I was only seven when all the hippies went to Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967, so I didn’t realize that this was the fortieth anniversary until I started seeing articles in the newspaper–social commentary about what an important transformative period it was for American society. Then, I saw an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by musician Ted Nugent, taking an opposite position, calling it “The Summer of Drugs.” Other than the civil rights movement, Nugent writes, “the decade 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). It’s not 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 late 1960s is that it was when the roots of today’s collective intelligence first formed. The Internet, the personal computer, and open source software all have their philosophical and social roots in the Summer of Love.
Take the Internet–it’s a global version of what was originally called hypertext, in an influential alternative comic book called Computer Lib/Dream Machines written by Ted Nelson and published in 1974. Take the personal computer–created by a bunch of hippie 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”. The reason why I like them is that 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 solos are not for everyone, but whereas improvised jazz has always been an art form with a relatively small audience, the Grateful Dead had almost three decades, performing to sold out concert halls. (I could never defend the drug usage: as Nugent would point out, the band broke up in 1995 when lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia died, after years of struggling with drug addiction.)
Even if you don’t like that improvised rock sound, it’s a manifestation of the collective and open cultural values that also resulted in today’s information technology revolution. It’s hard to imagine life today without the Internet or the personal computer. That’s what history should remember about the Summer of Love.