The Blue Bottle at Palo Alto seems to be an appropriate place to pen this piece for many reasons.
Apart from sipping well-perfected coffee at a re-designed theatre, I am still getting over seeing myself from an ariel view. The apple store here carries some of the latest — mini robots that learn and lights that you can ask Siri to turn up or down.
In here, the latest drone, controlled from an iPhone flies up and down — the camera of this mini aeroplane, when adjusted from the iPhone screen points to us and voila! I see my head as a part of a strange ariel pic!
The Apple store salesman (beware of them — they’re so human and yet so persuasive that they will end up selling you something!)….yes the Apple store salesmen and women are each unique (pierced ear, someone in their 60s, someone with a funky hairstyle). And they’re human.
It’s this very Apple that powers a lot of the social sector, curiously.
A few years ago, at a Turkish University, I walked across the library. We were at Global Power Shift, a gathering of ecology activists from around the world organized by 350.org. I could swear that more than 90% of the machines were macs — rows after rows.
And that, actually, seemed quite a contradiction. The Mac is as far away from open source, as far away from being affordable and far from being some consumer co-operative, it is one of the richest companies in the world!
And yet, even this piece is being typed here.
This was a double standard that I didn’t fully understand……but I am starting to, in some ways now. And it has to do with this place where I am — the bay area.
As a short history, post world war defense money got redirected here. Some visionary individuals channeled it into academia and then prompted students to start companies as a way of becoming employed.
One particular guy who led the US effort during World War II to hack into German radars took this up as his post World War project. The first computers connected on a network happened here, after he sold the idea to the then department of defense.
On the back of this money, innovation happened, enterprises happened and more drew more. The mavericks started to come and innovate.
At some stage apparently they also began to experiment with drugs (intelligent people are often restless and push boundaries that others take as given). This was to innovate and dream up new wild projects but those dreams also started leaving them wondering about war and the possibility of existing with love.
Hence, in the same zone we have the tech innovation (that currently drives a lot of humanity forward) and we had the hippie generation that dreamed up of a different world.
The hippie and the techie are one breed. They are only different ends of the spectrum.
And while this may seem obvious, for me this was an insight. Steve Jobs, the original tinkering hippie, the counter cultural man today is remembered as the founder of a company that is also at the heart of the capitalist system.
The Blue Bottle Company coffee that is unique and tasty is priced much more than the starbucks. And it has located itself in this renovated theatre.
The apple salesperson (and the guy working at FB or Google) are freer than other corporate people. They enjoy a fun work culture, flexibility and do things that totally rock the world.
It is this fringe of the society that moves it forward. It’s a fringe like the edges of an amoeba that sends out pseudo-podia (false legs) out to be able to move. It is the fringe that takes the risks for a whole range of rewards.
While the mainstream clings on to the core of the society, its values and status quo, the fringe pushes things forward in all directions with a sense of romance and with a dream.
Over time, successful fringes come into the mainstream and become the mainstream — and that can be seen either as a sad demise or as a success or just a journey for every alternative.
But, it’s the same gang of people out there — the same gang of people I belong to and deeply identify with, the same gang that we call the “Alternatives Community”.
The valley is THE densest concentration of this tribe — more pulls in more of the same times to create a field (or a bubble, if you want). But the level of consciousness shows in the stunning surroundings that blend with an ease — a friend shared about how so much got done without the hours on the West Coast (compared to his earlier days in New York).
I’ve looked at this space with wonderment, inspiration, envy and with a deep analysis — on HOW does this happen, how much of this is a doing, how much a happening? What does it take to make it happen? And how much does an ecosystem influence an individual.
Here’s what I have found.
One, that Ecosystems are one of the best ways to enable change of a certain type.
Here, that ecosystem is grown and matured. Universities, Startups, Venture Capitalists along with the global melting pot of cultures that brings the diversity, the art, the questioning the status quo, the coffee shops — all happening in that same small area, together creates a synergy. Friends meet each other, relationships are built, ideas travel and the word gets around!
Two, that there are many non-human factors that make Ecosystems happen.
World War II and it’s defense spends are an important enabler of the internet and the tech. Similarly given that there are 11 micro-climates in the Bay area also may have had an impact on the kind of diversity that was possible. It is a really blessed land in terms of fruit and flower too — a place where any intelligent (or normal) person would love to live. Only that the smartest have come in and crowded out the others (that’s a post for another day)
Three, that inspite of this, there are some things that remarkable people do.
The visionary who directed the funding to this area, the professors who nudged their students to start companies, and the hippies, who, with a dream of a beautiful world innovated with the internet and tech. All of them can take a bow for the zone that they have created.
Four, that every ecosystem starts building a shadow.
Inspite of it’s diversity, Silicon Valley now has a mostly homogeneous group of people in terms of intelligence, world views and capacities. Apart from a few homeless people here and there, the people here are incredibly rich compared to the world (but don’t flaunt it), intellectually gifted and believers in a certain world view.
And they’re terribly incestuous!
Which brings me to some questions that SV left me with.
One, is the valley aware of its real impact on the world?
There are silicon valley cowboys who are tinkering with technology — they seem only marginally better intentioned than the Wall Street (which uses its brains in only abstractions, I’m not gonna give more than this line to them)
The tech that’s happening here misses a sense of ethics — a hippie in the sole pursuit of profit is terribly cool and effective, but may lose their original intent, to move towards a better humanity.
So here we are, doing scattered experiments with AI. Tech will serve privileged and well-informed people first cos they are building it for themselves rather than for the end guy.
Moreover, the pursuit of stickiness gives us social media that is so addictive that it deprives us of our human-ness. So maybe late capitalism is not a great mix with the hippiedom after all. Surely not in its excess.
Two, where is the real diversity?
In populating this place, the original populations are struggling to stay here — prices of real estate have soared and the bay area is one of the most expensive places to live in.
As a result, the Indians and Chinese and anyone who is smart enough to work at Google has stepped in to not only rake up the prices but also bring in zoning regulations that don’t let more people move in.
Without the poor in their sight, without the real East being around (used to be somewhere in 70s but that also got usurped by the capitalist rhetoric — hence Werner Erhard using his zen insight to help people ‘succeed’ or Steve Jobs eating at ISCKON etc).
Naturally without these voices, sooner or later the bubble will start getting limited — the lack of this diversity will mean that there will be a very real limit to what’s possible here. And that makes me sad in some ways. Hopefully someone, somewhere is thinking about it.
Three, therefore, is, where is the original promise?
Or maybe there was none in the first place! As I saw it, there was an original dream here of a free love-filled world that is not fighting, not constrained — maybe that’s all in my head! Maybe it’s the hippie films or what one feels after ‘trips’.
However, IF there was such an original promise, it has been lost. As the alternative becomes mainstream, it starts losing its original spirit and values — and that may just be because of the configuration of today’s society.
But if that original promise needs to be restored, we need tech for peace not war, tech for freedom not addiction, tech for the poorest not the smartest. And there is no virtue, no moral voice today that can really stand and say this — which is unfortunate in some ways!
Four, what will it take for Mumbai to become a Silicon Valley of social change?
We have the raw materials — from town to Goregaon and borivali (and Thane!) we have activists. We have the diversity. We also have a culture of pragmatism which is an approach that the world desperately needs (perhaps over the Delhi approach of protest followed by water cannons)
Compared to other ecosystems I earlier felt that we’re short of “elders” — no luminary around whom we could galvanize. But that in fact seems to be a gift because there are many wise souls roaming around, who may allow a multi-leader ecosystem to emerge.
We also have relationships between each other, we have donors here, we have social issues here, we have youth programs here, we have the government here. Seems like a great lab.
In terms of challenges we are not one city but atleast a dozen cities (given how much travel is required). Geography is the big challenge that makes everything else seem daunting. The second challenge is time — we’re a time deprived city.
But I think we can (and are) moving towards something very exciting: A Mumbai Alternatives Community that can totally shift the rate at which we make things happen in this city.
And I feel there are some insights I am taking back from here to apply.
Finally a personal question that comes to me is, me, self-identifying with this tribe:
Where do I wanna place myself on this spectrum.
For now I am somewhere in the middle — I am not your totally broke living-the-nomadic-life alternative guy nor am I the other end of working for Tesla. Maybe some hippies kept holding judgement against money and choose to unplug while others saw it for what it was — a way for us to get to what we really want. Either of them didn’t put it at the center.
So am I willing to meet the deep judgments I have ‘against’ money. Am I willing to revisit this and look at how we want to fund this movement? Or are we already on the right track? Only time will tell! J
But apart from this, what about earlier generations of hippies?
There’s one hippie I cannot get over — and that’s Mohan.
MK in many ways was the counter cultural force that navigated the mainstream beautifully. And while the journey of this alternative was also similar to others (being distorted as it integrated into the mainstream), it had some elements that aren’t in Silicon Valley.
Here’s Wikipedia on Hippie : (especially in the 1960s) a person of unconventional appearance, typically having long hair and wearing beads, associated with a subculture involving a rejection of conventional values and the taking of hallucinogenic drugs.
Gandhi has an unconventional appearance for a leader — coming from a deep solidarity with India’s poorest. He’s rejecting conventional values twice over.
Once, when he as a bright young guy doesn’t practice law and cut a great deal for himself but joins the freedom struggle.
And second, within the struggle itself, he rejects the conventional values of violence and goes out to make friends with the oppressor!
What about drugs? Drugs are a shortcut to allow us to access reality in different ways — and while Gandhi didn’t do drugs, he used other pathways to play with reality.
His experiments with Truth (rather than using the path of drugs) spanned everything from food to work. His fasting, his prayer, his walking and his honouring of time all may be ways to play with something similar.
The value of not taking short cuts is the cultivation of patience and virtue and the tremendous access to ‘soul force’ that he was able to have.
What about Gandhi as a hipster?
Here’s Hipster on Wikipedia — a person who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream.
Gandhi created a trend that caught the fancy of many people inspite of it being the most foolish thing to do on surface (a non violent response to violence). And it was able to use the values of the mainstream as a way to move outside of it (Gandhi’s tactical use of religion towards inspiring people)
Again a hipster who took everyone along — cos given a chance many would love to challenge status quo and walk outside the mainstream, but a few do. Gandhi was generous enough (and it was a necessity for the experiment) to really include.
I must also add that the ‘silicon valley’ of Gandhi was a mini dense zone created in his Ashrams — that allowed intense practice and the creation of a group that could rock the world.
Finally, what about Gandhi as a user of Hi-Tech?
Here’s Wikipedia on technology: Technology can be the knowledge of techniques, processes, and the like….
Gandhi the scientist innovated with love and truth as forces to develop new techniques and processes. He transferred his knowledge to large swaths of population — but in the process, he also honoured values like Antoday (the rise of the last person) and Sarvoday (victory for all).
To that extent Gandhi applied the scientific method to himself as well — and this purification of his soul created value for the planet that cannot be monetized (unlike the market capital of Apple) but will last over generations.
The journey of his values moves with Nehru’s development model, with his photo being printed on currency notes (of all places) and his being co-opted for cleanliness campaigns.
And yet, these values don’t die — they are reborn and revived. As we are and will! Here’s to the next generation of hippie-dom!