From satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak

2 minutes estimated reading time

I have read a number of books on Silicon Valley, many of which allude to the impact of the beat generation and 1960s counterculture.  Many of which tie it into the rise of what we now know as Silicon Valley. Roszak’s From Satori to Silicon Valley is really an essay. In his essay is a deeply personal history of how the counterculture influenced Silicon Valley and then devolved into the yuppie culture of the 1980s.

The essay was originally written for a lecture to be given at San Francisco State University. I was particularly struck by a piece at the beginning of the book:

A few weeks before the lecture, a student in the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State called me to arrange some campus publicity. He had a question from a student.

“Where’s Satori?”

“What?” I asked.

“Your lecture is called ‘From Satori to Silicon Valley,’ ” he explained. “I know where Silicon Valley is. But where’s Satori?”

“The Zen state of enlightenment … you never heard of that?”

“Oh. I never took any courses in Oriental religion “

I started to explain the term, spelling out its once obvious connection with the counter culture of the sixties.

This exchange was had by Roszak in 1985. My own views were rather different. For me the ideas that fired the counterculture revolution had a vibrancy that excited me. Yes hippies were a cliche, but they left a lot of concepts behind.

They had moved orientalism beyond interesting antiques to vibrant ideas. They had tried to marry libertarianism with utopianism that inspired early online culture. They had rooted down into the very nature of quality through metaphysics. This had inspired my wider view of things that gave this blog its name. In terms of eastern high and low brow culture and a holistic ‘renaissance man’ viewpoint.

Yet in that conversation, Roszak highlights the huge gulf that lay between the counterculture that had fuelled so much of Silicon Valley up until then and the new generation. A 30-something Steve Jobs would have choked with incredulity at that conversation.

Roszak’s work is credible because of his personal memories make it real for the essay reader. He was in the trenches shaping the brightest minds to find their way to Silicon Valley. This brings that transition into focus in a way that other authors such as John Markoff had been unable to do.

Roszak’s writing isn’t as witty or snarky as Robert X Cringely’s Accidental Empires. From Satori to Silicon Valley doesn’t try to build a mythologise around the messiness of the counterculture movement.

If you want to understand where technology is taking us (into a digital version of the robber baron gilded age) read From Satori To Silicon Valley. At 64 pages long and smaller than a typical paperback book it makes an easy read on the tube too.