Tools of liberation: how 1960s Californian counterculture lives on in today’s brands

The hippie communes that formed down the USA’s West Coast after the Summer of Love don’t appear to be the logical starting point for the empires of Apple, Google and Uber. But the philosophy developed in this time and place – that of democratising the tools of liberation – is one that continues to live on in Californian technology and design.

The formation, expansion and product of these tools of liberation is the central focus of the Design Museum’s latest exhibition. Brendan McGertick, the co-curator of California: Designing Freedom, explained: “What distinguished Californian design is, is a certain kind of philosophy or ethos which thinks that design or creativity or innovation should go towards personal empowerment.”

This new attitude to design is encapsulated in the Whole Earth Catalog [sic] – a guide, first published in 1968 and displayed at the show, on DIY building for those seeking a communal life away from the established towns and cities. The build-it-yourself culture aimed to shift technology from the military-industrial complex into the hands of the masses and went on to directly inspire the big players of the Silicon Valley tech scene, including Steve Jobs, who dubbed the Whole Earth Catalog as “one of the bibles of my generation”.

“One of the first aspects of the [Californian 1960s] counterculture is the back to land movement, which is where a lot of people following the Summer of Love left San Francisco to try to form their own communes in different parts of the country,” said McGertick. “Through that process a certain philosophy emerged, which is that tech should help empower people to create their own realities, create their own communities and build their own alternative societies.

“What we learnt is that idea actually went on to be very influential toward the next generation of computer designers and computer programmers and it established a way of understanding design that resonates today.”

The exhibition contends that the notion of freedom in 1960s California found itself expressed in less obvious ways too. For instance, the museum displays Waymo, the world’s first self-driving car, alongside intricate designs of LSD on blotting paper; the earliest skateboards – which opened up freedom of movement – can be viewed next to make-your-own computer kits.

The show is divided into five sections: ‘Go where you want: tool of movement and escape’; ‘See what you want: tools of perception and fantasy’; ‘Say what you want: tools of sef-expression and rebellion’; ‘Make what you want: tools of production and self-reliance’; and ‘Join who you want: tools of collaboration and community’.

California: Designing Freedom also explores how advertising was influenced by the West Coast counterculture. For instance, the ‘We the people’ campaign released ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump is displayed to showed how personal liberation and anti-establishmentarianism still find themselves relevant to today’s marketing design.

However the ad that embodies the Californian ethos most is Apple Mac’s 1984 spot, which aired the same year at the Superbowl. As such, a video of the commercial playing on a loop is given a prime place at the exhibition.

“This idea that Californian technology is somehow liberating or empowering to the individual very much played out in Silicon Valley advertising,” said Justin McGuirk, exhibition co-curator and chief curator at the Design Museum. “If you look at the Apple Mac from 1984, which was really the computer that launched personal computing, the advert directed by Ridley Scott … was an advert about personal freedom – a colourful, creative individual rebelling against a grey, bureaucratic, Orwellian society.

“This idea that technology that enables you to do anything anywhere has often be sold to the consumer as personally liberating.”

Everybody’s free (to make money)

The paradox for today’s consumer is reconciling the world of hippies searching for a life outside a governmental system to the corporate tech behemoths that we know and use today. How can the central ideas of truth and liberation live on in brands so embedded to the mainstream – and dedicated on making money?

“One of the interesting things about California is that while it is completely wedded to an idea that design should empower the individual and technology should be distributed to the widest swath of the population possible, it is also an entrepreneurial society where getting rich is not in any way shameful,” said McGertick. “It’s this idea of wanting to change the world and get rich at the same time.

“I think in Europe or even on the east coast of America that’s more of a contentious idea but [in California] they’ve synthesised it in a way that allows someone like Steve Jobs to feel that he’s coming from a hippie impulse but be a billionaire – and that’s justified.”

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Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

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