From Satori to Silicon Valley

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

A Taste for Industrial Light and Magic

But now, if we were to fix upon this one aspect of the counter culture -- its mystic tendencies and principled funkiness -- we would not be doing justice to the deep ambiguity of the movement. We would be overlooking the allegiance it maintained, for all its vigorous dissent, to a certain irrepressible Yankee ingenuity, a certain world-beating American fascination with making and doing. For along one important line of descent, it is within this same population of rebels and drop-outs that we can find the inventors and entrepreneurs who helped lay the foundations of the California computer industry. The connections between these two seemingly contradictory aspects of the movement are fascinating to draw out and ponder -- especially since both wings of the counter culture came to be more fully unfolded here in the San Francisco Bay Area than any place else. This is where the Zen-Taoist impulse arose and found (for example, in the San Francisco Zen Center) its most studied expression in America; this is where the mendicant-communitarian lifestyle, both urban and rural, found its main public examples; this is where the new ecological sensibility first announced its presence and first organized its political energies. And this is where the inspired young hackers who would revolutionize Silicon Valley gathered in their greatest numbers.

The truth is, if one probes just beneath the surface of the bucolic hippie image, one finds a puzzling infatuation with certain forms of outrè technology reaching well back into the early sixties. I first became aware of its presence when I realized that the countercultural students I knew during that period were almost exclusively, if not maniacally, readers of science fiction. They were reading more of the genre than the publishers could provide. Side by side with the appeal of folk music and primitive ways, handicrafts and organic husbandry, there was a childlike, Oh Wow! confabulation with the space-ships and miraculous mechanisms that would make Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and the television series Star Trek cult favorites, and which would eventually produce the adult audience for (and the producers of) Star Wars in the later seventies and eighties. The same eyes that were scanning the tribal past for its wonders and amazements were also on the look-out for the imagined marvels of what George Lucas would one day call "Industrial Light and Magic."

Similarly, if we turn back to The Whole Earth Catalog, we can find the same hybrid taste. Alongside the rustic skills and tools, we discover high industrial techniques and instruments: stereo systems, cameras, cinematography, and, of course, computers. On one page the "Manifesto of the Mad Farmer Liberation Front" (Wendell Berry's plea for family-scaled organic agriculture); on the next, Norbert Wiener's cybernetics. I recall how this juxtaposition jarred when I first noticed it. But then I thought again and tried to restrain my doubts. There was, after all, something charming about the blithe eclecticism of this worldview. Granted that a catalog is by its very nature a mélange. But this catalog clearly meant to project a consistent vision. It seemed to be saying that all human ingenuity deserved to be celebrated from the stone axe and American Indian medicine to modem electronics. Clearly, in so saying, the Catalog spoke for an audience that wanted to see things that way. Or rather, the Catalog found the voices that could do that job. And of all the voices to which it gave a forum, none was to become more prominent than Buckminster Fuller, the man who informed a generation that it was already on board a spaceship called Planet Earth, and who presumed to write its "operating manual."

Now, as of the sixties, Buckminster Fuller already had a long career behind him. The baby boom generation may have embedded the Young Demographic in our media, but the counter culture always made a generous place for wise old souls, whether voices of the past like Black Elk and Henry David Thoreau or seasoned mentors like Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman. Fuller's prefabricated Dymaxion House of the late twenties (also called "the four dimensional living machine") dates back to the grandparents of the countercultural generation. From that point forward, his life story went through many ups and downs; but there can be no question that the sixties (when Fuller was in his seventies) were his zenith. Not only did he make the front cover of Time magazine (in 1964), but he became one of the prophetical voices of the American counter culture, starting with a prolonged campus residency at San Jose State College that brought him to the Bay Area in early 1966. Thanks to that appearance and subsequently to the prominence Stewart Brand gave him in The Whole Earth Catalog, Fuller was launched on the final and most spectacular phase of his career. On the first page of the Catalog, the full corpus of Fuller's works was generously presented under the inscription: "the insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog." From that point forward, Fuller became the necessary presence at New Age conferences, symposia, and workshops, a sort of peripatetic global wizard who might tie his awe-inspired audience down for four or five hours at a stretch while he recited the history of the universe.

What was it that made this odd figure so remarkably influential in countercultural circles? In part, it may have been his grandfatherly persona, which appealed to young people in search of wise elders and finding so few. In part, too, it might have had to do with his maverick image, that of the outcast genius scorned by the schools and the professionals, and so becoming the senior drop-out who could speak to junior drop-outs. But one must add his unique talent for self-advertisement, his capacity, by way of grandiloquent obfuscation, to make much out of little ideas and little inventions that could be sensationally clothed in cosmic pretensions. If Fuller was half Tom Swift, he was also half P. T. Barnum. And just as Barnum could turn a not very special midget or an overaged elephant into wonders of the world, so Fuller was able to parley a few modest pieces of eccentric engineering into achievements of supposedly epoch-making genius -- at least in the eyes of an audience that was in the market for technological astonishments.

Above all, it was Fuller's worldview that caught the temper of the time and the movement. While impishly dissenting in tone, he was up-beat in spirit: hopeful, sassy, inspirational almost to the point of euphoria. Fuller was, as one biographer calls him, a "raging optimist." I must confess that, though I shared a few platforms with Fuller and did my best to appreciate his books, I never came across anything he said that managed to be, at one and the same time, original, true, significant, and understandable. Worse still, I was never able to distinguish his optimism from plain egomania; I would not have been surprised to hear him announce that he had invented a better tree. Yet, again and again, I saw him send audiences away glowing with hope and resolution. That peculiar magic made Fuller and his Bay Area disciples the major spokesmen for a philosophy of postindustrial life that has done much to shape the style and expectations of the computer industry, especially as it has grown up in Silicon Valley over the past ten years.


Some Afterthoughts in the Year 2000

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