The changing culture of Silicon Valley

When I was in college I interviewed for a few placements, one was with Hewlett-Packard in Germany. They wanted a marketing student to look after their printing brochures on demand initiative for their UNIX product line. This was going to save them a mint in terms of marketing spend using an Indigo Digital Press rather than brochure runs on litho printing, reducing waste, storage needs and allow for faster document updates. (HP went on to buy Indigo in 2001).

Commercial adoption of the web was around the corner, I was already using it in college, but its ubiquity still seemed quite far away. I decided I didn’t want to go for the job primarily because I wanted to get my degree over and done with and HP weren’t paying that much for the role.

We were interviewed by a succession of people, the only one who was memorable  was a guy called Tim Nolte who wore a Grateful Dead tie and had a Jerry Garcia mouse mat in his cubicle.

At that time HP, had the dressing of the company man but had more than a few hippies on the payroll who permeated its culture. Reading Robert X Cringely’s Accidental Empires made me realise that technology was as much a culture war as technological upheaval.

If one looks at the icons of the technology sector up to and including the early noughties many of the people were influenced by the counterculture movement if not part of it. The  Grateful Dead where one of the first bands to have their own website at The Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded by John Perry Barlow, a lyricist with The Grateful Dead. Steve Jobs was influenced by Indian mystics and his experiences using LSD.

Stewart Brand who founded WIRED magazine and The WeLL was the editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, a guide to useful things for people who wanted to get back to the land. He was influential in the early environmentalist movement and had been involved in the counterculture of 1960s San Francisco.
Members of the Golden Circle Senior Citizens Club of Fairmont holding quilt they made. The quilt was raffled off during the Fairmont centennial, May 1973
Ideas from open APIs and creative commons came from their libertarian values. Open Source Software again comes from academic and countercultural attitudes to information and has had to defend itself from accusations of communism, yet it now runs most of the world’s web services and gadgets from smartphones to Google’s search engine.

Reading the Cluetrain Manifesto is like reading a screed that could have come from an alternative Haight Ashbury.

Aeon magazine wrote an article on how yuppies have hacked the hacker ethos, but the truth is they’ve got behind the steering wheel as web2.0 declined. The move from open web API’s and the walled garden approach of Facebook and their ilk marked a changing of the guard of sorts.

Flickr had and ability to move your photos as a matter of pride in their product. Just a few clicks kept them honest and kept them innovating. Joshua Schachter’s similar approach on allowed me to move to when Yahoo! announced that it would be sunset.

Government always is the last to catch up, which is the reason why open data only really gained mainstream political currency in the past five years.

Were now in a Silicon Valley whose values are closer to the Reagan years and I am not too sure what it will do for innovation. I suspect that the change won’t be positive.

More information
Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date by Robert X Cringely
Don’t listen to Bill Gates. The open-source movement isn’t communism. | Slate
How yuppies hacked the hacker ethos – Aeon