From Satori to Silicon Valley

by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.

The Short Cut to Satori

If we delve a bit deeper into the origins of the counter culture -- back to the late fifties and early sixties -- we find what may be the most significant connection between the reversionary and technophiliac wings of the movement. In the beginning, there was the music -- always the major carrier of the movement: folk, then rock and roll, then rock in all its permutations. Early on, the music, as it was performed in concert and in the new clubs of the period, took on a special mode of presentation. Its power came from electronic amplification; it borrowed from the apparatus. As grungy as the rock audience may have been, it wanted its music explosively amplified and expertly modulated; it wanted to hear the beat through its pores. Acoustic was not enough; the music needed machines. In this form, with nothing added, rock was supposedly sufficient to produce mind blowing results. "By itself," the San Francisco psychedelic philosopher Chester Anderson proclaimed

without the aid of strobe lights, day-glo paints, and other subimaginative copouts, rock engages the entire sensorium, appealing to the intelligence with no interference from the intellect. . . . Rock is a tribal phenomenon and constitutes what may be called a twentieth century magic. . . . Rock is creating the social rituals of the future. (San Francisco Oracle, No. 6, 1967)

But soon enough, the audience wanted even more. It wanted ecstasies for the eye as well as the ear. Hence the light shows that began in San Francisco and, in the course of the middle sixties, rapidly became an adjunct of rock performances across the country.

The first light shows performed in the United States were developed as a fine art at San Francisco State College in the early fifties. In 1952, Professor Seymour Locks staged a highly ambitious three projector show with live music to inaugurate the school's new Creative Arts Building, where a national conference of art educators was being hosted. Locks, together with other members of the San Francisco State Art Department, went on to pioneer a sizeable repertory of liquid projection and colored light techniques through the later fifties. By the start of the next decade, the new art form was being reworked by many hands, but nowhere more daringly than in the San Francisco rock clubs. There the light shows, augmented by strobe lights and phosphorescent colors, were more than an aesthetic medium; they had been seized upon at once as a way of reproducing and/or occasioning psychedelic experience. They were the visual signature of dope. And from the very outset, the premier dope of the era, LSD, was itself a technology, a laboratory product, the result of advanced research at the Swiss pharmaceutical house of Sandoz and Company.

In the early postwar period, LSD and other laboratory hallucinogens belonged to a small, elite public, made up primarily of top-dollar psychiatrists and their high-society clientele. At that time, before LSD had acquired a criminal aura and had been outlawed, mainstream publications like Time and Life were prepared to publicize its many therapeutic benefits. But by the early sixties, the hallucinogens had found another, less respectable public; they were being touted among the beat poets and dropped-out kids in the streets of Haight-Ashbury and Greenwich Village as the salvation of our troubled culture. Soon Timothy Leary was proselytizing for dope across America; in the Bay Area, as of 1966, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were blithely dosing whole audiences on this mysterious elixir (or promising to do so) at the Acid Tests and at the Trips Festival.

The assumption underlying these mass distribution efforts was blunt and simple: dope saves your soul. Like the Catholic sacraments, it takes effect ex opere operato -- by its very ministration. Once this promise crossed wires with the growing interest in oriental mysticism, the psychedelics had been launched as a cultural force. It seemed clear that the research laboratories of the western world -- including those of the giant pharmaceutical corporations -- had presented the world with a substitute for the age-old spiritual disciplines of the East. Instead of a lifetime of structured contemplation, a few drops of home brewed acid on a vitamin pill would do the trick. It was the short cut to satori.

"Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry" ran the slogan of the DuPont Company. And thousands of acid heads were ready to agree. They had heard the music; they had seen the colored lights; they had sampled the dope. Nothing did more to tilt the counter culture toward a naive Technophilia than this seductive trio of delights. If the high tech of the western world could offer so great a spiritual treasure, then why not more?

Here, I suspect, is the reason why Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and the other technophiliac utopians struck such a responsive chord among the countercultural young. Acid and rock had prepared an audience for their message, and prepared it in an especially persuasive way that undercut the cerebral levels. For the psychedelics are a powerful, even a shattering experience. Combined with the music and the lights in a total assault upon the senses, they can indeed make anything seem possible. They induce a sense of grandeur and a euphoria that may make the grimmest political realities seem like paper tigers. At the same time, the experience connects -- or so its proselytizers always insisted -- with primordial mystical powers of the mind that still flourish, or might still flourish, in exotic quarters of the globe among native practitioners and traditional peoples like Carlos Casteneda's legendary Don Juan. This experience, purchased out of the laboratories of our industrial culture, somehow allies its disciples with the ancient, the primitive, the tribal. Its proper use is among huddled comrades, gathered in a sacramental hush in park or field, on the beach, in the wilderness, or the enfolding darkness of an urban den. Here, then, we find the same striking blend of the sophisticated-scientific and the natural-communal that Buckminster Fuller claimed for the geometry of the geodesic dome, and that the Silicon Valley hackers would eventually claim for the personal computer. "This generation absolutely swallowed computers whole, just like dope," Stewart Brand observed in a February 1985 interview in San Francisco Focus Magazine. There may be more literal truth to the metaphor than he intended.


Some Afterthoughts in the Year 2000

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.