There is no doubt how vastly the world has changed in the past fifty years. The internet has revolutionised the way we live. Computerisation of industry, smartphones and social media, all aspects of modern culture that have become so intrinsic to our everyday lives it is almost impossible to imagine a time without them. Yet when you stop to think about it, all of these technologies were born out of one place – California.
The Design Museum in Kensington is currently showing California: Designing Freedom which is a fascinating exhibition that documents the rise of the digital age and interestingly identifies the counterculture of the 1960’s as its source.
California in the 60’s was a place where free speech, free love and freedom were the values being promoted to live by. Communities were being established by ‘hippies’ with the ethos of peace and acceptance, self-sufficiency, caring for each other and the earth with a strong anti-establishment undercurrent. The exhibition, which has been curated by Justin McGuirk and Brendan McGetrick, brings us on a wonderful journey through Californian design iconography from that ground-breaking era right through to the present day and the future beyond.
The essence of the exhibition, however, is much less about breakthrough technologies, as one might imagine, and much more about ideas and influences. Personal liberation is at its core. The growth of Silicon Valley is closely linked to the growth of the hippy movement as sharing an essentially Californian attitude and it is from there that our responses to design have been shaped.
There are psychedelic posters, an original pride rainbow flag and a replica chopper from ‘Easy Rider’ sitting alongside the first Apple computer, an early HP-35 calculator and the self-driving Waymo car.
There is a copy of the original ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ from 1968 by Stewart Brand which in some ways is a document that changed the world. It introduced concepts within society and technology that fifty years later we are just catching up with such as organic farming, solar power and recycling. Steve Jobs referred to it as ‘Google in paperback’.
Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome is also present – advocating energy efficiency, comfort and affordable housing for all.
Apple’s Iphone is the archetypal Silicon Valley product and fundamentally captures the idea of individual freedom. It is undoubtedly liberating, a design phenomenon – allowing all one billion users access to infinite information – and has changed the way human beings behave. Yet many would say at a cost, promoting isolation over socialisation.
Or could the antidote to heads buried in screens be in the form of Snap Spectacles with a built in camera to record all that we see around us?
It would appear that the Californian pioneers, old and new, are continuing to shape our future. In many ways these giant leaps in technology attempting to simplify our lives, open the channels of communication globally and essentially make the world a better place are still in their infancy – a number of them may yet fail – although is there any going back from 1.8 billion Facebook users? Only the future will tell!
California: Designing Freedom runs from 24th My-17th October 2017