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The change already happened

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Some fifty years ago an experiment was conducted, and it’s being repeated to this day. Out in La Honda, not far from Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, a chain of gatherings took shape, and a writer invented a new form of journalism.

The surface of Tom Wolfe’s book is a period piece about drug culture. Below, or from afar, both the subject and its treatment reveal broader and less temporal associations. While centered around LSD and embellished by characters in attendance, the acid tests were a social network before we knew to call it that. The writer, a willing accomplice, captured the moment of its birth.

The groups, the locations, the party themes, were clusters, and the resulting network mesh grew fast: first in and around the Bay Area, then more broadly up and down, over the border into Mexico, and to New York across the continental divide. The network origin and expansion were not dissimilar to those of Facebook, by analogy, which started out in college and branched out, its leader settling down in Palo Alto, near the place where Kesey had a similar idea first.

Ken Kesey (already known at the time for his book on freedom and editorial control) and his gang of Merry Pranksters had spread the word and championed the network’s growth, by bus, by film, by pen, by word of mouth, but neither Kesey nor his gang controlled it. The author went to lengths, in fact, to downplay leadership in the matter, at least outside of his close circle where he went so far as to deny the drug as centerpiece to the experience. With benefit of hindsight and knowing what we now know about network hierarchy, he was right to try. (The leader’s eventual departure reshaped the network form in many ways.) Knowing what we think we do about network effects the drug seems now no more than incidental.

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A predisposed reading of the Tom Wolfe classic from the perspective of popular technology, one recognizes the qualities that in the social networks of this day create their means of sustenance: an openness to enter, a freedom to express, and (this, perhaps the most important aspect) the collective’s permission to belong. In short, the so-called acid tests were communities, while the locations or the themes of this one or the other, the music that was played, the LSD, as it so happens, were there for infrastructure… much like the internet, the app, the device, are the facilitating tools of the modern variety, which similarly gathers made-up names (e.g., back then Mountain Girl, Speed Limit, Bear, Mal Function, Stark Naked) and runs images through distorting or augmenting filters that might be considered psychedelic, if you like.

Despite appearance, these serve a purpose that is contrary to pretense, enabling both individual and collective to (come as close as possible to) be themselves.

The center of activity, Silicon Valley, was not yet called that.

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Around the same Bay Area locale, at the same time and in the same context, the band that played became a new phenomenon. Combining elements of country music, bluegrass, folk, jazz, blues, pop, R&B and even classical at times, the music that emerged was a new genre, the band’s very own and unconstrained by definition. At most, let’s call it American and not be very wrong.

All of the musicians, simultaneously, take the lead; all simultaneously follow. And it all blends in a mosaic, like a painting where the nearby shapes and colors make a portrait from afar. The rhythm guitar, sometimes, plays like piano, and the keyboard instrument a guitar. The “lead” guitarist is at once Chuck Berry, Coltrane, Miles, and banjo player at the county fair. Although the instrument he plays is string it could as easily be woodwind.

If the idea of convergence resonates to some in our time — as manifest, for instance, in Apple’s multi-form devices, its healthcare, automotive and financial services directions, in Amazon’s diversity of business lines, the juxtaposition of commerce and entertainment, hardware and software, and so on — this may have started with the Grateful Dead. If the idea of community now stands for something other than one’s neighborhood, that also has its parallels in this cultural curiosity.

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In Blair Jackson’s biography of Jerry Garcia there is this observation from the artist: “[The Bay Area vibe of the mid- and late-60s] has also gained enough momentum over the years that it’s partly responsible for all the things that have happened historically since then… it’s part of the gain in consciousness that the last half of [the 20th] century has represented. And that includes all the technology that goes with it.” (Emphasis added.)

The idea that culture drives directions in technology, as much as technology shapes culture, is interesting to consider. We might ascribe expansions in perspective to the printing press, or in economics to industrial, locomotion and communication advances. These innovations however did not take place in isolation, these did not happen like a gift or a discovery. These conscious acts occurred in context shaped by circumstance, by stepping stones laid out by predecessors, by inspiration. The inspiration may or may not have been rooted in the invention’s special field, though the world’s civilization was all around it.

“Perceptually,” Garcia says, “an idea that’s been very important to me in playing has been the whole ‘odyssey’ idea — journeys, voyages and adventures along the way.” The association of travel with adventure in his commentary suggests notions about change and the unknown. But where he and others may find romance in the mystery, some anxiously shy away. Change, or its perception, has that effect. Sometimes the storyteller’s role is to comfort.

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Legend is that Homer’s epics were performed as songs. Many have wondered what the melody was like, and the nature of the story lends itself to something like a chant, something trancelike, slow and hypnotic on occasion, surging and violent at other times, like the rhythm of the waves and wine-dark sea. Homer, they say, was a blind man, and what an impression the echo of the waves must have made; what an impression his song must have made on his audience, gathered around a poet chanting about honor and betrayal and gods and distant places, to the rhythm of the endless waters. If liberties of imagination must be taken, one may imagine the song sounding like this.

In this particular rendition (there are many, each one varied, textured and unique) you almost feel the ocean of Garcia’s airy chords that breaks in ripples on the beach with Weir’s staccato punctuation. The instrumental backdrop here is the narrator’s painted scene. This sets the tone and vision and the changes of emotion as the singer tells his tale, and the listener hears the story.

It is the story of Odysseus retold. After ten years doing time in battle, fighting on foreign shores for someone else’s crime, the warrior struggles around for another ten to stand upright on his feet again. Landing back home to Ithaka’s docks at last, he is in beggar’s disguise to better learn the truth from locals about changes that took place while he was gone.

Twenty years is a long time for change to happen, a long time for those he thinks of as his own to remain true. Twenty years is a long time for suitors to his house to spread word about his coming to no good, a time in which the succeeding generation has matured.

This is, in short, a story about fear, about suspicion, it is a story about change… a universal tale.

“Old man down, way down, down, down by the docks of the city…”

As the song winds down, the instrumental epilogue varies with the countless improvised renditions, the band’s hallmark, at times melancholy, at times abrupt with a transition to a different tune, at times confused, and every so often almost inspired. These endings alter the story’s meaning from one version to another. So, here is another, wherein the finale pushes on and opens up the possibilities.

Many stories are odysseys, even some that aren’t. The truest definition, I believe, is not a journey into the unknown, but a long return from it. Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves recounts the tale of an odyssey 5,000 years in the making. But you can’t go home again, not really.

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Imagine your reaction if, one night, the moon — that which has been an anchor to our world since before we existed, which has populated our sky and dreams and mathematical equations, and which we all consider ours in some way — were to break. Worse still, this anchor turns against us.

It isn’t an eclipse, but a shattering, which at first splits the moon into a few large pieces that, in a span of two years, divide and subdivide as they knock against each other. As the pieces become smaller and more numerous, they fall upon the earth like a “hard rain” that lasts millennia and renders the world uninhabitable in its wake.

Expecting this, what do you do? For whom do you fear? Where do you flee? Why? Do you save yourself, your close ones, your species? How? Do you save all of the species or only some? And what does that even mean when the world has turned into a different planet?

In this story about change, the determination is to fight for human survival and the creation of a colony in orbit. The plan is to wait, 5,000 years, until it’s safe to land. But the thing is complicated, because only some can escape the world in time, and because in orbit the living environment requires adaptation. A new society of orbit dwellers will be in some ways similar and in some ways very different from the society we know. It is a new civilization of estranged women and men on a long, long journey home. The distances are vast, the path is circular, and the destination is always in sight.

Some readers have complained about the enormity of the book’s technical detail — the physics, the mechanics, the small descriptions of the gadgets — filling the large space between plot points in a speculative fiction 900 pages long. These, and the length, serve a melodic purpose. The rhythm is slow, and the song is beautiful and strange, like its title, which is a palindrome… You can’t go home again, it says, because you are already there.

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“The important changes,” Garcia once observed, “have already happened.”

On market sentiment (2020)

Extremes of sentiment in markets

On market analysis (2017–2020)

Markets and the year(s) ahead: Post-stimulus edition

Markets and the year(s) ahead: Post-digital edition

Market and the year(s) ahead: Digital edition

If it’s not a bubble

On networks (2016–2020)

Reinterpreting the networks

Interpreting the networks

Networks, products and their relativity

Networks 3.0: Defined by digital dimensions

On enterprise and entrepreneurship (2013–2019)

Finance notes from underground

Evolution and its lasting value

The artificial-services economy

Tools for a new trade

The Age of Convergence

Investment, finance, strategy, execution in the networked tech economy. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danramsden

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