized and personalized, the more difficult it is to maintain.” Not only do “the managers play on the need to recognize their employees,” but they also ask them, paradoxically, to be autonomous while at the same time following a set of procedures defined by consulting firms.
Fully aware of the limits of this model, Google launched the Project Aristotle in 2012, a study aimed at figuring out what makes a team productive. It concluded that a business needs an atmosphere of interpersonal confidence and mutual respect. To get a company to adopt the idea, it would have to go back.
Silicon Valley startups always advocated values of sharing and communal living, both hippie ideas. In San Francisco, it’s common to see large groups of entrepreneurs living together, exchanging advice and ideas. Self actualization and spiritual awakening are put equally to the fore.
In line with Stewart Brand’s ecological aspirations, Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs were environmentalists. Somewhere between hippie utopia and greenwashing, they invested in solar energy. Elon Musk created SolarCity and Richard Branson launched Sun Power. However, according to a June 2017 Greenpeace report, many electronic devices are not sustainable, particularly Apple’s, creating a substantial amount of harmful electronic waste.
These days, ex-hippies like Steve Jobs have been replaced by students from top-tier universities. Antonio Garcia Martinez, formerly of Facebook, says: “They all live like frat bros, with an ultra-competitive spirit, acting like 20-year-olds teleported into the professional world.” According to the journalist Dan Lyons, that’s because “we don’t make products anymore, only money.”
Many of these entrepreneurs no longer want to create products to change the world, but one that will fill their wallets, via a buyout or by going public. Now exported across the globe, this startup culture is denounced by Mathilde Ramadier in her book Bienvenue dans le nouveau monde. According to her experience in Berlin’s “Silicon Alley,” the coolness of many companies masks a precariousness, periods of unpaid work, and permanent instability. Not exactly the hippie ideal.