Searching for Magic in India and Silicon Valley: An Interview with Daniel Kottke, Apple Employee #12

Daniel Kottke lives and works in Palo Alto, Ca. Here, he talks about the genesis of his 1974 trip to India with Steve Jobs.

Daniel Kottke was one of Apple's first employees, assembling the company's earliest kit computers with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in a California kitchen. In 1974, Jobs and Kottke backpacked across India in search of themselves; now, they are industry legends. Along the way, he debugged circuit boards, helped design the Apple III and the Mac, and became host of Palo Alto cable TV show The Next Step.

Silicon Valley

Avi Solomon: Why is Silicon Valley home to so much innovation?

Daniel Kottke: You could ask why Silicon Valley exists in the first place!

Hewlett-Packard is the obvious story. Fred Terman was the head of electrical engineering at Stanford and he was a mentor to Hewlett and Packard and the Varian brothers. Varian was a very early Silicon Valley startup. Steve Blank gave a talk called 'The Secret History of Silicon Valley'. I've been here for 30 years and I never knew this stuff. It's all about how the roots of the magic of Silicon Valley came from the war and the need to develop radar. Because I would have thought, "Oh, it's Intel and the integrated circuit".

I was just reading about the 4004, the first ever processor, born right here at Intel 40 years ago. So in World War Two the most important thing in the entire war effort was radar because the Germans had really good bombers and they also had the best radar anti-aircraft scenario. The allies couldn't effectively bomb Germany because the Germans would shoot them down. So there was this huge allied crash program to develop radar and it was based at MIT in Cambridge. Fred Terman had been there during the war, but came west to Stanford at the end of World War Two and brought a whole bunch of the radar guys. At the time radar wasn't digital it was all analog and it was radio, it was microwave.

In fact, the Varian Brothers had invented the Klystron tube, which was essential for radar.

Steve Blank: The Secret History of Silicon Valley

Then you can trace it to Shockley. Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Labs on the East Coast. He came west too and Shockley spawned Fairchild, the traitorous eight engineers who left Shockley because he was such an asshole. Fairchild really was developing the first integrated circuits. Intel was a spinoff of Fairchild. In a sense Apple is a spinoff of Intel because Mike Markkula was the business planner and funder for Apple, and he was an Intel engineer. That's where he made his money from.

So you can trace it all back to Shockley in that sense, on the digital side of the story. Anyway now it's 40 years later, and because there's so much money here and so much venture capital that so many people who want to be entrepreneurs tend to come here more than any other place. That's a large part of it but then there's also the availability of expertise and materials, the parts and pieces that you need. And there's long lead times. I read something recently about how London was the center of world commerce for a very long time through the 1800s but continued to be central long after trading activity had really moved to New York. There's just a long lag time.

In the same way with entrepreneurial activity – I think Bangalore is a huge center of entrepreneurial activity and so is the Boston area, but probably Silicon Valley is still the number one.

Avi: You were talking about sitting at Pete's Coffee shop in Palo Alto and interesting people walking by.

Daniel: Yes, and that's very inspiring. In the same way that the cafes of Paris were a spawning ground for the whole literature movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s now Silicon Valley's a little bit like that for high tech. I think there is a very healthy culture of innovation here that just really took off in the last couple of years. One thing that Silicon Valley has going for it since it's such a nexus is that there's a meet-up going on every single day of the week here in the Bay area, depending on whether it's biotech or whether it's neuro tech or whether it's social networking stuff.

In fact, I went to a meet-up a couple days ago at the Silicon Valley Innovation Institute. Howard Lieberman is the founder, he's a friend of mine. Howard's an old-time guy and he's actually charging $30 for people to come, so he's making money on this. But he doesn't seem to have any problem getting people to come. The meet-ups are a very important component because they bring people together. And you can trace the meetups back to the Home Brew Computer Club.

The Hacker Dojo, founded by David Weekly, which is kind of modeled after the Home Brew Computer Club, is very exciting and is sprouting up in other cities. Then there's Noisebridge and Hacker Spaces which is a generic movement. Anyway, there's so many gatherings like that. You've got the whole Quantified Self movement now, which is all about bio-monitoring tying in with health, and that's a huge growth area. That's all very exciting.

Steve Jobs

Avi: What was Steve Job's unique contribution to Apple?

Daniel: Between Woz and Jobs, Woz was the innovator, the inventor. Steve Jobs was the marketing person. But, even to look back at the Apple ][ that was a lot about product design. That was kind of the seeds of Steve Jobs developing his design talents with the lightweight plastic case, even though it was never intended as anything portable.

The Apple I came right out of the Home Brew Computer Club. Woz wanted something he could bring to the computer club and show off to his friends, and portability was not even a factor except that they were comparing it with big machines that were not going to be portable. The previous generation depended on a big, heavy teletype to interface to the computer and there was no way any of that was portable. So that was what was fueling the excitement back in the Seventies. So then it comes to the Apple ][ and it was definitely Steve Jobs' idea. The Altairs, the Cromemcos, all of that generation were heavy metal boxes. It was brilliant of Steve to find Rod Holt to make a switching power supply, which was a lightweight power supply with no big heavy transformers, and to put the plastic case on it.

So you could actually take the Apple ][ under your arm and carry it somewhere. We never really advertised that but it was part of the appeal. And Steve never forgot that.

Rod Holt's Switching Power Supply for the Apple ][

You can trace the portability aspect into the Macintosh, which had a handle built right into it; that was pretty obvious. Steve also paid a lot of attention to and took a lot of inspiration from Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of Frog Design. The mouse for the Lisa was by Frog Design and they were mocking up Macintosh cases for us in 1982. Then Steve left Apple and Apple lost its way into a profusion of beige boxes.

If you remember the history the next big thing on the landscape was the Macintosh IIcx. That was a highly modular, highly manufacturable computer and that was a landmark. But it wasn't about portability and it wasn't about industrial design, it was about manufacturability. At the same time Compaq was a big success making the PC highly manufacturable and highly modular, and so the Mac IIcx was kind of Apple's answer to that.

But then the next wave was when Steve came back to Apple and now it was the iMac, which had the bubble-shaped plastic. And that was designed by Jonathan Ive, and how fortunate for Steve that he had Jonathan Ive. Jonathan Ive was already on the staff at Apple when Steve came to Apple. So Steve just saw a good thing and latched onto it. Steve's a self-taught guy. But Woz didn't have that kind of vision.

Woz was more about making do with parts; it's all about functionality. Steve Jobs brought the design aspect to it.

Avi: Did your trip with him to India influence his design choices?

Daniel: That's a good question. We didn't encounter any technology at all. I regret that I didn't even have a camera with me, but it's because we were kind of focused on a spiritual journey and getting away from materialism, and didn't want to carry a camera because that was kind of materialistic, right?

Nowadays I would say capturing a story is more about the essence. So whatever it takes to capture stories – video, audio.

Avi: Could you tell us a bit about that trip.

Daniel: That trip came about because Steve and I both got copies of 'Be Here Now' at the same time. 'Be Here Now' was breakthrough book, kind of like the psychedelic culture of America goes to India looking for holy men. That's what 'Be Here Now' represented. They rushed it into print, it came out quite early in 1972. It was a brand new story, and I had never seen anything like that and it just completely blew me away.

Personally I was always a voracious reader; I had never even been exposed to Eastern literature at all; I knew nothing about Buddhism, philosophy, that kind of thing.

'Be Here Now' by Ram Dass aka Richard Alpert

Avi: By Ram Dass, right?

Daniel: Yes, Richard Alpert. He was associated with Tim Leary. In fact the big book that came out recently was 'The Harvard Psychedelic Club'. That was Andrew Weil and Tim Leary and Richard Alpert.

Avi: So you both read 'Be Here Now'?

Daniel: Yes. We both got it in the book store at Reed College. It was such an amazing thing: there was lots to talk about. I can remember asking people, "Well this is very interesting; what else should I read next?" I really had no idea. The next book that showed up was 'Autobiography of a Yogi', which is a very compelling book. I had never seen anything like it, even though it was from the Fifties. That was Paramhansa Yogananada. Very readable book. And then the next one was 'Ramakrishna and his Disciples'. And now we're like in India!

This is the Indian current, right? And then it was Aurobindo and Sai Baba and Ramana Maharshi, right? So that was the genesis of my trick to India with Steve. We had read all these books. Robert Friedland was the head of the student body at Reed and he was part of the 'Be Here Now' scene. I don't even know how he got hooked up with them but he was. Robert had gone to India the previous year in 1971 just before the book came out. And there was a big scene of American hippies in India around Neem Karoli Baba. And it was Robert who told us we should go, and it was the Kumbh Mela.

Robert alone telling us that wouldn't have been quite enough for us to go; the fact that Robert gave us personal references of where to stay in New Delhi, that helped a lot. And add the fact that there was a Kumbh Mela – we were going! Yet still I didn't have any money. It was really Steve, who had now dropped out of Reed and he was earning money at Atari, he had money for a ticket. So Steve says to me, "We should go to India; Robert's fixed us up and it's the Kumbh Mela." And I said, "That sounds great. I don't have any money!"

And Steve said, "Well, I'll lend you the money for the ticket." And I said, "All right!" And that was the trip. It was thanks to Nolan Bushnell, who started Atari and gave Steve his job.

The Haidakhan Baba

Avi: So did that trip change you both in a major way or was it a disappointment or a widening experience?

Daniel: It was a widening experience, because we were 20 years old and traveling the world is an important thing to do.

So it was just in the category of general good travel experiences. In terms of actual real-life experiences there was nothing so earth-shaking. We went to ashrams. The Neem Karoli ashram was completely deserted, so that was a little bit of a disappointment. We went and found Haidakhan Baba who was like a Paul Bunyan. He's like this mythical reincarnating avatar you've probably heard of called Hariakhan Baba. And it was a young guy, and he was a little bit gay, he was wearing his pastel-colored saris and changing his clothes four times a day.

It was funny. It was slightly disappointing in the sense we didn't have a Neem Karoli Baba experience. The story in 'Be Here Now' was all about Bhagavan Das, who was like a stoner hippie from California who went to India and was smoking lots of ganja and he had long dreadlocks, but he had hooked up with Neem Karoli somehow, and there was a scene around Neem Karoli because he was such a popular holy man and Neem Karoli was a very remarkable human being, obviously. Richard Alpert was traveling around India, trying to figure out what it was that LSD did because they just didn't know.

They didn't have any Neurochemistry models for what LSD did except that it mimicked psychosis. But people had religious experiences, of course. Richard Alpert had miracle experiences with Neem Karoli Baba. And then when you got into Autobiography of a Yogi it's all about miracle experiences. And then when you got into Sai Baba and…

Avi: …It's way exciting when you're in your twenties!

Daniel: Yes, it's very exciting because you're young and you don't know what the world holds in store. I personally was a scientist, very skeptical of psychic phenomenon, very dubious. But I had an open mind. And I thought, "Well if there's something going on here this is very interesting; let's go look at it." So I was disappointed in the sense that I didn't find anything tangible with regard to psychic abilities. You read those Sai Baba books and they're just gushing with all kinds of wild stuff. And now, of course, Sai Baba's passed and the biographies are coming out about what a fraud he was.

Avi: And how much gold he had under his pillow!

Daniel: Yes! So actually that whole era is just now coming to an end because Sai Baba was the last of that generation. You had Maharishi, Rajneesh, Yogi Bhajan, Gururaji.

Avi: They all rode the wave of Westerners!

Daniel: They all rode the wave, right? Sai Baba was the last. My girlfriend at Reed, Elizabeth, who was also very good friends with Steve, and I suspect that she and Steve had a little affair going at one point – because she grew up here in California – anyway, she joined Da Free John's commune, he just died a couple years ago. And the books are coming out about him now. He had a big sex scandal in his life, and he's the one who bought the island in Fiji. He went to Fiji and he knew they would never extradite him, so he just never came back. Anyway, Elizabeth was an insider, and she was very jaded about that whole thing.

So in a sense this is kind of like the end of childhood about the miracle stories about holy men. And yet – here's a good theme: now technology, between the iPhone and the internet and wi-fi and Google, all the knowledge of the world is here in your hand anywhere you are.

That's a complete miracle. The miracle is now happening, and it's technology. If you had somehow missed the last 20 years, what someone can do with their iPhone is magic.


The Shulgin Index by Alexander Shulgin

Avi: Did the availability of Psychedelics trigger this technological creativity?

Daniel: Going back to the Sixties LSD definitely had an influence on my world view and Steve Jobs has been quite outspoken about the value of LSD on the evolution of his thinking. And interestingly Woz definitely never took psychedelics; he may have never even smoked pot. But he's a very unusual case; he's a mutant in a sense. I think the effect of psychedelics on the general culture is well acknowledged. There's a whole shelf full of books: 'What the Dormouse Said', John Markoff's book, that's all about psychedelics and technology. MDMA was just the later wave of that.

MDMA was so powerful because it's not an intoxicant; it leaves you lucid but the reason why it is so valuable for PTSD as a powerful therapeutic tool is because it's not an intoxicant; it's a little bit of an upper, it's related to methamphetamine but it also has some amazing ability to promote empathy, including empathy for yourself, which is what PTSD needs.

My background is in hardware. I always thought I would have a very long, busy career building prototypes and it hasn't been the case. Why? Because the world of technology has just blown past hardware – it's relentlessly moving forward. Personally I was always more identified as a technologist, and I was always very focused on my technical career. I just started going to psychedelics conferences recently, in the last couple years. Why? Because I'm kind of giving up on my technical career. We have a limited time in our lives. I used to always be focused on technical conferences and trying to get my next job but now I go to psychedelics conferences and I find it very invigorating. The people who are interested in psychedelics are the people who are interested in consciousness, which is the most interesting topic of all. It's the biggest overarching topic, okay? Because really when you talk about technology, technology is about communication more than anything. I mean it's about getting things done, but if you look at the meaning of it, from the telegraph to the radio to the telephone to the television, that's all communication. So technology in the service of human communication, that's an immense thread of life on Earth. And it's more true now than ever. If you look at what's happening right now with social networking it's all about communication. And it's very exciting.

Avi: You find the people you want to hang out with and that's a big deal!

Daniel: Yes. It's a huge deal.

Psychedelics and Brain Imaging: Dr Robin Carhart-Harris

I did a show with James Fadiman, whose book is called 'The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide', and one of the topics that came up is that psychedelics are just now having a renaissance in the sense that the very first government-sanctioned studies are just happening now. And Neuroscience has taken so many leaps forward because now we can give psychedelics to people and map their brain second by second and you can see exactly what's going on with functional MRI. So it's just now that the promise of psychedelics from 40 years ago is now still just coming to fruition.That's tremendously exciting.

So it's almost not even about the psychedelics anymore, it's about the confluence of technology and neuroscience in conjunction with the kind of work that Alexander Shulgin does. Shulgin's just published the Shulgin Index, which is a landmark event. You know what that is? It's the first ever large-scale compendium of all psychoactive substances. And he's the man to do it. Shulgin personally synthesized like 240 to 250 new substances and took them himself and wrote about what they did in his notebook.

Avi: It's ironic that the VA is now an early adopter of psychedelics for treating PTSD.

Daniel: It was the VA, which is part of the military that was giving psychedelics to the volunteers in whatever year it was, gave it to Ken Kesey and that had a huge ripple effect on the culture. And the other big huge part of the story is that we now know to take a different tack. The war on cancer has been a huge failure. The war on drugs has been a huge failure, but the war on cancer has also been a huge failure. Even though there's been immense steps forward in medical technology cancer is at an epidemic right now. Brain cancer is now just amazingly high incidence. And many types of cancer nobody even knows.

It's a huge challenge, but what we do know is that the psychedelics are proving very valuable in end of life treatment for terminal cancer – Psilocybin's especially good for that. And Aldous Huxley started that, taking Mescaline when he was dying. Anyway that's a big quality of life issue.

There's a book called 'The Biology of Belief' by Bruce Lipton which makes a very good case that everybody has cancer all the time. Everybody. We have very complex bodies and there are mutations happening all the time. We all have cancer. Your immune system does an amazingly good job dealing with it as a normal course of events. So the immune system is constantly repairing the damage. By the time your cancer shows up as a tumor it means your immune system has not been keeping up with the job.

Well, guess what? What we also know is that your immune system is very responsive to your subconscious, and when you are stressed you're shutting down your immune system because it's the fight or flight system. You're stressed and it's now, "Oh, we can't heal because we have to be fleeing," right? That's what Bruce Lipton is talking about. So psychedelics play an important part of that story because within the picture of learning to relax and promote healthy function of your immune system psychedelics have an important role to play.