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 / Summer 2007 / Issue 47(originally published by Booz & Company)


Chronicling the Future

The swift pace of change makes understanding Silicon Valley a daunting task. Here are resources that can help.

Photograph © Schneider/Sipa Press 
The mythology of Silicon Valley is as rich and dramatic as that of any religion, with towering man-gods, epic battles, and nothing less than the future of mankind at stake. In the beginning, there were the “Traitorous Eight,” who quit the transistor company founded amid the orange groves of Palo Alto by William Shockley and went on to give birth to the semiconductor industry. There were the obsessive and neurotic scientists and engineers, many working for the government, who invented the first computers, and then the Internet. There were the idealistic and sometimes messianic misfits who formed the early hobbyist circle known as the Homebrew Computer Club and ultimately developed the personal computer. And there were, later, the business and financial wizards (including Microsoft founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates, shown in the photo here) who turned these technologies into what a venture capitalist famously called “the greatest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.”

Yet for all the material here, or perhaps because of the very breadth and depth and complexity of the forces that created Silicon Valley and the technology world as we know it today, there is no Bible to describe the creation, no Talmud to lay out the rules of engagement, no accepted set of narratives to put everything in context. The literature of the technology era, rather, is a fractured oeuvre, diverse in its perspectives and focus, and surprisingly lacking in definitive texts. There are many writings, both historical and contemporary, but the diligent student has almost too much to choose from — the curse of information overload that these very technologies made possible.

I can say from personal experience that the New York–centric media industry, writers and editors and book publishers included, was slow to get its arms around the fact that something very important was happening in technology, in general, and in Silicon Valley, in particular. Until the 1980s, computers were mostly arcane, expensive tools for enterprise that were made by big, stodgy East Coast companies, and there was no reason any layman should be any more interested in them than they were in, say, the insurance business. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the tech beat at newspapers and magazines was considered something other than a boring backwater — that’s when I launched a Los Angeles Times section on the subject — and that may be one of the reasons the literature about the formative years of Silicon Valley is surprisingly scant. Since then, however, the opposite rule has generally applied: No alleged technological breakthrough is too small for the front page of the paper, no instant Internet millionaire is too insignificant for the celebrity treatment, and books about Silicon Valley pour forth (and then usually vanish without a trace). In fairness, the sheer speed of change adds another hazard to the always-daunting challenge of writing a good book. The main characters could be history by the time the book hits the streets, and it’s often jarring to read the journalistic “rough draft of history” even a year or two later.

That said, there are a lot of great things to read out there, if you can figure out how to organize your approach. I find it useful to segment any study of Silicon Valley into a few distinct areas. There is, first of all, the history of computers and of the computer business, from its origins in government, university, and corporate research labs in the 1940s and ’50s, through its initial entrepreneurial emergence around Boston and elsewhere on the East Coast in the 1960s and ’70s, to the full flowering of the PC revolution in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Then there are the contemporaneous accounts of the key moments of that history — the rise of Microsoft, for example, or the fall of IBM, or the inflating and then bursting of the first Internet bubble. There are also what might be called the philosophical manifestos, as well as the management treatises and how-to books, that help define the way businesspeople think about the technology revolution and its implications. And finally there is the ongoing torrent of writings, in newspapers and magazines, on blogs, and, yes, even in books, about the Internet and its implications.

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Silicon Valley Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Tom Wolfe, “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce,” Esquire, December 1983. Click here.
  2. Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer (1984; McGraw-Hill, 1999), 488 pages
  3. John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (Viking, 2005), 336 pages
  4. Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander, Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer (W. Morrow, 1988), 274 pages
  5. Michael Hiltzik, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (HarperBusiness, 2000), 480 pages
  6. David Owen, Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine (Simon and Schuster, 2004), 306 pages
  7. Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine (Back Bay Books, 1981), 320 pages
  8. Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1996), 304 pages
  9. Michael Wolff, Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1998), 268 pages
  10. Charles H. Ferguson, High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars (Time Business, 1999), 400 pages
  11. John Walker, editor, The Autodesk File: Bits of History, Words of Experience (New Riders, 1989), 538 pages
  12. Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual (Perseus, 2000), 212 pages
  13. Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (O’Reilly Media, 2001), 256 pages
  14. Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997), 276 pages
  15. Andrew S. Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company and Career (Currency Doubleday, 1996), 222 pages
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