I like reading history, including history of science and technology.
Dry history — the format we dreaded in school with dates of events memorised and marks lost because we confused the administrative detail of one empire with another — can be boring. A seven-letter word, history comes alive when reduced to its last five letters — story. The best story is one that brings experience alive. You don’t memorise stories. They stay because they make an impression. How do you make an impression with a piece of technology history already told and intensely known? You dig deeper, seek wider, shift perspective.
Valley of Genius – The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders and Freaks Who Made It Boom) examines the phenomenon called Silicon Valley without letting technology dominate the narrative. It approaches what happened in Silicon Valley as human culture. The roots go back to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The pioneers were no strangers to hippies, psychedelia, music and all. What sprouted thrived for long as the technology led face of counterculture. Now it has become firmly corporate and mainstream; as mentioned somewhere in the narrative — comparable to Detroit’s automobile industry in the 1950s. No more young, Silicon Valley is currently living its second phase, past dotcom bust. The book starts with what Silicon Valley used to be; introduces us to early entrepreneurs pioneering video games, connects us to the birth of its iconic companies and eventual ascent of Internet, and finally, does a bit of crystal ball-gazing to guess where it’s headed.
Two attributes make this book special. First, the narrative focuses on ecosystem. One of the most memorable sketches of the Valley is by the late Steve Jobs who paints it like a puzzle. He points to so many bands of the 1960s hailing from the area, which is also noteworthy for the presence of two well-known universities — Stanford and Berkeley. Silicon Valley was a melting pot with market as test deciding survival. Its story is not black and white like computer code. It is grey, human and intertwined. You see a network of people who know each other emerging, some of them knowing each other for long. People meet at university, work on projects, collaborate as start-up founders, succeed or fail as market decides, sometimes they fall out, start their own separate outfits; the story repeats. Over time, this cycle expands the ecosystem and ensures that the book’s narrative does not fall into the typical corporate biography trap of protagonist bigger than circumstance. In its pages there are no larger-than-life heroes. The actors range from academics to students, engineers, artists and magazine editors — all of who contributed to the energy driving the Valley. This book rarely deviates from providing a sense of circumstance; a set of circumstances called Silicon Valley, which matched human brilliance to needs and impulses latent in the market. Doing so, tremendous wealth was created. And yet, reminiscent of the counterculture alive in the market economics, it is Silicon Valley that dismantled elitism in information technology and made computer and the Internet available to the masses.
Second, the book’s style of presentation is about as radical to our notion of narrative as the first companies in Silicon Valley may have been to what business meant. Past the preface, aside from chapter introductions, there isn’t an original line written by the author. What Adam Fisher has done instead is work several years piling on interviews (some 200 of them), which he then appears to have edited, split and rejoined to create relevant chapters. Every sentence is thus authentic and attributed to the person uttering it. It is authenticity going back to source including instances from the past as recalled by the interviewee. After tons of books on technology, technology companies and technologists unloaded on us, this reverting to source and sentences printed verbatim have the quality of a clean-up. Here you see people as they are, minus the hype that was heaped. There are accounts of creative brilliance, human nature, conduct, incidents that happened. Even as they seem peripheral detail in the world used to appreciation by balance sheet and stock market price, they constituted the culture that made a phenomenon. A phenomenon that then went on to attract so many more others to Silicon Valley.
The book’s weakness is that it is not a smooth read. No matter how well you edit and merge interviews, their sentence structure, tenor and nature are as decided by those who speak. The reading is therefore uneven, not to mention — it is not an easy task matching every sentence and paragraph to who said it. At that point you wonder: wouldn’t a more regular format have worked better?