Influencing the shape of new spaces

“Designed in California” isn’t a song, it’s an ethos

Tim Brunelle
4 min readJun 16, 2023

I am not a Grateful Dead fan.

But I am a history nerd, and a student of convergence. What might Newton have been listening to, if anything, under that apple tree? What might have mesmerized Stephanie Kwolek in 1965 before she figured out the chemical bath which created kevlar? Or in the case of advertising creativity, what inspired Scott Burns to select an Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr aficionado as the the hero of a milk commercial? (Jon Steel’s book doesn’t say.)

The mood around us as we create is often everything.

So the notion of listening to an over-four-hour-long podcast about the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” had a kind of painful appeal. But first: the writer and podcaster Andrew Hickey is a phenomenal talent. He seems the type to read all the relevant material about an artist — truly, all of it — as well as news and culture from the song’s time period to discern what influenced the moment, then cross-references everything, reads even more, cross references all that, then figures out how to synthesize a story of the song in question during its unique period; and make listening utterly worthwhile. His archeology of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” gave me confidence I might endure and appreciate a song by the Grateful Dead.

Just out of college I worked with a guy who routinely took five weeks of vacation to travel alongside the Dead’s tours. This made zero sense to me. Yet this same guy gave me a piece of advice I still follow: The value of a job isn’t the money you earn, it’s what you’ll learn as a result of the situation, collaboration, the what-have-you. “If you’re not learning, you’re not earning.” Put that in your pipe, kids.

I’ve never been to a Grateful Dead show, never bought a record. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, our Volkswagen team generated a “crying microbus” ad to commemorate his legacy but I didn’t understand his impact. Not even John Mayer seems capable of drawing me closer to the ethos.

But this podcast certainly did.

And or maybe it’s the moment we’re in right now.

I think there’s some odd synchronicity in listening to a story about California music and culture in the mid 1960s — the episode includes the nascent and definitely related computer technology scene in its narrative — at a time now when the long-explored realm of Artificial Intelligence and newer concepts like spatial computing are front page news.

Here’s the money quote from Hickey:

“It was Grateful Dead fans who were first online and who shaped the culture of the internet, good and bad, in ways that we’re still seeing today. It may not be an exaggeration to say the Grateful Dead have had a more lasting and greater cultural impact than The Beatles, despite not even having a thousandth of their fan base or their specifically musical influence.

The whole Californian ideology in all its self contradictory complexity, is, in many ways, an outgrowth of Dead Head ideology for better and for worse.

If it had been fans of Frank Zappa or The Velvet Underground who had been working in Stanford’s AI lab, rather than the Dead, the world would be unrecognizable now.”

A device like Apple’s Vision Pro isn’t the work of an individual, it’s the result of a crowd referencing its chaotic history. The tune we’re singing might sound new but the contradictory harmonies and rhythms have been around a long time — freedom and control, rote perfectionism and wild improvisation.

So I’m drawn to the “critique on the sort of society we are building,” which Ben Thompson describes in his cogent analysis of the Vision Pro. Designed by Apple in California is a long and twisting path with lots of dead ends and heroic moments. Or as Steven Levy puts it, “The mission of each of those computing shifts was to lower the barrier for interacting with the powerful digital world, making it less awkward to take advantage of what computers had to offer. This came at a cost. Besides being intuitive by design, the natural gestures we use when we’re not computing are free. But it’s expensive to make the computer as easy to navigate and as vivid as the natural world.”

Just as it was expensive to shape a musical venture that didn’t fit the AM, mono, 3-minute singles culture of the early 1960s. The podcast returns to a telling refrain: the Dead kept building more elaborate sound and lighting systems and playing longer shows in bigger venues — because they kept playing bigger venues with longer shows and more gear. The ouroboros was real.

And maybe that’s where spatial computing is at this moment. As Don Hon aptly notes (italics mine for emphasis), “As things stand, I think spatial computing née virtual reality or augmented reality, or whichever attempt at ‘owning the space’ a corporation has put its stamp on, looks super dystopic right now for information workers/knowledge workers [sic] is that all information work is still broadly document-centric, which means windows of things that still broadly look like bits of paper.”

The creative challenge today seems largely to escape the forms we’ve been in almost forever. Which will take a lot more than one company and one product to achieve. But who knows, maybe we’ve begun another long strange trip?

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Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.