Dissertation about California’s technology culture between idealism, business and futures for design. Submitted to Critical Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art in October 2008.
As I began to research for this dissertation, I originally set out to look for grand projects, endeavors like Herman Kahn redesigning whole African nations, the Italian architects Superstudio re-imagining Manhattan covered with giant structures or Nikola Tesla’s countless patents, many of which could be world-changing if realized. Yet curiously, when asking around for more examples of such projects, by far the most relevant reply came from a friend in California, suggesting to look at a broad range of work, from transhumanism, nanotechnology and computer science to projects like Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation–a truly grand endeavor which aims to give people a ten-thousand-year scope of history by creating both a clock that works in this cycle and a library to go along with it. However fantastic this idea might seem, it is deeply rooted in the alternative culture of the 1960s and 1970s, just as Brand himself is as a person. I became increasingly interested in the implied connections and the reasons for which these projects seem so much more relevant for the present than, for instance, many of the radical visions of the last 30 years such as Superstudio’s architecture.
Eventually, I came across an essay by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, titled "The Californian Ideology" which was initially published in 1995, at the onset of the boom of the world wide web and the then so-called New Economy. While fairly ideological itself, demanding “Europeans to assert their own vision of the future”, a call to arms for the dormant Left against what they perceived as a “resurrection of [...] economic liberalism”, Barbrook and Cameron did manage to successfully point out the key paradox of a Californian ideology. This paradox essentially consists of the unlikely combination of countercultural notions of fundamental transformation of society and the financial backing that these ideas came to enjoy. This, at least at this scale, arguably unique constellation is what has rendered the rise of information technologies so successful in the last 40 years. Even more so with the notion of the virtual community having long become a main-stream phenomenon in developed countries and continuing to change how we socialize, work and play. And still, the potential of the industry which evolved around this “hybrid faith”, as Barbrook and Cameron call it, is far from exhausted. In the light of global climate change, in large parts popularized by former New Economy-proponent Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the ecologist notions which formed the foundation for a Californian ideology in the near future might attract attention and investments at an unprecedented scale. Yet, what might have an even greater impact in the medium-term future, is the fact that the many of the paradigms and notions associated with information technology have been increasingly prevalent in biotechnology. Considering its historical origins, that particular development can only be regarded as consistent if not consequential.