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From hippies to Silicon Valley: the birth of California design lies in Sixties counterculture

“California: Designing Freedom” is an exbition tracing the history of the tools that liberate us.

While modern manifestations of the “hippie” often include tie-dye T-shirts, recreational drug use and Glastonbury’s Greenpeace area, the movement traditionally refers to a prominent strand of 1960s and 70s American counterculture. 

Born in California and popularised during the Summer of Love, the movement saw the exodus of young people from cities and into the countryside, where they set up communes, promoting a self-sufficient and independent way of life.

Justin McGuirk, the chief curator of London’s Design Museum, would also have you believe that the “hippie” should be linked with the likes of Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs. He says “California: Designing Freedom” is an exhibition about “how an idea of freedom that was born in the counterculture of the 1960s slowly morphs into the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley, which becomes a kind of global digital culture.”

From Google’s Waymo “Firefly” self-driving vehicle, to the wooden frame of a surf board, nearly every object on display has its roots in Sixties counterculture.

The exhibition is split into five areas: “Join What You Want”, “Make What You Want”, “Say What You Want”, “See What You Want”, and “Go Where You Want”. McGuirk says that in the process of putting the show together, “we realised that what we're doing is not aesthetic, but a set of attitudes, and so we made the themes a set of attitudes”.

While a chronological layout would have certainly been easier to grasp, the themes convey what is at the heart of the show – the physical tools of personal liberation. They come in all shapes and sizes: tools of collaboration and community in the communes and first online networks, production and self-reliance, freedom of expression in the graphics of protest posters, perception and fantasy in LSD, or movement and escape in the replica of the Captain America chopper.

Personal liberation is also what the hippies wanted to achieve by setting up communes. They found encouragement and guidance in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine which set out its purpose firmly on the first page: “We are as Gods and might as well get good at it.” The publication ran from 1968 to 1998 and focused on reviewing and advertising tools for an ecological, self-sufficient lifestyle. 

“These people are world-makers. That's kind of central to, certainly to the Catalog's mission, and to many of the communalists as well, this idea that they can start again,” says McGuirk. 

In the 1970s, when the commune movement started to peter out, Brand was the first to notice the potential of personal computers to become the new tools for transforming society. For McGuirk, Brand is a pivotal figure in California design: “He is the nexus between counterculture and computer culture. He kind of marries them together and you know eventually you get the first bulletin boards happening, the first kind of online networks happening.” 

While Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, the yellowing pages of which you can peruse through at length, is perhaps the most literal link between hippies and computers in the exhibition, connections can be found in the most unassuming of products. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s first ever Apple creation, the Apple 1, is displayed as a circuit board screwed down onto a piece of plywood. McGuirk explains that this was only one of many DIY designs for the product as it was up to the user to connect a keyboard and screen. The design of the casing was also left completely up to the user. While Jobs and Wozniak were selling the personal computer as a source of liberation, they were also encouraging users to get involved in the DIY maker culture embodied in the hippie communes. 

There is a darker side to the brand of personal freedom sold by the mythical Silicon Valley, however. The exhibition appears ambiguous on the topic as rows of iPhones, GoPros, and video cameras are cast both as means of positive self-documentation and ominous self-surveillance. 

McGuirk assures me that the show is “not giving in to a very cynical view of Silicon Valley, which is that it's all bad, because, if you think about it we're all using these tools and these tools have transformed our lives.”  But in the same way that the hippie ethos of peace and love ultimately collapsed, there is a suggestion that our tools of personal liberation can quickly become tools of confinement. 

“California: Designing Freedom” runs until 17 October at London's Design Museum

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon