A couple of months ago, I watched an interview with Stewart Brand in which he talked about how the hippie movement turned into the PC movement. He explained that as soon as the hippies realized that drugs and communes were dead ends, they started looking for a new vessel to hold their dreams of higher consciousness. They found – and chose – the personal computer. It turned out to be a wise decision, at least on a material level. Unlike drugs, PCs didn’t tend to lead to psychosis, jail time, premature death, or the munchies. And unlike communes, PCs didn’t require you to live in close quarters with smelly people – unless you were actually writing the software, that is. Best of all, though, the PC turned out to have huge commercial potential, which came in handy when the hippies realized that they really liked money.
Tim O’Reilly quotes from an email that one of his collegues recently sent him after watching a documentary on America’s “drug years”:
I was struck by how often the pundits and folks interviewed used the same adjectives and metaphors to relate their drug experiences as we often hear used to describe the potential of software and the internet … Especially the section that focused on the 60’s seemed to capture the same utopian euphoria I’m hearing in the current technology environment (and what I heard during the first boom). Besides the use of mind-blowing adjectives, four themes spanned 60’s drug taking and the current technology wave: connecting to everyone (in some type of lovefest context); there are people who get it and people who don’t; multi-media helps define what’s happening; and, that everything will be different now (in an undefined way) … So, following my logic, Web 2.0, DIY, open source, blogs, data are the new hallucinogens, only now it’s all legal.
While it’s easy to use the parallels to dismiss Web 2.0, to do so is in fact to miss the enormous transformative power of the sixties counter-culture. Millennial thinking is always over the top, but the human longing for transformation and transcendence is nonetheless a powerful force for change.
There’s a fine line between “the human longing for transformation and transcendance” and the human longing for self-indulgence, and the inability to bring that line into focus has been the flaw running through every iteration of hippie philosophy, from free acid to free sex to free software. The slogan “turn on, tune in, drop out” was a convenient way to pretend that the line didn’t matter – that self-indulgence was self-enlightenment.
That’s not to dismiss the counterculture, much less the human longing for transcendence, as forces for beneficial change. (Some of my best friends are transcendentalists.) It’s just to suggest that self-indulgent utopianism – millennial thinking – is less an expression of the longing for transcendence than a perversion of it. In investing the computer and, subsequently, the computer network with spiritual meaning, the hippies and their progeny made a horrific error. They mistook a technology of control for a means of enlightenment. At least drugs were fun.