• ‘California: Designing Freedom’

    "We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory – as via government, big business, formal education, church – has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains 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. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG."

    - from The Whole Earth Catalog (Portola Institute, 1968)

    The above was written years before computers could fit into a briefcase, let alone a pocket, and decades before the internet was invented. Its suggestion that a person might one day become his or her own educator, be able to find – without help – something that empowers them, create a personalised world around themselves and then let everyone know what they are doing thus seems astonishingly prescient. That the scratch-produced physical directory it refers to was intended to be an “evaluation and access device” for “what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting” via images, reviews, prices and suppliers that were “continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of [its] users and staff”– a kind of Google in paper form, in other words – is doubly prophetic.

    The Catalog was the idea of Stewart Brand, who was East Coast-educated but who had moved to the West Coast some years before. There, he found a place within the range of communities displaying a variety of skills and interests that together formed the counterculture of Sixties America. It is from that time and that pool of individuals, this absorbing and often revelatory exhibition at the newly-relocated Design Museum argues, that the technological revolution arose that would ultimately give rise to the laptops, smartphones, websites and precision-made devices that dominate our world today and give us many of the personal freedoms we enjoy.

    The story begins with a slightly different revolution that laid the groundwork for the one which was to follow. Subtitled ‘Say What You Want’ by the curators, the focus here is on activists of all kinds who sought to give voice to minority groups by the adoption or adaptation of unusual methods. Sister Corita Kent, a catholic nun and artist from the Mid-West, employed pop colours and extracts from existing media for her proselytising screenprints; University of California, Berkeley students subverted computer punchcards by cutting protest messages into them; and Mario Savio, son of an immigrant industrialist, rallied universities with his “bodies upon the gears" speech against the tyranny of corporate drudgery.

    With freedom of speech gaining new meaning, work on enhancing freedom of perception ran in parallel. LSD was appropriated from the military to expand the mind (I was struck by the similarity of the repetitively-patterned printed blotting paper on which it was distributed to the appearance of circuit boards), psychedelic newsletters and posters stimulated the eyes and early experiments in video games did both. The fruits of this labour are seen today in Google Glass and Oculus Rift and Touch. This section also covers several aspects of the movie industry, but surprisingly fails to mention the mould-breaking work of either Disney in forging animatronic technology or Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects company formed by Californian filmmaker George Lucas in 1975 to bring Star Wars to the screen, and its invention of motion control and, much later, the perfection of computer-generated imagery. The US space programme is also ignored, despite its contribution to the many satellites that enable the internet to function world-wide, aid telecommunications and support better weather forecasting.

    The rugged countryside of California offered ample opportunities to ‘Go Where You Want’. The demand for smaller, lighter and tougher versions of existing equipment in order to do this drove miniaturisation. This was achieved but, as the caption for the breakthrough Hewlett-Packard HP-35 puts it, for the first time design decisions – here, how to make a calculating machine small enough to fit into a shirt pocket – were more important than simply improving a product’s performance. Impressively the first truly portable computer, the Osborne 1 from 1972, was a proto-laptop marketed with the slogan “It’s inevitable”, as of course it turned out to be.

    Particularly fascinating is the story of how the hardware and software defining the computer of today emerged separately, and from different companies, over time. The California-based Xerox may be well known for having invented the mouse, for example, but it was graphic designer Susan Kare at Apple who later originated many of the skeuomorphic on-screen symbols that are now universal. Cheap, accessible desktop publishing programmes complemented this new equipment perfectly and drew on that countercultural samizdat for their new fonts. Just how revolutionary such things were is caught in an astonishing gem from 1984 – a glossy gatefold advertisement for the Macintosh placed in Newsweek magazine which explains in painstaking detail, as if to a child, how to select, copy and paste text. The now-standard laptop layout with the keyboard behind the wrist rest dates only from 1991, I was surprised to learn.

    Such “democratised technology” freed people from reliance on expensive, centralised (and unionised, one must assume, though this surely significant consequence is left unexplored) trades. This was Brand’s aim with the Catalog, which gave pointers to a world of self-sufficiency in tasks ranging from growing your own food to building your own house. Many would live communally, sometimes in domes designed by Buckminster Fuller.

    Later communal experiences outside the home conclude the exhibition, with the 1980s-founded Burning Man Festival in Nevada and the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Both have some linkages to that early vanguard, which itself must owe much to the true pioneers who headed west in the 19th century. The detailed design guidelines for the Games’ graphic identity are fun, favouring punchy but neutral DayGlo colours, avoiding bias toward or against any one participant nation and – rather charmingly, given the absence of the Soviet Union in retaliation for the post-Afghanistan invasion American boycott of Moscow four years earlier and infamous, all-American razzle dazzle of the opening ceremony – pleas to minimise the appearance of red, white and blue together. The head offices of Apple, Facebook and Google are also places of communal gathering away from domesticity, and the final caption neatly notes that in addition each can be read as a metaphor for its own corporate ethos – insular, connected and utopian respectively.

    The exhibition is not perfect. Arrangement into self-contained, chronological thematic sections felt disjointed at first, though it does mean that the evolution of each is compactly demonstrated. Material occasionally feels like PR for the firms, individuals or products concerned, and the curators mostly decline to engage with downsides or ironies, such as how the cameras that capture imagery for Google Street View – which have “to be able to go everywhere so that Google users can go everywhere” as the somewhat breathless caption puts it – are in reality refused access to privately-owned business estates such as London’s Canary Wharf or Broadgate, or that independent companies started quite literally in parents’ garages by geeks who made gadgets to hack phone lines ended up as giants run by billionaires, a very long way indeed from icons of subversion or individuality. Though to be fair, neither is there any allusion to Apple’s infamously un-openable iPhone cases secured by proprietary screws, which perhaps confirms Steve Jobs remained a freethinker to the end. A slightly wider view of the context in which these events occurred would also have been welcome, including for example the huge cultural presence within and impact on California of Japan, which is cited exactly once for its creation of emoticons.

    But the most obvious omission is any real discussion of that other Californian industry from the same timeframe, one that yielded as many technological advances and which unquestionably – if unpalatably for some – did as much for our freedom today: defence. It sits quietly behind or next to many of the threads in the exhibition, but the visitor is left to pick that up for him or herself. So the GPS signals the brick-sized early receiver on display handled owe their existence to a military initiative, and Hewlett-Packard might have made the pocket calculator but its founders also worked on radar and munitions fuse technology during the war. Young engineers were just as likely to be attracted to the powerhouse that was the RAND Corporation, formed by Douglas Aircraft to improve warfare through operational research, as they were to civilian companies. Virtual reality is featured but the only military application shown is a tool for PTSD therapy, disingenuously omitting its widespread use as a training aid for the very battles that cause this trauma let alone ongoing research into telepresence during actual combat; drones, already is widespread use in the air force of the 1960s as airborne targets do not appear. An exhibition that presented and, yes, questioned this side of the California spirit of technologically-achieved freedom would have been truly though-provoking.

    And yet this is a superb exhibition in and of itself. It dissects the origins of so much of our world today, and does so in a way that is always gripping and enlightening. You will take many facts large and small and several ‘Well I never’ moments from it.

    ‘California: Designing Freedom’, lead-curated by Justin McGuirk, continues at the Design Museum, Kensington High Street, W8 until 17 October

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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