Every time I look at a screen at the moment someone is telling me that it’s 50 years since The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I’m nothing if not a remote-piloted man-drone controlled by the cultural arbiters of the Guardian and the New York Times. So I re-listened to it on Spotify.
My mother’s copy of Sgt Pepper was one of the first albums that meant anything to me growing up. Like: wow, this. But it’s been a while. And to paraphrase some Greek philosopher: you can never listen to the same album twice.
So what happens when you return in 2017 to the most important pop album ever made? I didn’t expect to hear anything much new. But I ended up hearing things I’ve never heard before — and could not have heard way back when I first listened to this record in the late 1980s.
So, the details.
First, that Sgt Pepper is one of the foundational documents of the internet and online culture. Second, that it contains a warning from history that we — in an era of populism, post-truth and overmighty tech giants — really need to listen to.
I Fell Into a Dream
So first, why has SP got anything to do with online culture in 2017?
Because it’s one of the defining albums of 1960s hippie psychedelia. Listen to it and you can hear a powerful new set of attitudes and values coalescing and finding new expression. These were the values of the 1960s hippy counterculture. A vivid dream of individualism, liberation, self-expression and optimism. A determination that this newly-enlightened generation could work together to fix the world.
Those values fueled the 1960s Californian counterculture that gave us Silicon Valley as we know it today. They fueled the people who wrote the Whole Earth Catalogue, founded Apple, and wrote the first tracts about the open web. Those Californian hippies saw cyberspace as the unsullied utopia in which these values could find their most perfect expression. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Valley giants codified that dream and made it a part of their DNA. So you can draw a direct line from the revolutionary values found in Sgt Pepper to Google’s ‘don’t be evil’ and Facebook’s mission ‘to make the world more open and connected’.
Weird, right? I mean, I never really think of John Lennon and Mark Zuckerburg in the same mental breath. But they are kind of connected. Though you get the feeling John would not dig Mark’s laser-focused capitalism will save us all vibe.
But there was something else that struck me when I listened. This is the warning part.
Because SP has become in our historical memory the ultimate statement of psychedelia, we tend to think of it as all starry-eyed, hippy feel-good vibes and nothing else. In fact, there’s also a wistful sadness to much of it. In SP, the mystical, the mundane and the melancholy go hand-in-hand.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Paul and John, just like all the 1960s counterculture hippies, grew up in the shadow of WWII. Their childhoods were marked by the fallout from the most violent, destructive event in human history.
So yes, there’s plenty of optimism in Sgt Pepper. But it’s an optimism that comes alongside — and in response to — its opposite: an open-eyed acknowledgement of the human capacity for destruction and ultimate horror. Just look at how ‘A Day in the Life’, mixes the mundanity of daily routine — the kind of routine John and Paul would have grown up watching the adults around them rehearse every day — with the mysticism of spiritual revelation. There’s this part, after Paul sings, ‘…and I went into a dream’, where the song explodes into this primal, melodic wail that says so much. Looking back from 2017, knowing the time and place The Beatles came out of, hearing that wail, amounts to some kind of epic experience. Like the sound of an entire culture trying to process the communal psychic wound left by Europe’s descent in madness. It’s only about 20 seconds long. I guess that’s why we still listen to The Beatles.
I Was Wrong About That
These days if you roll in Silicon Valley, attend TED conferences or are part of the Davos set, it’s compulsory to call yourself an optimist. That part of the counterculture inheritance has become so mainstream that is is now ubiquitous.
But something important has happened along the way. We’ve lost touch with the double-sided nature of the optimism voiced on Sgt Pepper and carried by the counterculture pioneers. It was a double-sidedness that said: know that things can be better, but know also they can also be worse. Humans have an amazing capacity for reason, choice and creativity. But they can also descend into irrationality, violence and destruction.
Over the last 20 years, the TED crowd have replaced that human truth with a McVersion of optimism. A version that says progress is inevitable, that human affairs inevitably improve over time, and that people are essentially good and all we have to do is set them free to be their true selves and everything will be fine.
The tech giants that now surround us have made this New Optimism their religion. And why wouldn’t they? In their hands, these ideas present themselves as apolitical and universal human truths (and hey, who wants to be seen as a pessimist?). In fact they are a covertly self-serving ideology that is helping a new global elite class gain unprecedented power over our shared future. When Google and Facebook insist on the New Optimism, what they’re really saying is: ‘Listen, you don’t really need politics, or other forms of social power, or all that old-fashioned stuff. You are inherently good, and all you need is each other, connected by us, and everything finally will be well.’
Ev Williams recently gave an interview to the New York Times. In that interview he said something amazing. He was talking about the role that Twitter may have played in helping Donald Trump become President:
‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.’
That’s huge. When some historian 50 years from now comes to write the intellectual history of the internet, that quote would make for a great place to end one Part I. I think it’s the first time that any tech titan has so openly repudiated the New Optimism, and has ever explicitly questioned the idea that the technologies being built in Silicon Valley automatically and inevitably make the world better.
A ton of fake news on Facebook also helped Trump to the Oval Office. Try getting Zuck to admit that a ‘more open and connected world’ isn’t always and straightforwardly a better one.
The Way Forward
It’s great we can now all share ideas online. It also creates some radical new problems for our democracies as they are currently constituted.
There are bad actors. The idea that ‘people are essentially good’ is empty to the point of meaninglessness. We need to manage these new freedoms. Twitter was about empowering those without a voice. It ended up empowering a billionaire huckster turned internet troll to become the most powerful man on Earth. As Ev Williams also observed in the NYTs interview, the internet rewards extremes in a way that has damaged our public discourse.
And this is just the beginning. We’re still in the early days of a profound technological awakening. The new technologies that we’re building have the potential to do immense, borderline-miraculous good. They will also imbue us with new capacities for irrationality, violence and destruction.
So we need to remember that the truth about humans — our history and whatever lies ahead — is more complex than the New Optimism allows. It’s much closer to the double-sided optimism of Sgt Pepper.
We can make things better. But only if we go forward with our eyes open. Progress in human affairs is fragile. We need to be its constant and vigilant guards. Is that happening right now? When it comes to the web, Dries Buytaert’s proposal for an oversight committee for consumer-facing algorithms would be a good place to start.
Lennon and McCartney knew that if we become complacent when it comes to safeguarding progress, reason and freedom, there is always another option waiting for us. Fifty years on it feels a good time to remind ourselves of that.
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