The bus

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Mobile and Social: Before the app, before the smartphone, before the network, there was the bus. And the bus headed south from San Francisco toward a new world.

“There are going to be times,” says Kesey, “when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.” And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: “You’re either on the bus . . . or off the bus.” –Tom Wolfe

In a richly allegorical incident that took place on a San Francisco street on December 9 of last year, a young Google employee harangued a group of protesters who had blocked a Google bus from making its rounds between the city and the company’s Mountain View campus. “This is a city for the right people who can afford it,” yelled the Googler, irate over his inability to get to the Googleplex and his free breakfast buffet. “You can’t afford it? You can leave. I’m sorry, get a better job.” There was a video, of course, and it exploded into virality:

But the guy wasn’t really a Googler. In a second virality surge, triggered just a couple of hours after the first, the news spread that the whole event had been staged. The irate man was a union organizer named Max Alper, who described his stunt as “street theater.” A happening! Alper seemed at that moment a direct descendant of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Rather than being on the bus, though, Alper was most definitely off the bus.

But if the Prankster was off the bus, who exactly was on the bus? Was it The Man? Had it always been The Man?

“I think there’s always been a tension between the countercultural rhetoric of Silicon Valley and its insurgent but ultimately corporate ethos. … 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.” –Fred Turner

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So there it is: The Kesey bus, through a kind of hallucinogenic  transmogrification, has become the Google bus. The makeover is, on the surface, radical. The Kesey bus was a 1939 International Harvester school bus bought for peanuts; the Google bus is a plush new Van Hool machine that goes for half a million bucks. The Kesey bus was brightly colored, a rolling Grateful Dead poster; the Google bus is drab and anonymous, a rolling Jos. A. Bank suit. The Kesey bus was raucous and rocking; the Google bus is hushed and slightly funereal. The Kesey bus carried a vat of LSD for connecting with the group mind; the Google bus has wifi. There was rabid balling on the Kesey bus; the most you’ll find on the Google bus is “some ‘light PDA.’” The Pranksters named their bus Further; if the Google bus had a name, it would be Safer.

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Yet, despite all the differences, both buses are vehicles of communalism. As Turner suggests, they carry elites eager to distance themselves from the reigning culture, to define themselves as members of a select and separate society that is a model for the superior society of the future. The existing culture is too corrupt, too far gone, to be reformed from within. You have to escape it in order to rebuild it. You have to start over. You have to get on the bus.

“Migration to North America was self-selective,” observed Timothy Leary in Musings on Human Metamorphosis. “The Pilgrim mothers and fathers fled from England to Holland, mortgaged their possessions, and sailed the Mayflower, because they wanted a place to live out the kooky, freaky reality that they collectively shared. And there’s no question the experiment is a success. Americans are freer than Europeans, and Westerners are a new species evolving away from Americans.” Having bumped up against the Pacific, the next step for those Westerners—i.e., Californians—would be to rocket off into the heavens to set up an experimental “mini-world” in outer space. “Within ten years after initiating space migration,” Leary wrote, “a group of a thousand people will be able to get together cooperatively and build a new mini-world cheaper than they could buy individual homes down here. When you’ve got new ideas you can’t hang around the old hive.”

During the seventies, Leary had plenty of company in calling for the establishment of elite experimental colonies beyond the bounds of established society. Buckminster Fuller, Gerard O’Neill, and Jerry Brown, among others, argued for the necessity of expanding the American frontier to create zones of technological and social experimentation where innovation could proceed unhampered by outdated laws and traditions. The migration of the self-selecting elite would eventually help the more timid who chose to stay behind, Leary argued, as it “allows for new experiments—technological, political, and social—in a new ecological niche far from the home hive.”

That idea, scrubbed of its psychedelic origins, has today become the bedrock of Silicon Valley utopianism. 

“I mean, the laws when we went public were 50 years old. Law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old. Like, it’s before the Internet. … Maybe we should set aside some small part of the world, you know, like going to Burning Man, for example. Which I’m sure many of you have been to. Yeah, a few Burners out there. That’s an environment where people try out different things, but not everybody has to go. And I think that’s a great thing, too. I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out: What is the effect on society? What’s the effect on people? Without having to deploy it into the normal world. And people who like those kinds of things can go there and experience that.” —Larry Page

Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk dream of establishing Learyesque space colonies, celestial Burning Mans. Peter Thiel is slightly more down to earth. His Seasteading Institute hopes to set up floating technology incubation colonies on the ocean. “If you can start a new business, why can you not start a new country?” he says. “The reason the seasteading question’s been so interesting is that a lot of people do think that we can do much better as a society. And if you run the thought experiment — could we be doing things better in our society? — people may disagree on the particulars, but an awful lot of people think things can be done dramatically better.” The institute has even come up with a nifty retelling of history to explain how its colonies will, in short order, raise the poor out of slums and into luxury high-rises:

In a notorious speech last fall at the Y Combinator Startup School, Balaji Srinivasan channeled Leary when he called for “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit”—the establishment of a new country beyond the reach of the U.S. and other failed states:

[When] a company or a country is in decline, you can try Voice, or you can try Exit. Voice is basically changing the system from within, whereas Exit is leaving to create a new system, a new startup. … We’re a nation of emigrants: we’re shaped by both Voice and Exit, starting with the Puritans. You know, they fled religious persecution, the American Revolutionaries which left England’s orbit. Then we started moving west, leaving the East Coast bureaucracy … What do I mean by Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit? It basically means: build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology. And this is actually where the Valley is going. This is where we’re going over the next ten years. … The best part is this: the people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology—they won’t follow you out there.

The Kesey bus dead-ended somewhere in Mexico, its allegorical gaskets blown. The Google bus continues on its circuit between the City and the Valley, an infinite loop of infinite possibility.

10 Comments

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10 Responses to The bus

  1. Tom Panelas

    These people are nuts, of course, and if I were confident they’d be the only victims of their narcissism, I wouldn’t give it a thought. But since they increasing run the world, I think we should be worried.

    “Transcend the bullshit.” – Ken Kesey*

    *among others

  2. Trevor Miles

    Nich, a classic. I love the way you challenge the sycophantic view of the valley, but I still cannot help but admire the creative dissonance of the place.

    And as Churchill said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” so there is no doubt we need to vigilant and skeptical, but we also need to guard against not recognizing the benefits of societal changes brought about by the valley.

    I am sure that much the same discussions were carried out shortly after the development of the printing press. Change is hard, but it is not all negative.

  3. This feels like the latest incarnation of “America, love it or leave it.” Only this time, you don’t have to love a country. Just Big Tech.

    Inside the Big Tech bubble, there’s no room for questions about Big Data and lack of privacy. Or discussions of Silicon Valley’s biggest export (inequality). Or the willingness to realize you’re not really The Chosen Ones — just people lucky enough to live at a time when you can get rich atop the structures built by others.

    Instead, the cry goes up to abandon the country that made all that wealth possible. Especially if you can leave behind all those other people who resist making their lives worse so yours can get better. The folks asking those pesky questions, and who don’t believe being disrupted into the unemployment line is a grand thing.

    Our Silicon Valley Libertarian Bubble: Love it or leave it.

  4. Tim

    I am unsure that patriotism or nationalism can survive globalism and technological determinism, so I don’t find it so weird that one might misrepresent the idea that if countries grow in their interactions more fully we may become an actual global village. Yet, this extrapolation of an idea does not mean anyone may exit a country. One can’t. Money and electrons can move about freely, humans can’t. The only exit that seems possible would be to enter the machine so totally that the virtual (sur)real estate becomes the island away from the friction of a corporeal society. I think the exit into the machine has already begun. I think most of your writing is a warning about this strange exodus. Unfortunately, your reasonable and deep thoughts seem more like the words of Casandra. True prophecies, yet neither heard nor understood.

  5. So much of what is now called High Tech is devoted to making Yet Another Infotoyment Device. And these folks think that makes them The Smartest Guys in the Room. They laughed at Wall Street, yet they’re basically laundering money just like the Suits on The Right Coast.

  6. Lost Leonardo

    I thought this book was an interesting version of the history addressed in this article:

    http://www.amazon.com/From-Counterculture-Cyberculture-Stewart-Utopianism/dp/0226817423

    Silicon Valley grew out of the US military and that is still just as deep in its “DNA” as the hippie/counter-culture stuff that has inflected the culture since the early 1970s.

    I wonder if anyone has come across any other worthwhile books that expand upon this argument.

  7. Great post. A couple of comments:

    1) This is what Federalism was supposed to be. Most power was supposed to be concentrated at the State level so that people could live a “choose your own society” type of life.
    http://superset.co/2014/02/opt-in-societies/

    2) We’re at a distinct disadvantage in successfully building “Burning Man” because unlike the early American Founders, we don’t have a lot of experience building societies. Good news is that we can reverse engineer what they did.

  8. At times, a crazy or apparently unfeasible idea anticipates a development that will only reach its apex – or its commercial or industrial potential – 20, 30 or 40 years later. At the time, we may ask: What is it good for? Yet the artist, scientist or developer who works for something more and different than just measurable results here and now rejects this sort of question. Fortunately. He or she plods on. The path may lead to a dead end in many cases. The idealist, loner and inventor may not always be spot on, and some ideas and projects end as parentheses after months or years of work. However, that is part of the point: We don’t know where it all leads to, but we acknowledge that it could lead to something new and that this new could carry the germ of a paradigm shift or perhaps simply revolutionise a field. . In business, you often don’t have the luxury to do this, and nor should you have. Here, there is a very different demand for reliable delivery and return on investment, often in a much shorter time frame. This is why we need radical art and free research that don’t serve any other interests than seeking the truth, however meaningless or abstract it may seem – at the time. Enjoy reading! : ‘When Facebook was an LSD dream’ http://www.theloopland.com/TENDENCY

  9. I am haunted by the myth of Noah. In the face of the growing sense we all have that the earth is undergoing a ruthless transformation, the myth of Npoah seems to me the story du jour. I read much that is happening around me in the light of that fable, and one of its motifs is ark-building. It is possible to look at the longing in Silicon Valley for a floating free zone as an image of the ark. Ark-building is based oin a vision of the future in which survival is the driving force. This force is visible in much popular culture. Take for example”Elysium.”
    I expect the world will increasingly show signs of this ark-drive in which clannism, tribalism, become more marked. I see Face Book et al as huge social sorting systems preparing people to find their tribes and collectively build their arks.