EPISODE 2: The unlikely ancestors of today’s masters

Episode 2:

The unlikely ancestors of today’s masters

How the hippies took over tech and came to dominate our daily lives

You own a smartphone, a PC and in all likelihood, you would feel lost without these devices. You might vaguely remember a time before all the connected blue-lit screens constantly fed and extracted your data.This is the extent to which technology companies have come to dominate our lives.

10 years ago, the top 5 corporations in the US were commanded by Banking and Energy, with Microsoft the only tech leader. Fast forward, and those positions have radically changed. Technology companies have toppled the power by a long shot and are spearheading the economic growth of their nation. In August, Apple became the first American public company to cross $1 trillion in value.

In fact, seven of the world’s top ten ranked companies are tech companies, whose most valuable assets are not property or inventory, but data, and a majority of the world’s brainiest talent pool. This is evidence that they are the new Masters: What are they going to do with these assets? Is our user data the the new oil? What’s happening to the balance of wealth and privilege in society? These are some of the question that people pose more and more.

Coincidetally, these are the same questions, that stood at the beginning of the tech revolution. Long before digital platforms and social networks, the hippie movement directed these questions to the dominance of the then-Masters, the oil and banking conglomerates. They were concerned about the questionable flows of profits of the corporate fat-cats – reward and merit were imbalanced, and they did not want to contribute for the sake of lining someone else’s’ silky pockets.

The hippies, including a young Steve Jobs, were striving for power to the people, and central to that was providing popular access to personal computers as a means of democratic power. An insignificant and geeky pastime then, which has entirely shaped the state of our economies and lifestyles today, with the rise and rise of unicorns such as Uber, Airbnb, WeWork and Juul Labs who have all disrupted traditional business models with radical innovation.

What happened back then?

They share the same roots with the ones that attacked the masters in the 1960’s. A collective of students from California were frustrated by a lack of job prospects due to the post-war population boom, and the futility of the Vietnam War. As peers at nearby Stanford University and UC Berkeley were inspired, the movement grew and Haight-Ashbury became the destination for a community of “Hippies” to come together, to figure out peaceful and revolutionary ways to change the world. And change the world they did, far beyond drugs, free love and electric guitars: Silicon Valley has been one of the most significant outcomes of the Hippie movement.

Nerdy counterculture hippies would flock to the outlying communes and suburban garages of Silicon Valley to experiment: mixing psychedelic drugs, social experiments like living in communes, and political protest, that provided the backdrop to the development of personal computing. In his book “What the Dormouse Said” John Markoff, Silicon Valley reporter for the New York Times connects these threads and refers to the lyrics of the Jefferson Airplane acid-rock song “ “Feed you head, feed you head” – pointing to group of visionaries set out to turn computers into a means for freeing minds and information.

How to grow the right mindset

The Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand, a Stanford dropout, became the “new bible” for the anti-establishment misfits who wanted full awareness what was going on, what might be possible, and what was likely to happen next. Brand exemplified the intersection of the hippie movement and the technological experimentation that built Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs, who was brought up in Palo Alto, told a group of Stanford graduates in a famous speech: “The Whole Earth Catalog … was one of the bibles of my generation … it was a sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

Stanford has become a breeding ground for computer scientists and “ideas-people”. Other luminaries include Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, and Juul’s James Monesees, who will be speaking at WORLDWEBFORUM 2019. How much of that entrepreneurial mindset was ignited by the Hippie’s anti-establishment legacy? Did James Monsees hatch Juul out of frustration that he couldn’t smoke in the Stanford lecture theatres? Perhaps Reed Hastings was frustrated by Blockbuster’s restricted opening hours, when the Netflix lightbulb came on?

The movement that became a Mindset

Certainly, the mindset has spread outside the California geographical region and inspired many other entrepreneurs who found the need to skirt regulation and do things differently. Jack Ma of Alibaba, has wittily said, “If the customer loves you, the government will have to love you.” From a country where government relationships and regulatory approval are make-or-break, this is indicative his bold mindset to challenge, and create an alternative. Richard Branson is another business leader who has proudly stated “once a hippie, always a hippie”, attributing his carefree, experimental approach to bringing ideas to life, and branding the heck out of it, to his mindset of being able to just f**k it, let’s give it a go.

In conclusion…

…the hippies questioned the existing regulations, the church (and hence the moral and cultural codes), challenged the accepted norms and caused a cultural revolution that inspired a wave of technologists with a new mindset. Fabian Hediger, CEO of WORLDWEBFORUM credits the Hippies for the new wave of power. He comments, “They changed the mindset, stigmatized the establishment, and affected change.

The hippies saw technology as the weapon to fight the old establishment and help the new mindset to become the new master. Those who have consciousness, the ones who can use the most free capabilities (deregulated, unbound by constructs) are the ones who will exponentially grow. Not only will they lead, but they will dominate. This is something I would love to see happen in Europe. We need to muster the courage to drive change, otherwise we will get left behind by the new masters, the tech giants in the US and China.”