Great post on counterculture in the tech industry by Mark Power – lecturer in Cloud Computing at the Dublin Business School. 

Software wasn’t always sold as a subscription. Software wasn’t always free at point of entry. Software as a subscription is a relatively new business model that has its roots in the values that couldn’t be further from our apparently modern world. The hippie movement.

In 1995, two British academics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron wrote an essay called: The Californian Ideology. It discussed how the ideals, once held by the hippie movement, to loosen the control of the state on the individual, became the core tenets of the extreme libertarian ideals championed by the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley and the economic right.

This is a story about how many current Silicon Valley CEOs came to believe that through individual selfish endeavour; they could change the world, when in fact their success was directly linked to behaviours and concepts that were opposed to those ideals.

Anchored in this peculiar twilight of connected but opposing ideas is the libertarian belief that technology has the emancipatory potential to move the individual beyond the state.

This belief is best expressed by the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. In viewing themselves as self-directed digital artisans within a free market they built companies like Uber, Linkedin or AirBnB by re-imagining old economic models and the regulations that bind them with great success.

Interestingly, whether by accident or design, the foundations of this freewheeling, software enabled capitalism mimic many attributes of the counterculture hippie movement or economic far left. A clear similarity emerges with many internet based software products operating on a collaborative platform where data is shared for the greater good. Think how Linkedin has transformed labour markets as an obvious example or how, the most successful cloud vendor, has an end user experience that seeks to emulate the collaborative feel of Facebook.

Other similarities include, multi-tenanted data centres where computing infrastructure is grouped together to act as a shared resource for thousands if not millions of customers simultaneously. Imagine how many CDs Facebook would have to distribute if it was a traditional stay-at-home type software. It would be 1.5 billion actually, so using a model where every user shares the service is much more effective but doesn’t exactly chime with the lone hero story of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs. #Stay-at-home-Software.

Even more contradictory is the standardization model by which the software is received. Gmail, Facebook, Linkedin, AirBnB and many more apps all look exactly alike respectively and were we to accept this as consumers in a car or camera market we would all be driving Lada’s and taking groupies in a socialist utopia.

And if that wasn’t enough to create the democratized software equivalent of free socialist washing machines and TVs then have you ever asked yourself why most of these apps are free? Or more to the point, why you may pay for some of them but you will never actually own them.

Free trials, free upgrades, free products, freemium, this is the language of the tech-topia where internet services boost your productivity or ego by virtue of their usage. The old world of the nation state weighs us down with bureaucracy but will software set us free? Click.

When commercial internet based software began to achieve success in the late nineties, no one foresaw how successful it would really become. It touches many aspects of our lives and will continue to do so.

Could the hippies have actually won with free software trials instead of free hugs?

From free love to free trials, from psychedelics to productivity metrics, from spirituality to virtual reality, the hippie counter culture is now a monthly subscription payment to digital artisans.

Originally published in SaaScribe

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