How Silicon Valley’s counterculture went corporate and ruined everything
January 14, 1992: Tens of thousands of artists, techies, politicians, and counterculture icons converged in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for a Silicon Valley event unlike anything the industry has seen, before or since.
Organizers called it the "Digital Be-In" -- a play on 1967's "Human Be-In," which featured Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary in what was one of the highwater marks for the hippie movement. Described at the time by Soledad O'Brien as where "90s cyberculture meets 60s counterculture," attendees of the Digital Be-In dropped acid, danced to bad techno, dropped more acid, and witnessed the latest in digital innovation: from virtual reality booths to a strange new form of information technology known as the Internet.
The guestlist was wild. Famed psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate Leary teleconferenced in from Hawaii. San Francisco mayor Willie Brown made an appearance. Rockers Todd Rundgren and Graham Nash of Crosby Stills Nash & Young were supposedly hanging around somewhere. And among the high-profile corporate sponsors was none other than Apple Computers.
"Most people are not really aware of this era because, when the Internet hit, that was pretty much the beginning of the digital age for most of the world," said Digital Be-In organizer and Verbum Magazine founder Michael Gosney at Pando's Don't Be Awful event. "But it was a very fertile time. And, as have many of the phases of technology evolution, it was influenced greatly by the Bay Area culture. And the whole history here of the counterculture was very relevant to the early emergence of the whole cyberculture movement. And our Digital Be-In event was kind of an embodiment of that connection."With its marriage of drugs, dancing, and tech, perhaps the closest point of comparison to the Digital Be-In is Burning Man. But Burning Man is more like an expensive faux-spiritual vacation for Silicon Valley elites -- a much-needed break from fixing wages, spying on Americans, and other ho-hum drudgeries of modern tech CEO life.
The Digital Be-In, however, didn't cost attendees $1,500 for a scalped ticket nor twice that in camping equipment -- it was truly inclusive, bringing together corporate squares, aging hippies, programming nerds, and fiery activists all under one banner. And most importantly, the Be-In was not an escape from the modern, digital world; it was a spiritual celebration of that world's potential. People go to Burning Man to hook-up, recharge, and blow off steam before returning to the reality of the corporate tech machine. But at the Be-In, guests emphatically believed in the power of technology -- and technology companies -- to bring people together, to enhance human consciousness, and to promote empathy. Sure, it sounds a little cheesy and naive -- the dream of the 90s is alive in Golden Gate Park. But compared to modern tech events like the Crunchies, which is dripping in sexism and dreary exclusivity, the Be-In is a breath of fresh, THC-saturated air.
"The inspiration and the focus at that time was that the Internet would connect people more," says Laird Archer, a street party organizer in San Francisco who worked at most of the Digital Be-In events. Fun fact about Archer: He once ran for mayor of San Francisco on the "Fun, Sex, and Music" platform.
"I remember," Archer went on, "being in the basement of Love on Mission Street, and that’s where I met Timothy Leary in the basement. I think it’s a Denny’s now. But there was this hope that [digital technology] would draw people together in a way."
Politicians, entrepreneurs, artists, activists, hippies, and corporations all working together to make the world a better place? In 2015, that arrangement seems unthinkable. So where did the dream of tech-powered togetherness go wrong?
Tech loses the hippies
They beat Fran down and smashed her face into dirt They slowly bent her over, ripping off her skirt
- Candace Roberts, "Not My City Anymore"
In late 2013, as a bus rolled down the streets of West Oakland shuttling Google employees to the search giant's campus in suburban Mountain View, its route was blocked by activists throwing rocks and holding up signs that read, "FUCK OFF GOOGLE" and "TECHIES: Your World Is Not Welcome Here." One of the rocks smashed the rear window of the bus.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, it became almost routine for protesters to block corporate shuttle buses like this one, which use public bus stops to ferry tech workers -- many of whom are recent transplants to the city -- to their suburban workplaces. So what prompted these activists, who twenty years earlier would have partied at the Digital Be-In, to turn against the tech industry so violently?
The reasons are legion, but let's start with the buses specifically. By offering this luxury, Google and other big tech firms had made it more convenient than ever for their middle-to-upper-class tech workers to live in the exciting, cultural hub of San Francisco, as opposed to the boring little boxes of Silicon Suburbia where these firms are headquartered. Adding insult to injury, these companies had until recently been using the city's public bus stops free of charge -- though in the wake of widespread protests the companies now pay taxes for the privilege of using Muni stops.
This influx of techie squares would under normal circumstances be, at worst, an annoyance to counterculture types. But the hard mathematical truth of this migration is that, as highly paid workers flood a city that is already dramatically limited in housing, rents have inevitably gone up. A lot.
As of last November, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco was $3,350. As a result, many longtime residents have been priced out of their homes. As for the "luckier" tenants who live in rent-controlled rooms, landlords are using increasingly creative -- and sometimes blatantly illegal -- methods to remove them from their apartments.
So contrary to Gosney's and Archer's dream of a techno-utopia that benefits every slice of San Francisco's population, the tech boom -- along with various city statutes that limit residential housing -- have made it harder than ever for artists and other members of the counterculture to live in the city. These are the very people, mind you, who helped spark the region's technological revolution. And that's saying nothing of the struggles felt by teachers, social workers and other non-tech workers struggling to stay afloat as housing prices skyrocket.
Many argue this so-called "anti-tech movement" is beginning to fizzle out, citing diminished turnouts at demonstrations and a wider public acceptance that, contrary to the facile narrative put forth by blogs like Valleywag, city officials and outdated statutes are as much to blame as tech companies for the ballooning cost of living. But even if public demonstrations have waned, the disgust and anger felt by many toward major Valley firms has not. In "Not My City Anymore," singer/songwriter Candace Roberts likens the tech industry's takeover to sexual assault:
But they rode into town with their dollars and bling They were promised the sky, this was more than just a fling They beat Fran down and smashed her face into dirt They slowly bent her over, ripping off her skirt
For some, the animosity directed at tech workers by the rest of the city is mutual. In 2013 there were not one but two indefensible posts written by young startup founders taking aim at the city's less "upstanding" citizens (read: non-tech workers). Peter Shih, who created a payments website called Celery, wrote a Medium post that ridiculed the city's homeless population and referred to women in San Francisco by the misogynist term "49ers": "Girls who are obviously 4's and behave like they are 9's."
Then there was Greg Gopman who wrote a Facebook post calling homeless people "degenerates" that shouldn't be allowed to breathe the same air as him. Meanwhile, Gopman's most significant contribution to society is organizing some hackathons nobody remembers.
By attacking the city's homeless population, Gopman and Shih not only revealed a sick, sociopathic lack of empathy; they also made light of the city's very serious and growing gap between rich and poor, which according to a recent study was about on par with Rwanda.
And finally, there are the less region-specific yet equally troubling ways in which today's tech corporations betray the sector's countercultural roots. Here are just a few examples:Apple, Google, and a host of other Silicon Valley firms colluded to drive down the wages of over one million tech workers, as reported by Pando's Mark Ames.
Google has for many years held close ties with contractors and federal agencies that work on behalf of America's surveillance and military apparatuses -- not to mention Google's and other tech firms' roles in conducting for-profit surveillance.
And where to begin with San Francisco's tech company du jour Uber? Smearing journalists? Promoting a culture of sexism? Putting riders at risk thanks to misrepresentations of less-than-stringent driver background checks?
The ideals of empathy, togetherness, and responsibility embraced by the early counterculture figures of the tech movement have given way to old-fashioned corporate capitalism. And the effects of sacrificing these ideals trickle all the way down to consumers and how they use these products. The ultimate ambition of Facebook, for example, isn't to bring people closer together -- although that's occasionally an accidental side-effect of its product. It's to hold hostage as much of a user's attention (and demographic and interest data) as possible so the company can more effectively serve advertisements to its captive audience. And while yes, as a utility, Facebook might help you reconnect with an old friend, let's be real: Most of a user's time on Facebook is spent spying on exes, hitting "like" on sponsored listicles, and begging for Candy Crush lives.
"I just consider it to be pretty strange," says Gosney, "that we’ve had this incredible innovation of social media, which is all about our relationships and our personal identities, and for that to be managed by a public company is just pretty weird to me."
Idealism vs Profits
So what spurned this shift from a tech scene informed by psychedelics, activism, and community to one dominated by corporate greed?
The answer is mind-numbingly obvious: Money.
It's easy to forget that for a long time nobody knew if the Internet would make anybody rich. At best, some thought, it might mint a handful of millionaires who were smart enough to get out before the tech boom's bottom dropped out, as it did in the early 2000s. Without any guarantee of fame or fortune, the Internet and digital technology sectors attracted the kind of creatively-minded misfits who cared more about inventing the future than making money. Lofty ideals, which owed more to Allen Ginsberg than Andrew Carnegie, were put forth with little worry that they would ever come into direct conflict with profit because, well, nobody thought they would make much money off this Internet thing anyway.
"Counterculture is concerned with small and subtle things," said James Currier*, an advisor to PayPal and the CEO/Founder of the advisory and investment firm Ooga Labs. He's also been building companies in Silicon Valley since the early 90s.
"25 years ago, 20 years ago, the subtle sounds of product design and geekery would attract a narrow personality band. Certain people were called here and their personality types were similar: Their ability to absorb new ideas, their ability to deal with ambiguities... Their power over others low. Their desire for fascinating creative acts high. And the new language that is so much about the money is attracting a certain different kind of personality types."
We're seeing the same thing play out now in blogging -- or to use its unfortunate modern moniker, "Internet content creation" -- which has suddenly become massively lucrative. This week, the Awl's Alex Balk, one of the earliest adopters of Writing Stuff On The Internet, immortalized this evolutionary cycle in a post called "My Advice To Young People." He recommends that youngsters find a field (like blogging in the early 21st century) that nobody respects or cares about -- that way, you can invent the rules and rituals to your liking. Just don't be surprised when the same people who ridiculed you a decade earlier come in and ruin everything you helped build because they finally figured out how to make money off it.
But is it the money alone that corrupted Silicon Valley's countercultural roots? Isn't it true that an invention can still change the world for the better even if its creator was primarily motivated by money? And what's wrong with making money, anyway? Look at how much Mark Zuckerberg donates to charity!
These questions have been on Mitch Altman's mind throughout his decades-long career as a hacker in Silicon Valley. Speaking at Don't Be Awful, Altman, who invented a product that can disable any television set in a public place, says that profit in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, the profit he made off the TV-B-Gone is the only money he's earned since 2004. That said, over and over again throughout his career, "profit" has a way of coming into direct conflict with "doing the right thing":
My first summer job was at a cool company that made computer games with Apple II computers. It was a long time ago. I had a lot of fun there. But the US military came along and wanted to use our game, modifying it, paying us well to modify it, to change it into a killer helicopter training simulator. The people I worked for thought that was a fine idea because it would make them a lot of profit. I didn’t think that and I quit. Before I created TV-B-Gone, I was the founder of a Silly Valley, uh, Silicon Valley startup company that made hard drive controller cards. And we called them RAID controllers and they increased storage capacity and performance. The US Military came and the secret service wanting to use these storage systems to store all of the data they were collecting from us by spying on us. They were willing to pay us huge amounts of money and the VCs that took over the company that I founded thought that was a fine idea because it made them a lot of profit. I didn’t. And I quit.
Regardless of whether you agree with Altman's estimation of the US Military, you have to admire his conviction, which is a rare thing in any industry. But as rare a trait as moral conviction is in individuals, it's nearly nonexistent in corporations. For corporations, "profit" is not some kind of pleasant side-effect that occasionally arises out of building cool things. It's their entire reason for existence -- and that can be a scary thing, Altman says.
"If a corporation makes more profit paying fines and lawsuits rather than creating a car that doesn’t blow up when impacted from the rear, then the Ford Motor Company will make a Pinto that sometimes does this, as they did in the 1970s. And they’ll pay the families and victims the lesser amount from the lawsuits rather than redesigning and making a proper car."
But contrary to what Mitt Romney thinks, corporations aren't autonomous beings. They are made up of individuals -- some of whom may even possess a moral compass like Altman.
"All of those organizations are collections of individuals. They are all individuals making choices. These individuals can, if they choose, decide not to do things that make their lives and the lives of those around them worse. They can. It might mean losing their job. That wouldn’t be an easy choice. But it is a choice worth considering at times."
Travis Kalanick should drop acid
So how do we bring the ideals of the counterculture -- inclusiveness, empathy, connectedness -- back to tech? And, just as importantly, how do we ensure that people outside the tech community -- artists, activists, and workers of all stripes -- can, if they choose, be involved again in shaping the future?
Not to pat our own backs, but events like Pando's 24-hour Don't Be Awful fest are a good start. We agreed to let virtually anybody with skin in the game speak for thirty minutes, from anti-eviction activists like Erin McElroy, venture capitalists like David Hornik, hippie inventors like Mitch Altman, journalists like Jose Antonio Vargas, longtime members of the Silicon Valley establishment like Tim O'Reilly, entrepreneurs from fields as diverse as ride-sharing (Nick Allen) and dating (Amanda Bradford), and we even invited our own brutal Internet commenters to speak, like the man, the myth Richard Bottoms.
Facilitating dialogue between these disparate stakeholders won't guarantee a return of idealism to the tech industry. But it's the first step. The rest of the work, as Altman says, must be done by individuals; tech workers who are willing to risk their career to stand up for what's right, like the whistleblowers who spoke out against Apple's wage collusion scandal; journalists, activists, and artists with the courage to call out giant tech companies for their misdeeds, and the cleverness to get the public to care; and developers and decision-makers who refuse to let the promise of quick profits and venture cash blind them from building products and companies that value the safety and sanity of their community, both online and off.
In the meantime, studies have shown that the counterculture's drug of choice, LSD, helps improve empathy. With "asshole culture" running rampant in Silicon Valley, maybe entrepreneurs should stop washing smart drug cocktails down their throat with Soylent and take a different kind of trip. Can you imagine what a better world it would be if Travis Kalanick dropped acid?
*James Currier is a personal investor in Pando
[illustration by Brad Jonas]