There’s probably not a person in the world that doesn’t associate Silicon Valley with major technological enterprise – most of us associate the area with big-time tech developers like Google and Apple.
But what was happening before the business-focused tech boom to make it fertile ground for so much activity in the 1990s and 2000s? Here we’ll explore a little bit of the history of the era and how it came to be such a hotbed of innovation.
The Summer of Love
The late 60s in San Francisco was about more than sex, drugs, and rock and roll.This was a time that was about protesting and revolution, an explosion of music, and new forms of art, all of which represented extremely liberal ways of thinking and being. This was about breaking out of the status quo and finding new forms of freedom and self-reliance.
But it was not just rebellion; the entire hippie movement was born out of a need to break away from industrial-capitalist America which had come to dominate every aspect of life, particularly in the previous few centuries. In this, free speech was connected to civil rights, and anti-war protests prevailed with the start of the Vietnam War.
On the surface, the hippie movement may have appeared hedonistic, but at its core, it was about creating new ways of living. This included creating your own tools and living systems that were not reliant on capitalist systems.
This focus on self-reliance and freedom of expression took on a variety of forms: it may have taken the form of creating a communal living space; it may have looked like escaping to the desert on an LSD trip, or it may have involved hacking together oddball vehicles out of scavenged materials. DIY technology was a part of this, and the concept of accessible digital technology and communities were starting to be discussed by locals coming out of Berkeley and Stanford.
The 1970s saw a combination of tech hobbyists who were focused on essentially creating their own computers. The Homebrew Computer Club met regularly to discuss this type of DIY tech as well as ways of making computers accessible to the masses. These meetings eventually gave rise to the Wozniak-Jobs creation of the first Apple computer.
The first personal computer was developed in the interest of liberation and freedom, and at that time Jobs and Wozniak were focused on getting others involved in DIY culture as well.
The 1960s and 70s fueled new ways of thinking, and a part of this was also about new ways of living which included community living and utopias.
Sometimes these ideas included unusual architectural structures like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes which started to pop up around Northern California. Such “bubble-shaped”organic structures were DIY concepts meant to support a more communal and possibly nomadic lifestyle. And plenty of San Franciscans in this era did move to rural communes to experiment with new ways of living at the time.
Today, both Apple and Google have buildings with circular, organic shapes reminiscent of 60s sci-fi movies. Circles and “bubbles” were symbolic of anti-capitalism at the time, as was seen in many design elements. This was just one symbolic way that people started to think differently, incorporate more ecological principles and holistic design, and which was reflected in buildings and art.
Steve Jobs for one was a fan ofThe Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture publication that ran between 1968 and 1972. Jobs quoted the words from the last issue in his Stanford 2005 graduation speech– “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Stewart Brand, who started the magazine, did so in the spirit of a more socially and organically cohesive American culture, including design. The phrase was meant to drive innovation and never second-guess your ideas, no matter how strange or outlandish they may seem at the time.
The Bay area is now full of startups and the world’s best tech specialists in the world, as well as some of the richest people in the world. While this can be traced back to the focus on innovation and risk-taking which began in the 1960s. This also gave way to the sharing economy and crowdsourcing, two concepts that arose out of this area during the 1960s and 70s.
The area became known as a place that welcomed unusual thinking – and it stuck.
In the 1960s in Silicon Valley, there were plenty of other tech companies doing their thing in inexpensive warehouses alongside venture capitalists who were then easily able to fund the computer industry into the 1980s, with software alongside of it. Having well-known schools like Stanford and Berkeley is key to having intellectual talent as a core of this perpetual stream of the brightest minds.
Generally, Silicon Valley started out by being a welcoming place for those who thrive on taking intellectual risks and experimenting with different ways of life. By contrast, other well-known business-centers in the US (such as Wall Street) have tended to stick more to the status quo. So even though now California is decidedly much richer in comparison to where it was in the hippie era, the people who populate it are still all about doing things differently.
If we think of the ways that current companies have disrupted the status quo — like how Facebook changed the face of communications, or how Salesforce upset the status quo of customer relationship technology – we can still see this happening.
Is there still a counterculture?
Into the 1990s and early 2000s, Silicon Valley saw the creation of the internet as well as associated startups like Amazon and Craigslist. The dot-com bubble in the late 1990s drew investors and pushed real estate prices to generally unaffordable levels. Despite the boom-bust cycle around that time it remains a rich hub of R&D and startups.
Steve Jobs was clearly influenced by counterculture initially, and while his intentions may have been to enlighten society and allow them to live more independently, the fact is that now we’re overly-attached to these machines. The debate rages on as to whether or not they have actually provided the freedom that was originally intended or if we’re more immersed and reliant on external forces.