The Downward Spiral

Column

Still from Coca-Cola's 1971 commercial "I want to teach the world to sing"

The Summer of Love turns 50 this year, and we are still feeling its effects: In his latest column, Dean Kissick explains how a society more atomised than ever grew out of the ruins of the Bay Area counterculture.

 

We’re on the cusp of the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, that legendary time when ideas of anti-authoritarianism, peace and sexual revolution became twisted together with the celebration of creativity, bohemianism and hallucinatory visions. From that moment on, children’s artistic tendencies were seen as a force for good and, whether painting in the classroom or watching psychedelic television shows while lying on the living-room floor, the generations born since have grown up with a sense of the importance of creativity. Even today the legacy of the 1960s is why many of us have ended up involved in art. However the ideals of 1967 have also been, for the most part, abandoned or perverted.

In his film Hypernormalisation (2016), Adam Curtis traces the origins of the cult of individualism and self-expression that is the dominant ethos of our time back to the counterculture of the 1960s. Artists, he claims, played a key role in advancing these values. Rather than trying to change the world outside, they turned to the world inside; as an example he, somewhat unfairly, plays a clip from Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). And while the flower children of Haight-Ashbury rejected consumerist culture, their doctrine of individualism was soon adopted wholesale by the advertising industry, as people were encouraged to define themselves through the objects and experiences they purchased. Once self-expression became the dominant ideology of capitalism, it became impotent as a way of challenging that ideology. 

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The persistence of hippy thought in advertising that has been apparent since the happy-clappy togetherness of Coca-Cola’s “I want to teach the world to sing” campaign of 1971 resurfaced in this spring’s Pepsi advertisement starring Kendall Jenner, which was directly inspired by photographs taken of protesters handing carnations and other flowers to the military police at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in 1967. Yesterday’s notions of community and the possibility of actual resistance have become today’s hollowed-out soda-pop marketing strategies.

In the epilogue to the catalogue of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s recent exhibition “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970”, which told the story of those years through their music, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel begins with a shopping list of things that are up for sale these days – surrogate mothers, permission to kill endangered black rhinos, permission to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – and concludes, “the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone but increasingly governs the whole of life. It is time to ask whether we want to live this way.” The exhibition was sponsored by Levi’s and Sennheiser.

Before entering the show, everyone collected a pair of Sennheiser headphones. Then, in a feat of branded psychogeography, songs of love and protest played, changing automatically depending on one’s location in the space. In the last room the ideals of the 1960s were compared to the world we live in now and, approaching the exit, John Lennon’s “Imagine” began bittersweetly to play (a song by an assassinated man about a pleasant dream world that will never exist) and the crowd stumbled out into the museum’s great halls, slowly removing their headphones and looking around with dazed “What the fuck have we done?” expressions.

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In the late 1960s there was a lot of interest in the new discipline of cybernetics: the study of systems of control, especially those using technology. It was particularly celebrated in the pages of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, published between 1968 to 1972, which played a pivotal role in sharing and disseminating ideas from the communes of the time: “The Whole Earth Catalog,” Steve Jobs explained in 2005, “was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.” Both Jobs and Brand were inspired by the hippy movement and thought that feelings of empathy and closeness coming from psychedelic experiences were a catalyst for the invention of the internet, with the latter noting that “the counterculture’s scorn for authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless internet but also the entire personal-computer revolution.”

Jobs seriously believed that Apple products were tools of countercultural change, at least in the beginning, and was able to grow Apple into the world’s most valuable company by placing an emphasis on creativity: his most important innovation, surely, was the transformation of phones from tools of communication into tools of hypnotic, narcissitistic self-expression. The social networks underlying the addictive qualities of this technology revolve, again, around the celebration of one’s own self. All of which was anticipated in Brand’s introduction to the first Whole Earth Catalog, in 1968: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it … a realm of intimate personal power is developing – power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”

The structures of the great Californian social networks reflect what Rachel Kushner, in her novel The Flamethrowers (2013), described as the “love-everything tyranny of the hippie” in that they only provide us with heart-shaped tools for liking things, and we’re supposed to like as many things as possible; this is what has become of free love. In Ridley Scott’s infamous advertisement introducing the Apple Macintosh, the tagline was that these computers were the reason “why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”; which was only true to the extent that it would take another couple of decades for Orwellian mass surveillance of everybody through our consumer electronics to really get going in earnest.

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Much of power now resides with those who control our data, as is made clear by the old political establishment’s paranoia over their own data: Trump thinks the phones in his tower were tapped. Clinton kept a private email server in her own home and it was hacked. Russians are accused by some of meddling in the US election. Big-data company Cambridge Analytica might even have swung the US election and the Brexit vote using information collected through likes and participation in online quizzes – the tools that we use to discover our inner selves and spirit animals, turned against us.

These new forms of power emerging through the algorithms of the social networks and financial markets were invented in the Bay Area in the ruins of the counterculture. Half a century has elapsed and the cybernetic dream of the world as a series of information patterns in which every individual was connected has come true, only it’s not the communal utopia once imagined. It has made for a society that’s more atomised than ever and allowed power to be concealed under lines of code that most will never be able to understand.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, the original application for a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park in June has been turned down and now organisers are applying for a new permit for September, or October; this will be the autumn of our likes.

 

DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in Oxford.