Rohan Silva: Silicon Valley’s Sixties’ idealism versus 21st-century responsibility

Rohan Silva
Steve Jobs: the Apple co-founder embodied the hippie culture of Silicon Valley: AFP/Getty Images

“Have you ever taken acid?” If you were applying for a job at Apple in the 1980s, this was an interview question you might have been asked by Steve Jobs himself, who used it to test potential recruits.

I know that sounds like something you’d be asked at a hippie commune, not a technology company, but it’s actually not so bizarre when you look at the history of Silicon Valley.

As Fred Turner explains in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, California’s technology industry was shaped by the utopian movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As well as being at the heart of the digital economy, California was the epicentre of the countercultural hippie philosophy that swept across the western world, embodying a set of radical ideas that challenged the established order.

West Coast technologists couldn’t help but be influenced by these intellectual currents, and you see this in the products and companies they built.

One example is the way that countercultural thinkers rejected traditional authority and top-down control. When the internet was created, its structure was deliberately designed to reflect this non-hierarchical worldview, which is why all users were given equal rights to access and share information.

That revolutionary thinking is the reason anyone can write a tweet or blog post and share it with people around the world — without asking permission. This in turn enabled the democratisation of information, giving rise to Wikipedia and WikiLeaks, as well as Twitter.

That kind of open sharing, with no central authority in charge, was a hippie vision made real by technology — and it’s not the only one.

It’s the same with the idea that private property could be replaced by a sharing economy where people don’t need to own cars, but instead hitch rides wherever they want to go. Or the vision of a world where anyone can communicate freely with anyone else, at zero cost. And the dream that everyone should be able to travel the world cheaply, crashing in spare rooms instead of expensive hotels.

If you think about it, these classic countercultural ideas are central to modern Silicon Valley companies like Uber, Facebook and Airbnb.

Of course it’s ironic — and paradoxical — that these hippie values are being brought to life by hugely powerful private sector corporations worth billions of dollars. But the intellectual background of these Silicon Valley giants helps explain why they’re running into conflicts across Europe.

The West Coast mindset is that people should be able to share information freely, which is the reason Facebook and other social media sites are clashing with the German government, who want hate speech to be removed more quickly. Meanwhile, Paris authorities are clamping down on Uber and Airbnb for upending the established taxi and hotel industries.

Right across the board, European regulators are butting heads with Silicon Valley companies, on issues from copyright to privacy.

This isn’t just because of European Union protectionism — it’s due to the fundamentally different philosophies of Californian technologists and European lawmakers. It’s a clash of civilisations, and it isn’t going to go away. When we leave the EU, we’ll have to decide whose side we’re on.

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