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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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