Hippie Inc: how the counterculture went corporate
We will shift focus from Silicon Valley’s darker side to its mellower side. The Hippie counterculture from the 1960s now finds itself at the heart of capitalism. How did that happen? Well, as with most things these days, Silicon Valley played a big role: “Google, Apple, Facebook, Nike, Procter & Gamble and General Motors all offer programmes on mindfulness, a broad term for a number of Eastern-influenced practices designed to help you focus on the here and now. Employees at the headquarters of Cisco Systems in San Jose can attend the LifeConnections Health Centre, where they focus on the “four pillars” of wellbeing – body, mind, spirit and heart. Its senior integrated health manager for global benefits, Katelyn Johnson, is responsible for cultivating the Cisco ideal of the “corporate athlete” – ripped in body and mind. At Aetna, a giant American health-insurance company, more than a quarter of the 50,000-strong workforce have now attended at least one of the in-house mindfulness classes. According to the firm, the productivity per week of the average participant has increased by 62 minutes, and the resulting value to the company is in the region of $3,000 per employee each year. Alongside open-plan offices, ping-pong tables and informal dress codes, mindfulness in the workplace is an idea that took hold in Silicon Valley and subsequently took over the world. What was once the preserve of the retreat centre is now a sound business practice: mysticism with a measurable return on investment.”
The guy who really kicked off Silicon Valley’s shift towards Hippie counterculture was Stewart Brand, a photographer and a former army parachutist, and he did it with that most innocuous of instruments, a catalogue: “In 1968 he published the first edition of “The Whole Earth Catalog”, a sort of hippie mix of Which? magazine, mail-order catalogue and “The Dangerous Book for Boys”. The first edition contains articles on Japanese house-building and tensile structures, guides to growing mushrooms and keeping bees, and reviews of everything from meditation cushions to deerskin moccasins and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A Computer (“a superb inquiry machine”). Each of the Catalog’s 63 pages was a patchwork of text, diagram, table and photographic image dedicated to the proposition that, put to proper use, technology can have a liberating effect on mankind. In a commencement address at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs described it as “one of the bibles of my generation…sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.””
The Whole Earth offices were in Menlo Park, also home to the Homebrew Computer Club, and this is where some of Silicon Valley’s earliest blockbuster products – including the first Apple computer – were unveiled: “The kinship of the counterculture and contemporary corporate culture is less paradoxical than it seems. The faith Stewart Brand and his associates placed in the communitarian ideal led directly to the informality and organisational flatness that characterises how Silicon Valley – and the global corporations in its thrall – does business today. In any case, the counterculture was always a middle-class phenomenon. Abraham Maslow taught at Esalen and was perhaps the most important intellectual influence on its founders. He suggested in his famous Hierarchy of Needs that self- actualisation is only possible when the basic requirements of “food, water, warmth and rest” have been met. Accordingly, for the most part it was the young, white, college-educated beneficiaries of the post-war economic boom that had the leisure time to indulge in psychedelics and soulcraft.”
Then over the last 40 years Silicon Valley found a bunch of entrepreneurs who took the mysticism and meditation of the 1960s and fused it with modern medicine to create stuff which actually delivers tangible health benefits: “Jon Kabat-Zinn..in 1965, when he was studying for his phd in molecular biology at MIT, Kabat-Zinn attended a talk on meditation by an American-born teacher of Zen Buddhism, whose teachings he became increasingly intrigued by over the next decade. If meditation encouraged greater awareness of body and mind, what effect might it have on apparently intractable conditions like chronic pain and depression? Kabat-Zinn’s challenge was to bridge the two cultures…By 1979 he had developed a technique he called mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, which combined elements of hatha yoga with Buddhist mindfulness meditation, but divested them of their spiritual trappings.
It was a decisive step in the normalisation of these esoteric ideas. Relieved of its religious baggage, mindfulness became a fit subject for scientific study. Hundreds of randomised controlled trials have since shown the effectiveness of MBSR and related techniques in reducing levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, as well as improving memory and visual-spatial processing, and alleviating the wandering thought-patterns that can characterise depression and poor focus. Nirvana could wait: mindfulness was now academically respectable, the materialist’s panacea. MBSR and related therapeutic approaches are now offered by health-care systems all over the world…”
Once mindfulness’ benefits were established, in a high stress environment like Silicon Valley its popularity rocketed and that allowed meditation, mysticism and the other associated paraphernalia of Hippie culture to become mainstream in the most influential business community in the world. In Silicon Valley today you will find: “…in the Mission District, I visit the hipsterish raw-concrete offices of Pax Labs, where “the cannabis space”, as CEO Bharat Vasan refers to it, converges with mobile technology. (Vasan has since left the company.) Pax’s standout product is the Era, a sleek, super-lightweight vape pen designed for use with detachable pods of cannabis concentrate: the stoner’s equivalent of a Nespresso machine. The accompanying app means that dosage and vaping temperature can be controlled from your smartphone.
“Temperature matters a great deal in our space,” explains Vasan, who sold his previous startup, a fitness-wearables company called Basis, to Intel for $100m. “Concentrates volatise at different temperatures. It’s just like with wine: the glass really matters. Different temperatures are the equivalent of wine glasses.” His objective is a “super-polished experience” in the vein of Apple or Tesla, to claim a slice of a market that Vasan estimates will be worth around $90bn “in the next five years”…”