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Valley of Genius by Adam Fisher promises to be ‘the uncensored history of Silicon Valley’ based on stories that founders and programmers told to each other. All of which begs the question how much is myth making and how much is true?
Getting to the truth
Having worked for Silicon Valley clients and in-house at Yahoo!; I recognise that the truth doesn’t get out there and the myth making is largely self-serving. There is also a big question about how far the collective memory actually goes back.
Secondly, the story of Silicon Valley has already been told a number of times, how will Valley of Genius compare to Dealers of Lightning, The Valley of Heart’s Delight, Where Wizards Stay Up Late or Accidental Empires in terms of telling the story of Silicon Valley?
Finally, there is the challenge of how big tech companies have got so good at controlling their story in the wider world. Whether it was keeping close tabs on journalists like Fred Vogelstein found out while working at Wired magazine, through Frank X Shaw’s reputation for robust rebuttal, funded their own media outlets like Pando Daily and eventually disintermediated the media altogether.
Adam Fisher grew up in the Bay Area and became a journalist and later editor at Wired. He left there and freelanced for a number of publications, branching out from technology writing to other areas like travel and tourism.
The most noticeable thing about Valley of Genius when you get into it is that there is no prose. It is all dialogue. Fisher has cut together segments of interviews to tell a story. Sometimes it feels like people around a table, other times it feels more disjointed.
The book is described as an oral history and Fisher in his interviews describes the process as being like putting together documentary interviews.
Fisher went out and interviewed many of the great and the good of Silicon Valley to get this material, however given some of the soundbites were things I had heard before such as Steve Jobs talking about a computer as a ‘bicycle of the mind’; I was not sure if these people like to self reference or if Fisher has interspersed his interviews with archival material. Right at the end of the book, Fisher comes a list of people by chapter and where he had to source secondhand quotes from.
I’ve read a number of books on Silicon Valley over the years, so had a frame of reference and I had context, so I found Valley of Genius enjoyable to read. But for someone who is coming to the subject with just a cursory knowledge of Silicon Valley, there is benefits to having a guide. Reading the quotes without understanding the context, or having been to Silicon Valley still leaves you outside.
I honestly don’t know if Fisher would have been a good guide, so him removing his voice from the book maybe less of a loss than we might think. But a new reader to the subject matter would benefit from a guide like Michael S. Malone or the insider snark of Robert X. Cringely (aka Mark Stephens). Fisher’s book Valley of Genius is a book for insiders and future academics who might be looking at the history of Silicon Valley in the future. According to Fisher, he managed to secure the last interview that Bob Taylor ever gave. Bob Taylor played key roles in moving Silicon Valley forward while in managerial positions at NASA, ARPA and XEROX PARC. In those interview quotes are more granular aspects of things, like Nolan Bushnell having a champagne party on the grass outside the offices of a recently bankrupt competitor, or that the video card to power the monitor used in Doug Engelbart measured about 3 foot by 4 foot in size.
It’s also a very one dimensional view of Silicon Valley. It largely misses out hardware and hard innovation; which is problematic for a technology hub that is competing against China and India for that matter. There is no 3Com, Cisco or Juniper Networks. The hardware story is very much lacking, there is no Intel, AMD or Nvidia, Sun Microsystems or SGI. It is largely a consumer technology vision that writes out businesses like Oracle and Salesforce together with the characters that lead them.
Valley of Genius ignores a good deal of early Silicon Valley, such as the the pre-war nature of Stanford, Varian, Bill Hewlett and David Packard’s garage start-up, Shockley Labs, the treacherous eight, defence contracting and the missile age.
Mother of all demos
Instead Valley of Genius history starts at 1968, when Dough Engelbart of Stanford Research Institute provides the Mother of all Demos to a mix of academics, government people from the likes of the department of defense and technologists.
Engelbart talks about his developments in 1986
He the talked about his career on the Google campus in 2007.
The story moves on to Atari and Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell was responsible for popularising computer games and arcade consoles. Bushnell was a bridge between the counter culture and Silicon Valley hustle. A few chapters later Valley of Genius also covers the acquisition and eventual (first) failure of Atari.
Here’s Bushnell being interviewed for the 50th anniversary of Atari by IGN.
Bushnell did a Google Talk a number of years ago as well.
PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) was a west coast R&D facility put together by Xerox to understand what the future of work would look like. They had already realised that it would be computerised. From PARC came modern computers, local area networks, file servers, laser printers and productivity software.
In separate chapters Valley of Genius covers Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s commercialisation of phone hacking tools, and the evolution of the Apple computer line up from the Apple II to the Macintosh.
Retailer High Technology did the first adverts featuring the Apple II computer
Which was a far more budget affair than Apple’s own launch of the Machintosh.
The book goes on to cover the return of CEO Steve Jobs and the rejuvenation of Apple as a business including the iPod, iPhone and iPad through to the death of Jobs.
The hacker ethic, or hacker culture
The hacker ethic or culture, a digital equivalent of the person who tinkers away with things in a shed or garage has their own section. The section is atemporal in nature, which I can understand to a certain extent. Steve Wozniak came out of hacker culture, as have many software developers over time.
Fisher focuses on what hacker culture is, rather than what it means (both good and bad). I would recommend Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution as a companion to this chapter in Valley of Genius. The copy I read years ago was published by Penguin, but O’Reilly have re-published it as the book this is part of myth-making and cultural norming in software development teams.
The WeLL was the proto-online community that is still going and features first generation digerati such as journalist Wendy Grossman, the founders of Wired magazine and cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling.
The WeLL never scaled in the same way that we think about social networks now but it has quality discussions and is much kinder than Twitter or Reddit.
VPL was a failed start-up in the mid-1990s that set much of the expectations and tempo on VR to this day. You will most likely know it from the VR suit featured in The Lawnmower Man movie. I covered it in more depth in my metaverse discussion paper.
Take a series of burnt out Apple employees and have them invent a predecessor of the net appliance or smartphone. That was General Magic and it was a glorious failure. Sarah Kerruish’s documentary on General Magic tells the story much better.
Wired magazine gets its own chapter. it represented a way of melding culture and technology. I had read Wired before I had used the web, but it gave me a good idea of what to expect. But I don’t know if it is more important than ZDnet or other technology publishing houses. Valley of Genius goes on to celebrate Wired’s online endeavours including HotWired, Suck – a sarcastic version of Wired and Webmonkey – which taught a lot of people web development skills and probably doesn’t get the love it deserves in Valley of Genius. Mondo 2000, a rival to Wired in terms of setting the cultural zeitgeist for technologists also gets a chapter.
Pixar as a Silicon Valley story is an accident due to two things
- George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic being based in North California rather than in Los Angeles
- Steve Jobs looking for a project post-Apple
But it didn’t necessarily move Silicon Valley forward.
The jump to Netscape as the first commercial browser makes sense. AOL, AT&T True Experience, CompuServe and Prodigy services were all driven by businesses outside the traditional Silicon Valley space.
At the time Netscape seemed as much about the crazy public valuation of the business which was emblematic of the dot com boom, as it was about the software that would kick off the open web. These kind of valuations re-emerged with businesses like Uber and WeWork.
eBay was the standout e-commerce play for Silicon Valley. Amazon was a Seattle company and so was an outsider in a similar way that Microsoft always had been. eBay was also founded by an ex-General Magic employee and so was part of Silicon Valley’s version of ‘Rock family trees‘. We see this even now with the ‘PayPal mafia’.
Google changed the web experience that Silicon Valley had pioneered via Yahoo! and Excite. Brin and Page became a key point of focus in Valley of Genius. However, this ignores the complexity both around search and the development of foundational web technologies that other companies produced. If you are interested about the nature and history of Google, Steven Levy’s In The Plex is probably a better option to read.
Google’s move to pay per click advertising gets its own chapter that greatly reduces the complexity of the real story.
Napster was the poster child of market value destruction and disruption that predated Uber and its ilk.
The dot com boom can be charted from the last quarter of 1995 and reached its nadir in the last quarter of 2002.
Valley of Genius covers it in terms of its sociological impact on the Bay Area, as much as its economic impact. The reality is more complex, even the dot.com label attached to it is a misnomer. It encompassed telecoms, networking hardware, datacenters and more in terms of its impact rather than just e-businesses.
While Facebook was an east coast invention, the movement of the company and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg west saw a cultural change in Silicon Valley that took it down a much darker patch. By comparison Twitter in its start-up phase looked more like Atari in terms of its counterculture influence.
At the end of the book there is a section on future gazing, which became what made Silicon Valley great. The business model was prioritised over innovation. Veteran journalist John Markoff even talked about how Salesforce had moved to a ‘vertical campus’ model with Salesforce tower. Which is how every other business in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and even Wall Street work anyway.
There was a singular lack of reflection on challenges ahead or areas of introspection by the people telling these stories. If anything, that was what concerned me the most about the book. Innovation is at a technological, scientific and socio-cultural cross-roads and the inhabitants of the Valley of Genius apparently doesn’t have a clue. More on the book here. You can find more of my book reviews here.
Extra content – Valley of Genius promotional tour interviews
Panel hosted by Adam Fisher to promote the Valley of Genius book
Leo LePort interviews Fisher on Valley of Genius at the time of its launch.