The open-ended potential of the 60s, 90s, and 20s


We seem to be in a three decade cycle of belief in open-ended potential for positive change.

I was born too late to experience it properly, but when I was younger I always felt the 1960s had been the most magical time in human history.

For the first time ever the established hierarchies had been seriously questioned and challenged,. Still today some of the most extraordinary music ever came from that period, transcending existing genres time and again. The civil rights movement shifted nations. Psychedelics became mainstream, shaping the worldview of many who became social activists or some later became CEOs.    

This was a time when the young – for a moment- believed that they could change the world, throwing away the past and transforming society in sometimes unimaginable ways.

The 1970s were a bitter shock for those who had dreamed of radical social transformation, with the oil crisis, Watergate, stagflation, and a seeming reversion to establishment values. The 1980s were perhaps best characterized by ‘Greed is good’, set in the context of the AIDS crisis.

But the 1990s were different. The Berlin Wall fell less than 2 months before the new decade, opening the promise of freedom to hundreds of millions.

Most importantly, the Internet was born. Many encountering it for the first time could envisage incredible possibilities.

I and most people I hang out with experienced it as one of the most profound times of our lives. We could see that global connectivity could upend monopolies, strictures, establishment narratives, and massively shift power to individual.

In 1993 perennial incisive social commentator Douglas Rushkoff wrote Cyberia, saying, “The people in this book.. understand the implications of our technologies on our culture, thought systems, spiritual beliefs, and even our biological evolution. They still stand as the most optimistic and forward-thinking appraisers of our civilization’s fate.”

Not surprisingly the psychedelic movement, also referenced in Cyberia, embraced the possibilities of the Internet. Erstwhile proponent of “turn on, tune in, drop out”, Timothy Leary, published Chaos and Cyber Culture,  with its “vision of the emergence of a new humanism with an emphasis on questioning authority, independent thinking, individual creativity, and the empowerment of computers and other technologies”.

This was a time when some could see unlimited potential for humans and humanity.

Then came the 2000s, kicking off with Bush vs Gore, the dot-com bust, the World Trade Center attack and then the build-up to the Global Financial Crisis, though balanced for the optimists by what seemed like the incredible potential of social media and smartphones to liberate voices and connect people. 

The 2010s were arguably defined by polarization, with divided politics in the U.S. and Western Europe in particular aggravated by the weaponization of social media, social upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East, and the shift to a clear bi-polar world with heightened tension between the U.S. and China.

A few years in, the 2020s are already a time of period of dramatic transformation, with the pandemic shifting work, the employer-employee relationship, cities and city centers, a heightened financial role for government, and social structures. Climate change is undeniable and potentially accelerating.    

The advent of Generative AI is on the verge of shifting not just the entire work landscape, but the role of humans in society.  Public sentiment is broadly fearful of the rise of AI, and there are many issues of real concern. Yet the positive potential is also extraordinary, advancing healthcare, science, climate response, massively democratizing education, and amplifying our capabilities to respond to what are highly challenging times. Psychedelics and mind expansion technologies, buried for much of the last six decades, are now becoming mainstream.

This decade and every decade we have faced extraordinary challenges. Arguably today we face bigger challenges than ever before.

Yes,but  in the 60, the 90s, and now again in the 20s many feel that there are fundamental shifts in place that have open-ended positive potential.

As in previous cycles, those hopes may evaporate and be replaced with cynicism.  

Yet just the existence of those unlimited dreams makes this a very special time to be alive.