Sunday, September 22, 2019

"Silicon Valley: A Region High on Historical Amnesia"

From the Los Angeles Review of Books, September 19:
THE SECOND SEASON of the underappreciated but marvelous AMC television series Halt and Catch Fire ends with a team of computer programmers clamoring aboard a jet plane in Dallas, giddy with excitement. Their destination is California and a fresh start for their company. The fact that the show’s plot unfolded for two entire seasons outside of Silicon Valley must have baffled many of the show’s casual watchers. After all, it’s 1985 — what’s a computer company doing in Texas anyway?
The show’s characters arrive in what, a century ago, was billed as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” hubristically believing that (their) technology will change the world. Quickly finding everything an entrepreneur might want — an ample supply of coders, a like-minded cohort of tech evangelists, and venture capitalists flush with easy money — they’re in a habitat exquisitely tuned to converting risk-taking into stunning commercial success. Or into devastating failure. Silicon Valley is a place of binaries after all, with entire industries based around manipulating 0s and 1s into product and profit. If your idea doesn’t catch fire, as it were, you disappear faster than
The Code, Margaret O’Mara’s ambitious new history of Silicon Valley, can be read as a story of binaries, or at least of stark contrasts in terms of interpretative frameworks for understanding how Santa Clara Valley became “Silicon Valley.” A professor of history at the University of Washington, she explores in her 400-plus-page tome the tension between historical continuity and disruptive change in its creation, as well as the role of East Coast versus West Coast business networks, reality versus image, and, most importantly, federal support versus private monies. Where the characters of Halt and Catch Fire arrive in a version of a Valley seemingly without a history, O’Mara’s account insists on its importance, showing how the Bay Area’s transformation into Silicon Valley was the product of specific factors stretching back to the late 19th century. The past matters, not least because it created the conditions for the emergence of a region trafficking in the belief that a new technology can render entire industries, perhaps even history itself, obsolete, often just with one demo. None of its new technologies, however, any more than Silicon Valley itself, emerged ex nihilo.
One idea in particular animates the book’s sprawling narrative: the role of federal patrons (and not private monies) in making Silicon Valley. The government’s role isn’t news to academic historians but it might come as a surprise to the general audience O’Mara’s book is intended for. Not necessarily always a sexy story, it’s nonetheless an important one that destabilizes popular notions about the region. As she recounts in the early pages of her book, the symbiosis between federal patrons and private enterprise was securely baked into the region well over a century ago with the rise of Leland Stanford’s vast railroad empire. Founder of the eponymous university, he had made his fortune as the ruler of that empire — which he most certainly could not have done without the direct support of federal powers. The federal government’s stake was clear enough even at this early date: lushly fertile Santa Clara Valley, circa 1900, was an increasingly pivotal node in a continent-spanning agricultural network that relied on dependable rail service to ferry streams of immigrant pickers and packers to key agricultural destinations....MUCH MORE
If interested see also:
June 2013 
Silicon Valley Freakshow: "Silicon Valley’s Long History of Government Codependence"
July 2014
"The secretive billionaire who built Silicon Valley"
Spoiler alert, he's Marc Andreessen's father-in-law