The Code – Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

4 minutes estimated reading time

The Code

The Code – Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America by Margaret O’Mara is the second book I have read recently about Silicon Valley, this review follows my review of Chip War by Chris Miller. The Code covers the history of Silicon Valley from the post-war to the present.

Margaret O’Mara

In terms of her background, O’Mara is a Clinton administration era policy wonk. When O’Mara left policy circles, she became an academic and is now a history professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – at the other end of the country. Her area of focus is on the history of the modern technology industry. She spent five years researching the book in the mid-2010s, just as Silicon Valley was going under a technological and social change.

The lens shaping everything else that I have written here

I am a sucker for books on the history of technology and like Chip War, The Code was right in my wheelhouse. It complemented, rather than overlapped some of my existing favourite technology history books like Bob Cringely’s Accidental Empires, John Markoff’s What The Dormouse Said or most of Michael Malone and Steven Levy’s output to date.

Like Miller’s Chip War, O’Mara brought a degree of distance from her material to her writing. She has done a lot of research and surfaced lesser known characters like community computing pioneer Liza Loop in her work, she doesn’t have the inside track.

Bob Cringely with his work on InfoWorld‘s Notes From the Field column got an inside track from the Valley’s engineers before he went on to write is magnus opus Accidental Empires. Like Cringely, Michael Malone was brought up in the Silicon Valley area and then worked the business section beat as a reporter for the local newspapers. Cringely and Malone lived and breathed the valley. If you are are fan of Cringely and Malone’s works, expect something that is interesting but stylistically very different.

On to The Code itself

Other reviewers have used words like ‘masterful’ and ‘majestic history’ to describe the book – which while being a reasonable guide to overall quality aren’t really all that helpful. In contrast to Chip War which took me six months, I managed to storm through The Code in a week. This is partly down my familiarity to the material covered and the airplane view that O’Mara takes when writing about her subject. I enjoyed O’Mara’s writing, but could also see someone coming to it with a good grasp of American political history and current affairs, but no knowledge of Silicon Valley history enjoying it just as much.

Being an academic O’Mara worked hard to source everything in The Code, she also provides a recommended reading list that goes into different aspects of the story that she laid out in more depth including John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said and Theodore Roszak’s From Satori to Silicon Valley.

HP's first product, sitting outside of Bill and Dave's office (in HP's headquarters)
H-P’s first product taken by Robert Scoble

The book starts in the post-war period as Stanford and Silicon Valley peaked as an area for military contractors. O’Mara references the political lives of the H-P founders alongside the growth of cold war technologies and the space race.

O’Mara leans hard into Stanford’s defence industry connections that started pre world war II. The book then veers to the decline of the military industrial complex in the area due to a number of factors. The Vietnam war demolished the defence budget. The space programme started to wind down after NASA met Kennedy’s challenge to put man on the moon. Johnson’s social programmes took spend away from scientific developments. Finally the social climate in the US changed.

The next stage of computing was shaped by counter cultural values which O’Mara covered the libertarian instincts of Silicon Valley pioneers alongside the more community orientated views of the counterculture folks. Unlike other writers, O’Mara also covers the Boston area technology corridor that Silicon Valley eventually overshadows.

O’Mara focuses more on the finance of Silicon Valley covering some of the highlights featured in Sebastian Mallaby’s The Power Law. But O’Mara also delves into the public markets and the role of lobbying in the Silicon Valley finance machine.

O’Mara tells how immigration affected the nature of Silicon Valley through the story of Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!. As is the case with policy wonks she puts a lot of emphasis on Al Gore, the information superhighway and the Clipper chip. The Clipper chip resurrected like Godzilla the libertarian Republican party arm of Silicon Valley elites and paved the way for the likes of Peter Thiel later on.

The Code finishes on the future hopes for autonomous driving by university research teams and Google’s Waymo business.

You can get hold of Chip War here. More book reviews here.