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Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom), page 1
Copyright © 2018 by Adam Fisher
Cover design and illustration by Yves Béhar / Fuse Projects.
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ISBNs: 978-1-4555-5902-2 (hardcover), 978-1-4555-5901-5 (ebook), 978-1-5387-1449-2 (international trade)
Silicon Valley, Explained: The story of the past, as told by the people of the future
Among the Computer Bums The Big Bang: Everything starts with Doug Engelbart
Ready Player One: The first T-shirt tycoon
The Time Machine: Inventing the future at Xerox PARC
Breakout: Jobs and Woz change the game
Towel Designers: Atari’s high-strung prima donnas
PARC Opens the Kimono: Good artists copy, great artists steal
3P1C F41L: It’s game over for Atari
Hello, I’m Macintosh: It sure is great to get out of that bag
Fumbling the Future: Who blew it: Xerox PARC—or Steve Jobs?
The Hacker Ethic What Information Wants: Heroes of the computer revolution
The Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link: Welcome to the restaurant at the end of the universe
Reality Check: The new new thing—that wasn’t
From Insanely Great to Greatly Insane: General Magic mentors a generation
The Bengali Typhoon: Wired’s revolution of the month
Toy Stories: From PARC to Pixar
Jerry Garcia’s Last Words: Netscape opened at what?!
A Fish, a Barrel, and a Gun: Suck perfects the art of snark
Culture Hacking: The cyberunderground goes mainstream
Network Effects The Check Is in the Mail: eBay’s trillion-dollar garage sale
The Shape of the Internet: A problem of great googolplexity
Free as in Beer: Two teenagers crash the music industry
The Dot Bomb: Only the cockroaches survive… and you’re one of the cockroaches
The Return of the King: iCame, iSaw, iConquered
I’m Feeling Lucky: Google cracks the code
I’m CEO… Bitch: Zuck moves to Silicon Valley to “dominate” (and does)
Purple People Eater: Apple, the company that cannibalizes itself
Twttr: Nose-ring-wearing, tattooed, neck-bearded, long-haired punk hippie misfits
To Infinity… and Beyond!: Steve Jobs in memoriam
EPILOGUE The Endless Frontier: The future history of Silicon Valley
Cast of Characters
About the Author
Note on Sources
for Kiri, forever and always
Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
—STEVE JOBS, QUOTING STEWART BRAND
I grew up in what is now known as Silicon Valley. Only in retrospect does it seem like an unusual place. As a kid, it seemed mostly suburban and safe and even dull, except for the fact that there were also a lot of nerdy hacker types around, and they kept things interesting in their own way.
The woman who lived next door to us ran the computer center at the local community college. In the late seventies my mom would drop me off there so I could play Colossal Cave Adventure—a text-only choose-your-own-adventure type game: YOU ARE STANDING AT THE END OF A ROAD BEFORE A SMALL BRICK BUILDING. AROUND YOU IS A FOREST. A SMALL STREAM FLOWS OUT OF THE BUILDING AND DOWN A GULLY. WHAT’S NEXT?
I never even touched the actual computer, as it was a mainframe and kept safely behind glass. I played Adventure by poking away at a so-called dumb terminal: a keyboard and teletype machine at one end of a long cord. Adventure was primitive but fun, and still the best babysitter I’ve ever had:
KILL DRAGON, I typed.
WITH WHAT? YOUR BARE HANDS? rattled the printer.
YES, I pecked.
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE JUST VANQUISHED A DRAGON WITH YOUR BARE HANDS! (UNBELIEVABLE, ISN’T IT?)
A few years later, in 1979, the family next to our next-door neighbors bought their own computer: an Apple II. It was astonishing. You could touch it, take it apart, modify it. It used an ordinary color TV as a screen. I vividly remember helping to insert a chip into the motherboard that enabled lowercase.
On the Apple II, the Adventure was conducted in both upper- and lowercase. Wow! But it wasn’t just text-based adventure games. The Apple II could also play video games. Little Brick Out was the classic: a copy of Atari’s Breakout arcade game—and in one crucial dimension even better than the original. Little Brick Out was written in BASIC, and thus the source code could be examined and even vaguely understood. Take line 130, for example:
130 PRINT “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU WIN.”
That line could be rewritten to take advantage of the lowercase chip. Like so:
130 PRINT “Congratulations, you win.”
PRINT “Congratulations, Adam!!! You have just vanquished Little Brick Out with your bare hands!”
I learned that with a little hacking, one could make the computer say—and do—anything.
And I was hooked.
The book you are holding in your bare hands is a compendium of the most told, retold, and talked-about stories in the Valley. They’re all true, of course, but structurally speaking, most of the stories have the logic of myth. The oldest of them have acquired the sheen of legend. Doug Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration of his new computer system is known as the Mother of All Demos. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak have become archetypes: the Genius Entrepreneur and the Genius Engineer. Collectively, these tales serve as the Valley’s distinctive folklore. They are the stories that Silicon Valley tells itself.
To capture them, I went back to the source. I tracked down and interviewed the real people who were there at these magic moments: the heroes and heroines, the players on the stage and the witnesses who saw the stories unfold. Almost everyone is still alive—many are, in fact, still
I interviewed more than two hundred people, most of them for many hours. Along the way, I learned a lot of things. The first surprise was the range of types of people whom I encountered. Silicon Valley grew from a few suburban towns to encompass the cities around it, and that growth was fueled by a rather remarkable diversity. There’s no Silicon Valley ethnic type, per se. Silicon Valley is racially diverse—it is the proverbial melting pot—although it’s also true that black people are still far and few between. Women are also underrepresented, although there are many more than one might imagine. And there’s no typical age, either. Silicon Valley focuses on its young—that’s where the new ideas usually come from—but it’s also been around for a long time.
However, there were some commonalities. Almost to a person, their childhoods sounded like mine. There was an early exposure and then fascination with computers—usually because of computer games—which ultimately led to a fascination with hacking, computer science, or even electrical engineering. The names of the games change, but the pattern remains the same.
After the interviewing came the transcribing. I had hundreds of hours of transcripts, millions of words of memories. The printouts filled an entire bookcase in my office. Then came the real work: I cut the transcripts together as one might so many reels of film.
The editing process was often literally done with printouts, a pair of scissors, and a roll of tape. I’m a big fan of computers: I can’t write without one. But the old-fashioned way of editing still works best, I’ve found. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near good enough to transcribe an interview with any accuracy, either. And of course there is no automating the process of reporting: tracking people down and convincing them to talk to me.
Shoe leather, sharp scissors, and Scotch tape made this book possible—an irony that didn’t always seem funny to me. The process took four solid years of full-time work and constant focus. By another measure, it has taken even longer. I’ve been gathering string—banking interviews—for the past decade.
It would have been much easier to simply write a history of Silicon Valley instead of to painstakingly construct one, but I felt that would have missed the point. These aren’t my stories: They’re the collective property of the Valley itself. I wanted to disappear because I want you, the reader, to hear the stories as I had heard them: unfiltered and uncensored, straight from the horse’s mouth. The stories are told collaboratively, as a chorus, in the words of the people who were actually there.
There’s not much of me in this book, but of course all journalists have their biases, their point of view. Here’s mine: I think that what’s most interesting, most important, about Silicon Valley is the culture, that aspect of the Valley that gets under people’s skin and starts making them think—and act—different.
I was indoctrinated at computer camp (at the time, 1982, there was only one). There I met a counselor who signed his postcards home with a squiggle, like this: . The squiggle is the symbol for a resistor—the electrical kind that one might see on a circuit diagram. Silicon Valley is a sheltered place, but the intense vibrations emanating from Berkeley and San Francisco did penetrate.
I found Mr. Resistor fascinating. He was working on a secret project for something he called “a start-up company,” and it was going to “change the world.” The next summer Mr. Resistor hitchhiked to my house and gave me and my father the full vision: “One day,” he predicted, “everyone will have a mobile telephone—in their car.” He even had a color brochure that showed a man happily chatting away on a handset plugged into the dashboard of a Honda Accord. “Because soon car phones won’t just be for rich people,” he explained. Then he said his good-byes and left, via the public bus system. I was skeptical: Would the future be invented by a hippie who didn’t even own a car? My father was less so: “Maybe,” he mused.
I left Silicon Valley for college and then returned a dozen years later as an editor for Wired magazine. There I started to notice something odd: The stories about Silicon Valley emanating from the New York media world were vastly different from those stories that I had heard at sleepaway camp and in computer rooms, and then later in barrooms and at Burning Man. There was a cognitive dissonance there. New York just doesn’t get it, I told myself.
Eventually I came to understand that it all came down to perspective. The mainstream media sees Silicon Valley as a business beat, a money story: Who’s up and who’s down in the new economy? Who’s the latest billionaire? Those are valid questions, maybe even interesting ones—but not to me.
In the Silicon Valley where I’m from, the stories were almost never about money. They were tales about resistance, heroism, and struggle, yarns about the creation of something out of nothing—and the derring-do required to pull such a feat off. In short, they were about dragon slaying. That’s still true, at least in the Silicon Valley I know. Those were the stories that got me excited. And they still do.
I’m not saying there isn’t an economic story to be told. In fact, I think that we are witnessing the greatest transition since the industrial revolution. A new economy—the information economy—is being created, and the center of that new economic order will be Silicon Valley. And if that’s not the business story of the century, what is?
Still, the bigger question, in my humble opinion, is how that transformation will transform us. We begin to see the answer in the culture that’s being created in Silicon Valley, now. It’s future obsessed and forward thinking. It’s technical and quantitative. It’s market oriented. It’s simultaneously practical and utopian. It’s brainy, even in its humor. In short, it’s a nerd culture. And of course there have been nerds since time immemorial. Leonardo da Vinci was a nerd. Ben Franklin was a nerd. Albert Einstein was the quintessential nerd. But the new thing is that the nerd culture is becoming the popular culture.
Evidence for that idea, once grokked, is everywhere. Exhibit A: The Big Bang Theory—a show by, for, and about nerds—is one of the highest-rated and longest-running television sitcoms ever. Exhibit B: The Martian’s unlikely journey from self-published NASA fan fiction to blockbuster hit. Exhibit C: The fact that xkcd, a web-based comic devoted to “romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” has any audience at all.
Even more astonishing, at least to me, is that this new popular culture is a youth culture. The kids who are searching for an exciting life no longer want to be rock stars, or rap stars, but rather Silicon Valley–style tech stars. They want to be Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk.
As readers will discover, technology entrepreneurs have never made particularly good role models. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell essentially invented the role of the twenty-something Silicon Valley CEO almost a half century ago—and he may have been the baddest bad boy that the Valley has ever seen. His protégé, Steve Jobs, was not much better. At the same time, this new nerd culture is the best possible news for our collective future, given the awesome challenges ahead. Soon there will be nine billion people crowding this warming planet, and each one will come equipped with a supercomputer in their pocket. So I’m optimistic, bullish even. Who better to inherit the Earth, at a time of crisis, than a generation obsessed with science and engineering?
It’s pretty clear where this new nerd culture came from—it came from the same place that the money did: Silicon Valley. And what is a culture? There’s no mystery there, either. A culture is simply the stories that define a people, a place. It’s the stories we tell each other to make sense of ourselves, where we came from, and where we are going.
And here those stories are, between two covers. Together they comprise an oral history of Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley, Explained
The story of the past, as told by the people of the future
Silicon Valley is a seemingly ordinary place
Steve Jobs: I do think when people look back in a hundred years, they’re going to see this as a remarkable time in history. And especially this area, believe it or not.
Steve Wozniak: Creativity is high here—it’s okay to have dreams and think about them and think maybe you could make them. Here more than other places.
Ron Johnson: There’s the Bay on the east and the foothills on the west, and they’re about five miles apart, and the entire Valley kind of runs from Stanford to the south toward Cupertino, and to the north toward San Francisco.
Jamis MacNiven: The first gold rush: That’s what launched San Francisco. It was a sleepy little town of twelve hundred, and then three years later there’s three hundred thousand people in the Bay Area.
Scott Hassan: Back in the 1870s, California, for some reason, decided to enact a law that prohibits employers from suing former employees for going on to a competing company.
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