The Technium

The California Ideology

For years a set of European intellectuals have talked about a “California Ideology.” They mean a certain blend of optimism, libertarianism, and futurism that seems to flow from the centers of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And they often link it to the earlier California trends of anti-authority new age, beats and hippies. The term is meant as criticism, in both sense of the word. While the California Ideology has produced the internet at large and the iPhone, it is also a major engine of the industrial-corporate complex. That’s something that worries people.

When I first heard the term in the 1980s I thought it was imaginary, but over the decades I have become more sympathetic to its reality. Recently Paul Ford writing in New York Magazine offered another view of what I think is the same Californian perspective in a larger piece on the future of publishing. Ford writes:

Franzen’s speech recalls another, very different commencement speech, by Apple CEO Steven Jobs to the 2005 class of Stanford. Jobs is the embodiment of California, all gold rush, less city-on-hill. At Stanford he invoked the Whole Earth Catalog as “one of the bibles of my generation” – its cut-and-paste aesthetic, hippie cheer, and promise of access to information a balm for his late-adolescent soul. The Whole Earth Catalog was a DIY-bible assembled by former Merry Prankster Stewart Brand, far from the clanking Epiphanator. “We are as gods,” reads the preface, “and we might as well get good at it.”

The Whole Earth Catalog’s descendants include, in strange but real ways, the entire computer and Internet industries. Creating tools to give regular people godlike powers is exactly what Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, Mark Zuckerberg, and a host of others have done, starting with cheap computer hardware and shrink-wrapped software, then via the web and on social networks. We’ve reached a point where anyone with an SMS card or access to an Internet café can potentially be heard by billions of people. What could be more godlike – or more foreign to the Epiphinator – than that?

And how do the Whole Earth heirs of Silicon Valley stand today compared to their financially bereft Epiphonatorian counterparts? Apple couldn’t get much bigger without selling oil, while the media industry has been reduced to dime-size buttons that show up on iPhone screens. Google regularly announces initiatives to “save” the newspaper and book industries – like a modern-day hunter who proclaims himself a conservationist. And Facebook, having already swallowed up enormous chunks of discretionary media consumption time, has its old-school media counterparts chasing after “Likes” as if they were cocaine being dispensed in a lab rat’s cage.

So it would be easy to think that the Whole Earthers are winning and the Epiphinators are losing. But this isn’t a war as much as a trade dispute. Most people never chose a side; they just chose to participate. No one joined Facebook in the hope of destroying the publishing industry.

Setting aside whether the Whole Earther’s triumph over the establishment (I think they will), I find it significant that Ford employs many of the same symbols as the California Ideology critics: the Whole Earth Catalog, Jobs hippy past, financial wizardry, a god complex, and druggy parallels.

But I think they are right. The hippie origins of the the current tech boom have not been fully appreciated. Two recent books explore the idea, but the full story has yet to be told. Read What the Doormouse Said by John Markoff. (The book title is a drug related verse from a famous rock song, for a book about the invention of personal computers.) The other is Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Both books paint a continuum between the free spirits of the gold rushes and the free marketers of the digital era.

There is something new growing in California, some weird nexus of VC money, ubiquitous startup fever, new age bodywork, open source faith, maker vibe, protopianism, digitial socialism and internet religion that has shaped me and is breeding new ideas at an accelerating pace. I didn’t used to believe it was any different than elsewhere in the US, but increasingly I feel it really is centered in this state. In that sense, there is a California Ideology.

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