Even ten years ago, people wore ties. I still have one somewhere, an unpleasant orange affair with a few loose threads, part of a uniform worn by millions as they trudged to work to sit in their cubicle and pushed paper (remember paper?). I haven’t seen many ties in San Francisco, and certainly none in Ashbury Haight, spiritual home of the hippy movement and contemporary marketplace of crystal trinkets, tie-dye clothing and stylish T shirts. Today, the office is dying, swept away by the tides of change in the Social Age. But step back five decades, walk down these streets to look how this change occurred.
In the 60’s, a combination of cheap rent and psychedelic drugs created a community, a community based on free thinking and shared values: the music and literature that that community spawned drove a national awareness of it’s bohemian viewpoint and an amplification of it’s messages of free love and peace. To a disenfranchised youth, it fell on fertile ground.
1967, the Summer of Love, epitomised that culture: the amplification effect drew visitors from afar. As the numbers increased, the messages became confused. The original culture, one of experimentation and freedom was swept into a rapid parody of itself. The change overwhelmed the community and led to it’s eventual death (symbolised by a mock funeral for the ‘death of the hippie‘ in October of that year). As the former summer of love turned into an autumn of hard drugs and violence, the neighbourhood lost it’s way.
The roots of the hippy culture fell to a congruence of space and ideas: low rental accommodation, shared occupancy in older houses, a temperate climate and a repressive system. No wonder young people gathered and thought new thoughts. The space contributed to the ideas.
Today, it’s a parody: wide streets, bright painted shopfronts, a population of die hard wannabes and dreamers craving a bygone era. Today, it’s McDonalds that sits at one end of the street with Ben and Jerry’s at the other. Two behemoths of capitalism framing a memory of egalitarian freedom.
Don’t get me wrong: i loved it, although it’s more hipster and capitalist than hippy these days. Coffee shops, endless trinket stores and a constant stream of dreamy people in brightly coloured clothes, some clutching guitars, all welcoming, all clinging on to someone else’s memory. It’s a sunny living museum of a bygone age, clutching at it’s reputation and using graffiti to remind it of what it once was and what it represented to so many fellow thinkers around the world.
There’s a darker side too: San Francisco has a highly visible homeless culture and here was no exception. People collapsed in the shade of a wall, one guy stumbling and rocking back and forward, waving a stick around as if fighting off his own demons. Evidence of drink and drug problems on every street corner. The doctor offering transparent prescriptions if you could pay the bill (California permits marijuana use by prescription: in this area, it’s clear that the criteria are lax).
Despite this, the area retains a certain unique charm.
It’s ironic that a movement condemned as addled and vaguely structured has had such an impact on how we live, work and think today.
Hippy culture was of it’s time: a youth reaction to repressive social mores and imposed values. It was a countercultural thrust for liberation and freedom. It was catalyst for change: but then that change happened. it lost it’s momentum when it had achieved what it set out to do: to prove that self determination instead of conformity was an option, it proved that the messages of love could prevail.
Everything about the old world was lethargic: institutions and mentalities maintaining the status quo. The hippies were the stone that cast the ripples. Whilst not everyone made the trip to Ashbury Haight to join the movement, local hippy cultures sprung up around the world and the messages permeated. Whilst the hippy movement may not have painted a sustainable alternative, they did create the space where that alternative took root.
Today, we often don’t wear ties: people live together out of wedlock and many cultures embrace or at least tolerate liberal values and self expression. Not all: there are still battles to fight, but ideas that were once heretical have become common, so common that we don’t even stop to think how they got here.
The freewheeling mindset prevails: San Francisco remains a vibrant and tolerant city, willing to change, willing to explore it’s boundaries. In the contemporary city, everything goes.
There’s an argument that today’s space for unrestrained creativity and liberation is facilitated by and hosted upon the technologies we carry in our pockets. Whilst the hippies evolved from New York’s East Village and Ashbury Haight in California, and embarked on pilgrimages to places such as Glastonbury or the Isle of Wight, today’s digital rebel is more likely to join virtual communities and adopt multiple identities as they explore their own versions of reality.
Computers have changed the world and it’s easy to attribute that change to monsters like IBM and Hewlett Packard. But we can equally attribute it to the hippies. It’s easy to cite Steve Jobs, the billion dollar hippie, but there’s truth to the notion that his liberal arts background contributed to his disruptive power. Ideals expressed through music and art (notably calligraphy) influenced his thinking strongly and a strength of hippie culture was it’s willingness to embrace literature, art, music, performance: a holistic view of the world. If nothing else, the hippies were willing to search, to explore other value systems and thinking: in their case, eastern philosophies and mysticism. If we look at what it means to be agile in thought and deed, they certainly fulfilled that.
Organisations need hippy thinking: a willingness to think differently and share values. A willingness and capacity to form communities and share widely. It’s easy to dismiss the hippy culture as a meaningless, drug fuelled bout of sexual liberation and self fulfilment, but it’s left us more than that.
The hippies helped create permission to be different.
It’s probably no surprise that both New York and San Francisco pioneered LGBT rights and that to this day San Francisco is a liberal mecca for people of every sexual preference: and as we learnt from the recent Mozilla fiasco, tolerance for difference is not just a ‘nice to have‘. Organisations that don’t welcome difference can never truly be innovative or creative. If everyone is not truly equal, how can their voices really be heard?
Companies like Apple emerged as counter culture: unafraid to love music, to champion excellence, to value the different. Indeed, they actively positioned themselves as different. And we swarmed to them like moths to the light.
Amusingly, the two food chains bracketing Haight Ashbury today represent different ends of the spectrum: like Apple and IBM, McDonalds is the meat eating, globally dominant status quo whilst Ben and Jerry are the human faced, charismatic, LGBT friendly, flexible working upstarts.
The challenge for Apple, Google or Twitter is to make it through their summer of love: are their values and ideals transient, simply one step on a journey to a new liberal relationship with knowledge, or are they transformational and relevant in a contemporary setting? Just being big and wealthy doesn’t equal permanence.
Startups can afford to be different: they experiment with facets of their cultures that irk them: companies like Valve, with open and fluid teams, flat structures or open holiday policies. Startups are allowed to be freewheeling. But in time, they conform: Apple is no longer the upstart now it resides in it’s chromed headquarters. Alongside the Googleplex on Mountain View, guarding the San Francisco peninsula, these are simply the physical manifestations of global communities and cultures. But can their values survive the pressure?
The hippies provided the catalyst for change, but ultimately were swept away by that very change.
The original hippy movement was not strategic: it was emergent. Circumstance created the environmental pressure and that pressure was released in a wave of youthful rebellion. It’s just this type of wave that will carry away many of the other twentieth century anachronisms (like the notion of ‘career’, the idea of structured learning, ideas of privacy and permanence).
Today, the circumstances are different, but the pressures still build: organisations have to find ways to engage in the conversations, to find their hippie mindset to question, to challenge, to unite.
Who gives permission to change? Often organisations think that they own this right, but in fact it’s held by the community. Sure, we can implement change programmes, but the decision to actually change sits within us all. The hippies found unity around shared counter cultural values and messaging. They united to reject the system and co-created a new reality within their communes and community spaces. A truly co-owned transition. Within our own organisations, we have to reflect on where our permission to change is owned, how we are empowering people to own it, or whether our systems and processes are more about control and repression than free thinking and innovation.
As i rode the taxi across town, my driver recounted his own stories of Ashbury Haight in the 60’s. Every block or so he said ‘i lived there‘, through a seemingly endless sequence of shared apartments and transient relationships. Today, he drives a cab. The enlightenment he received lives on in memories and a certain disregard for the system. In time his counter cultural urges have left him firmly in the mainstream, but maybe with a different perspective, and perspective is something you can’t easily attain.
A challenge for our young tech start-ups is that their culture is emergent and they simply have no time for reflection: maybe in forty years time, as they sit with grey hair and reflect, they will be wise, but for now, they are creating both their own environment and culture within it. The mistakes they will inevitably make are not predictable.
The true legacy of the hippies is not that they made their mistakes for the rest of us, but rather that they pioneered a willingness to question, to challenge, to become agile. A short lived empire, nonetheless their ripples, their stories, travel far.