Everybody on Wall Street knows Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which is a remarkable description of the culture and temper of the New York financial world in the 1980s — especially relevant now in Trumpworld as figures from that era take greater and greater national prominence.
But Wolfe, who died on Monday at the age of 87, also wrote one of the great chronicles of Silicon Valley culture — although it wasn’t clear that it was about Silicon Valley at the time.
“The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test,” published in 1968, profiled countercultural figure Ken Kesey and his band of self-proclaimed Merry Pranksters as they dropped acid and traveled around California in a psychedelic bus called “Furthur.” The Grateful Dead play a prominent part, as do other famous figures from the beatnik and hippie era. I remember one particular description of Neal Cassady, a friend of writer Jack Kerouack, driving the bus like a maniac but somehow always avoiding an accident, as if he were one step ahead of time itself.
A big theme was that you were either “on the bus” or “off the bus.” Either you took LSD and were part of the communal hive mind, with all the in-jokes and slang and mystical non-verbal communication, or you were hopelessly square. As Wolfe portrayed it, Kesey and his crew believed they were inventing (or perhaps channeling) the future, and you needed to get on board or be left behind.
Silicon Valley has many of its roots in this same hippie subculture.
Kesey studied (and participated in LSD tests) at Stanford, which is also the alma mater of seemingly half of Silicon Valley today, including the founders of Google, Yahoo and countless other tech companies. Stewart Brand, who created the hippie bible “Whole Earth Catalog” was instrumental in some of the first online message boards, and Apple founder Steve Jobs made no secret of the fact that he took LSD and it had a profound effect on his life. There’s a direct line from that culture through the early days of Wired Magazine through Burning Man through burned-out Googlers taking offline R&R breaks at a Big Sur resort.
Many of today’s signature — and, to outsiders, most annoying — quirks of Silicon Valley tech culture are startlingly similar to the culture described among Kesey’s little in-group. The nearly cult-like devotion to visionaries like Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk — only these visionaries started multi-billion-dollar corporations that amassed unprecedented power and influence instead of leading a busful of unshaven hippies.
Or the widepread belief among tech workers that they’re inventing the future, that optimizing ad placement or disrupting health insurance isn’t just a job and a way to shift revenue from old businesses to newer ones, but is actually part of a larger mission to change society.
Terms like “hive mind,” which once described the weird collective consciousness among fellow trippers, have been re-figured to describe the weird collective consciousness that’s emerged among huge online communities like Twitter. Even the sex parties haven’t gone away — they’ve just moved upscale and been repackaged under euphemisms like “cuddle puddles.”
There was a dark side to all this, too, which Wolfe chronicled. The egos got out of control and led to infighting. Some people were selfish and took more than their share. Some of the visions of the future turned out to be false or unsustainable, more hallucination than reality. The drugs wore off and were replaced by more, and more destructive, drugs. Woodstock turned into Altamont. (The dark side of the hippie era and its aftermath in San Francisco are captured wonderfully in another book, “Season of the Witch,” by David Talbot.)
You could imagine some of today’s Silicon Valley companies — and the entire tech culture — will follow similar paths and play out in similar stories.
But for every ego-driven collapse and dot-com bust, there’ll be ten more starry-eyed engineers and assorted hangers-on who move to Silicon Valley with the earnest belief that, if only they could convince everybody else to join in, they’d be able to change the world for the better.
That’s what Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were about — at least in Wolfe’s telling. And it’s a heck of an entertaining read, too.
Source: Tech CNBC
If you're puzzled by tech culture, you should read Tom Wolfe's first great book