By Adam Fisher
Read by Pete Larkin
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A candid, colorful, and comprehensive oral history that reveals the secrets of Silicon Valley — from the origins of Apple and Atari to the present day clashes of Google and Facebook, and all the start-ups and disruptions that happened along the way.
Rarely has one economy asserted itself as swiftly–and as aggressively–as the entity we now know as Silicon Valley. Built with a seemingly permanent culture of reinvention, Silicon Valley does not fight change; it embraces it, and now powers the American economy and global innovation.
So how did this omnipotent and ever-morphing place come to be? It was not by planning. It was, like many an empire before it, part luck, part timing, and part ambition. And part pure, unbridled genius…
Drawing on over two hundred in-depth interviews, Valley of Genius takes readers from the dawn of the personal computer and the internet, through the heyday of the web, up to the very moment when our current technological reality was invented. It interweaves accounts of invention and betrayal, overnight success and underground exploits, to tell the story of Silicon Valley like it has never been told before. Read it to discover the stories that Valley insiders tell each other: the tall tales that are all, improbably, true.
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 young. And I had them tell me their stories: What happened? What did you see? What did you feel? What does it all mean?
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: a suburban idyll surrounded by a few relatively small cities. So how is it that the Valley keeps conjuring up the future? Well, take it from this historian: The difference lies in how the people here tell their story. They see their own history in a way that’s subtly different from the way history is generally taught. It’s not the historical materialism of Karl Marx—the story of exploiters and the exploited. Nor is it the romanticized history of bards and poets—one tragedy after another. History, to Silicon Valley, is the story of the new versus the old: how one technology is vanquished or subsumed by the next. Traditionally, history itself starts with the written word, the ur-technology, the first medium. But in the Valley we fast-forward to the invention of the computer—the meta-medium that absorbs all media before it. Hard on the heels of the computer comes the invention of the internet, the network of computer networks. Next up is the always-on, always-connected smartphone—the internet in your pocket. And so on. In this telling, history is not something that happens to people. It’s made by people. And, in our era, it’s made in Silicon Valley.
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.
Brad Handler: The reason goes back to the Spanish control of California—through Mexico. The law in Spain, through Mexico, to the California territory did not allow what we now call “covenants not to compete.” Most other states will enforce a covenant not to compete. But in California covenants not to compete are nonenforceable, period.
Scott Hassan: That’s a big deal. A lot less innovation happens on the East Coast because they believe in these noncompetes.
Jamis MacNiven: We had railroads, real estate, aviation. We had oil. Hollywood was a giant rush. Oranges. So we’re used to that gold rush mentality, and we’ve had a lot of rushes.
Rabble: It’s easy to see the web companies or this generation of companies and think that the stuff going on in Silicon Valley is new, but it’s not. The reason there is stuff going on here with technology is because this is where radios were designed during World War One.
Dan Kottke: Lee de Forest! He invented the vacuum tube. It was called the Audion and it was the first amplification device. It was a huge step forward. His company was called the Federal Telegraph Company, and there is a bronze plaque in downtown Palo Alto where his lab was. Lee de Forest, he’s right up there with Edison in my mind.
Jamis MacNiven: The vacuum tube allowed for amplification of sound, which led to the music industry and also to Adolf Hitler—Adolf Hitler was big on the radio. But they also discovered that the vacuum tube could be used as a switch: On. Off. On. Off.
Steve Jobs: Before World War Two, two Stanford graduates named Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard created a very innovative electronics company—Hewlett-Packard.
Jim Clark: You can name probably thirty, forty companies that started out at Stanford now—big ones.
Ron Johnson: Stanford really is the epicenter of the Valley, and most of the companies, the people of these companies, had a connection to Stanford.
Jamis MacNiven: Stanford was the first major university that reached out, in a big way, into the business community and said, “Hey, we have this open-door policy. Come on in, do business: Go out and do business!”
Jim Clark: Contrast that with the Ivy League. They had their nose in the cloud: “We are beyond business. Business is dirty. We are not talking about applications. We are talking about advancing knowledge and research.”
Steve Jobs: Then the transistor was invented in 1948 by Bell Telephone Laboratories.
Jamis MacNiven: And that allowed us to turn switches on and off even faster, faster-faster-faster. In the binary world, on/off is very important.
Steve Wozniak: William Shockley invented the transistor and that was going to be the growing industry.
Andy Hertzfeld: In some ways Silicon Valley itself was an accident of William Shockley being born here.
Steve Jobs: Shockley decided to return to his hometown of Palo Alto to start a little company called Shockley Labs or something. He brought with him about a dozen of the brightest physicists and chemists of his day.
Po Bronson: At Shockley Semiconductor some people who felt mistreated, who felt mismanaged, left. They went over to a new funder, Fairchild, who said, “Yes, we’ll take you guys over here.”
Steve Jobs: Fairchild was the second seminal company in the Valley, after Hewlett-Packard, and really was the launching pad for every semiconductor company in the whole semiconductor industry which built the Valley.
Po Bronson: Then Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore left Fairchild to start Intel, and that just didn’t happen anywhere else in the country. Labor laws were different in other states.
Brad Handler: It’s just a public policy difference from hundreds of years ago.
Jamis MacNiven: Then Moore created this law he’s famous for: computer power doubling every eighteen months.
Alvy Ray Smith: Moore’s law went into play in 1965, and from then on the more powerful computer you have, the smaller they got.
Gordon Moore: By making things smaller, everything gets better at the same time. The transistors get faster, the reliability goes up, the cost goes down. It’s a unique violation of Murphy’s Law.
Jamis MacNiven: And Moore keeps saying, “Well, that’s about to end,” and then it doesn’t end.
Steve Wozniak: Transistors were subject to Moore’s law, and boomed into chips, and bigger chips, that could do more and more over time. Silicon Valley is called “Silicon Valley” because of the material silicon that makes hardware chips. The area was growing economically.
Alvy Ray Smith: And then the venture capital idea came along. And as far as I can tell that idea had never been tried before. There were bankers who could loan you money, but they wanted guarantees that could get it back. Venture capitalists expect failure. They discovered that they could gamble big with maybe ten firms…
Marc Porat: Just throw a lot of things into the funnel, attract a lot of smart people, and make them interact in unmanaged ways. Go chaotic on the whole system of innovation. Just let it happen. Cull the good stuff from the bad stuff. Find a relatively efficient—not perfect, but relatively efficient—solution. The thing blows up? Nobody cares. If it goes big, then they want to stuff as much money into it as possible.
Alvy Ray Smith: And if one of them hit, it would pay for all of the failures. That was a new idea.
Steve Jobs: People started breaking off and forming competitive companies, like those flowers or weeds that scatter seeds in hundreds of directions when you blow on them.
Po Bronson: That is pretty legitimately the true origin of the culture here. The I-need-to-leave-my-big-thing-to-start-something-small story.
Ezra Callahan: It’s a place where people with an idea and some talent can make something huge out of something small. It’s the success stories of young entrepreneurs with no particular business experience who, within a matter of months, become industry-creating technological celebrities.
Po Bronson: That became an imprint that got repeated and repeated and repeated.
Steve Jobs: And that’s why the Valley is here today.
Carol Bartz: The future doesn’t just happen.
Ev Williams: Sparks happen and then it just erupts. I think a lot of it has to do with networks. Networks—they get bigger.
Ray Sidney: There’s this network effect: Sharp people come to be with other sharp people. People come to Silicon Valley just to be with these movers and shakers and brilliant engineers and product designers and marketers and sales folks and whoever.
Lee Felsenstein: The story of Silicon Valley is the story of networks. There was never any centralized place. They were all what they call local maxima, little mounds of people here and there, and people move between them, that’s the important thing. So it’s a decentralized set of networks with mobility among them.
Marissa Mayer: I’ve heard both the founding stories of Google and Yahoo, and for both those companies, the founders didn’t even have to get into a car. They could literally go to the law office, the venture capitalists, the bank… on a bike. It’s all that close together.
Orkut Büyükkökten: The network in Silicon Valley helps you to connect with people who can create that magic, right? So if you have a great idea, you can meet up with a good designer or engineer and then maybe with an angel who would support it and then you can make it happen.
Jerry Kaplan: And for every one of them there are a thousand people who came here with a good idea and burned through their savings without being successful.
Marc Porat: People fail in one, but they learn enough so that they succeed in another. And success breeds success.
Orkut Büyükkökten: I think all over the world people have great ideas, but they don’t necessarily have the means to implement them. In Silicon Valley it’s a lot easier to make an abstract idea and turn it into reality.
Carol Bartz: There are more people attracted to the concepts and there are more tools. Computing has gotten stronger, faster. Data collection? Stronger, faster. Video? Stronger, faster. And so we have the basics now to make increasingly fast changes.
Andy Hertzfeld: Once you have a pipeline going, the pipeline wants to be filled.
Biz Stone: The infrastructure is here: the real estate people, the legal people, the you-name-it people. They get start-ups, so it’s easier: “Oh, okay, you’re a start-up. So, here you go.” It’s just easier to do start-up stuff, because everyone in the whole ecosystem knows about start-ups.
Guy Bar-Nahum: Silicon Valley is not one thing. You have layers. You have the engineers and you have the bankers. But the people who are active ingredients, the troublemakers, the Tony Fadells, the Steve Jobses—they’re really lusting for fame. They want to be relevant, they want to be recognized, they want to be famous, and when they get that it all ties to money, of course. Big money.
Jeff Skoll: We’re living in an age of ever-growing celebrity status for entrepreneurs.
Jerry Kaplan: That’s what makes it tick. Without that nobody comes, nobody invests, and it doesn’t work.
Rabble: One of the things that I find fascinating is that people from the outside perceive it as supercompetitive. They see it as a kind of über-capitalism. But when you look at people who work in it, the identity and the communication, the vibration, is more with communities, networks of people, than the companies. You really often see teams of people who will go from one company to the next company.
Aaron Sittig: The best way to think about Silicon Valley is as one large company, and what we think of as companies are actually just divisions. Sometimes divisions get shut down, but everyone who is capable gets put elsewhere in the company: Maybe at a new start-up, maybe at an existing division that’s successful like Google, but everyone always just circulates. So you don’t worry so much about failure. No one takes it personally, you just move on to something else. So that’s the best way to think about the Valley. It’s really engineered to absorb failure really naturally, make sure everyone is taken care of, and go on to something productive next. And there’s no stigma around it.
- "This is the most important book on Silicon Valley I've read in two decades. It will take us all back to our roots in the counterculture, and will remind us of the true nature of the innovation process, before we tried to tame it with slogans and buzzwords."—Po Bronson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nudist on the Late Shift and Nurtureshock
- "VALLEY OF GENIUS is its own kind of genius. Original in its construction, prodigious, funny, raw and polished, it is an amazing work of reporting from a skilled writer with an insider's love of Silicon Valley. You feel like you are in the room with some of the greatest entrepreneurial minds-men and women-of our time, listening to history in the making."—Julian Guthrie, New York Times bestselling author of How to Make a Spaceship
- "The beauty of oral histories is that enough time has passed for people to say what really happened. And what really happened is one of the great stories of our day. Gripping."—Chris Anderson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Long Tail and Makers: The New Industrial Revolution
- "A fantastic read! Adam Fisher's history of Silicon Valley is compelling and thorough, full of fascinating and inspiring stories carefully curated by someone who truly knows his stuff. Should be on every entrepreneur's desk!"—Ben Mezrich, New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Billionaires
- "VALLEY OF GENIUS is a blast-it's like eavesdropping on a huge party of all the hackers, thinkers and creators that built our digital world. Every page has some crazy detail I never knew before; I couldn't put it down."—Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think
- "Much of the modern world was invented before the public noticed what was happening in the emerging Internet. Idealists and innovators worked together to invent the future that we live in now. VALLEY OF GENIUS is their story, told well, and I really enjoyed it."—Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist
- "The stories Adam Fisher weaves together in VALLEY OF GENIUS alone make the book a fascinating read: tales of heroic innovation, risk and reward, boom and bust cycles. But Fisher achieves something even more important with this 'autobiography' of Silicon Valley: an understanding of how momentous technological changes in society come about, and how they can sometimes surprise even their creators with their broader impact."—Steven Johnson, bestselling author of How We Got to Now
- "Adam Fisher has given us an animated, incisive account of Silicon Valley history, with all of its iconic heroes and villains, told in a symphony of testimonials from the very people who had a seat at the revolution."—Brad Stone, bestselling author of The Everything Store and The Upstarts
- "If you want to hear how technology changed the world, why not hear it from those who did the changing? VALLEY OF GENIUS captures the voices of a revolution as they tell the biggest story of our time."—Steven Levy, author of Hackers
- "VALLEY OF GENIUS is the creation story of our digital universe straight from the sweaty, brilliant (and often surprisingly funny) gods themselves. A fast, fun, and important prose poem that runs Atari to Zuckerberg. This is like an oral history of rock n' roll, if only rock n' roll was half as creative, smart, dirty, or new."—Charles Graeber, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Nurse
- "In VALLEY OF GENIUS, Adam Fisher tells the Valley's autobiography quote by quote from a remarkably complete cast of characters. The resulting tale is a thoroughly engaging ride though recent history as told by the technologists, investors, and hangers-on who have made the Valley the world's magnet for technology innovation."—John Markoff, author of Machines of Loving Grace
- "Based on more than 200 interviews and bristling with facts, personalities, and gossip, [Fisher's] inside account brings to life the 'future obsessed and forward thinking' culture that gave life to our current digitized world...An immensely readable account of America's wild cauldron of innovation."—Kirkus (starred review)
- "A lively oral history...Fisher captures the cultural lore of Silicon Valley in the voices of its more prominent players."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jul 10, 2018
- Hachette Audio