From functional to fantastical, a new exhibition traces California’s techno-utopia

From functional to fantastical, a new exhibition traces California’s techno-utopia

What do Apple, Google, and Facebook have in common with the Californian hippie movement of the 1960s? A new exhibition at London’s Design Museum explains the relationship between Silicon Valley’s eco-system and California’s freewheeling past.

‘California: Designing Freedom’ is organised around five themes, considering how individuals can control how they see, make, speak, travel, and share, using technology. Presented partly in a series of Geodesic domes — the lattice-shelled architectural structures favoured by Californian communes in the 1960s and 1970s — the curators Justin McGuirk and Brendan McGetrick demonstrate how the 1960s counterculture movements in the Golden State have inspired the ethos of its major corporations up to today, with the belief that technology can equip the individual with the tools for a better, easier, and self-sufficient life.

Rainbow flag, by Gilbert Baker, 1978

Through objects, archival publications, documents, and even LSD blotting paper, the benevolence of that ideology is unwavering. Stewart Brand’s 1968 Whole Earth Catalogue, a precursor to Wikipedia, for example, was an early attempt to democratise access to information; a home kit for genetic engineering is another invention that shares the intent of giving the public the tools to create change for themselves—albeit more problematic when put in to practical use.

Although this exhibition is a buoyant celebration of California as the heartland of pioneering design and technology, it’s not all gimmicks, gizmos and gadgets. In 1995, two academics at the nearby University of Westminster published an essay that also probed at the politics of the Silicon Valley, now visualised in this exhibition.

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameroon’s The Californian Ideology pointed out the contradictions in the idealistic impulse in ‘Dotcom neoliberalism’ in Silicon Valley. The media theorists argued that the paradoxical mix of New Left and New Right beliefs in California has in fact lead to what Adam Curtis later referred to as the feeling ‘that we are helpless components in a global system’. The more pernicious consequences of technological advances in our advance capitalist system—from social immobility, to hacking and terrorism—can’t be ignored.

With some of the very recent new technologies now at our disposition, on display here: Snapchat Spectacles, Amazon Echo, FitBit and, Waymo (Google’s self-driving car, seen for the first time in the UK) the question is left hanging over the techno-utopia. From functional to fantastical, you’re left wondering whether technology has really liberated us, or made us slaves to the machine.

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