THE BLOG

Let's All Thank Hippies for Creating the Modern Economy

07/11/2007 04:14 pm 16:14:50 | Updated May 25, 2011

I was only seven when, in the summer of 1967, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco drew in hippies from around the country. I didn't realize that 2007 was the fortieth anniversary until I started seeing articles in the newspaper about how important that summer was. Then, I saw a contrary op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by musician Ted Nugent; he called it "The Summer of Drugs." Other than the civil rights movement, Nugent wrote, the 1960s "is barren of any positive cultural or social impact."

Nugent is right about the drug use; that's legendary. But he's missed the cultural and social impact of the period (and so has most of the positive news coverage). The real impact isn't found in its liberal politics, or its free sex lifestyle, or the colorful clothing and long hair. Rather, forty years later, what stands out about the 1960s is that it was when the roots of today's collective intelligence first formed. The Internet, the personal computer, and open source software -- and ultimately, the collaborative nature of today's innovation economy -- all have their philosophical and social roots in the Summer of Love.

Take the Internet-it's a global version of what Ted Nelson called hypertext, in an influential 1974 book that oozed a sixties vibe: Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Take the personal computer-created in the 1970s by a group of Bay Area hobbyists who wanted to bring computer power to the people. Take open source software-although the free software movement didn't officially start until Richard Stallman's manifesto in 1983, his long hair and beard, along with his claim that ideas should circulate freely, clearly owe a debt to the 1960s.

Nugent and I obviously have different musical tastes; I'm a big fan of the Grateful Dead, the most important of the San Francisco bands, which Nugent refers to as "mostly soulless rock music". I like them because they're the most improvisational of all rock bands. The Grateful Dead, and other San Francisco bands of the period, borrowed the egalitarian musical ethos of jazz and adapted it to rock music. Long drawn out group solos are not for everyone, but whereas improvised jazz has always been an art form with a relatively small audience, the Grateful Dead performed to sold out concert halls for almost three decades, exposing millions of fans to the wonders of group improvisation. (I could never defend the drug usage: as Nugent would surely point out, the band broke up in 1995 when lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia died, after years of struggling with drug addiction.)

You might not like the jam-band sound that originated in San Francisco 40 years ago. But it's a manifestation of the collective and open cultural values that resulted in today's information technology revolution -- and, more importantly, to what I call "group genius": the collaborative webs that drive innovation in today's economy. (See my new book, Group Genius, just published this June.) The group genius that started in the 1960s has now evolved into the modern innovation economy. Conservative or liberal, we all owe a debt to the Summer of Love.