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
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.
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.