Telling it like it is

Valley of Genius
The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley
Adam Fisher
496 pages 
Rs 699

Silicon Valley is such a big part of the global internet story today that it is hard to imagine a time before tech czars such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk ruled the roost. In the book under review, Adam Fisher, a Silicon Valley product himself, takes the reader through an oral history of the rise of this little strip of land in California and how it came to define and transform computing.

Mr Fisher divides his tale into three parts: 1968 to 1984, defined by the rise of the first tech companies such as Atari and Apple that looked to take computing mass-market; 1994 to 2004, the era of Napster and the dotcom bubble; and finally, 2004 to today, when Apple (with its sleek devices), Google (with its search supremacy) and Facebook (with its millions of users) have come to dominate the scene.

As a history of Silicon Valley, this account largely omits a discussion of either Microsoft — which explains the 10-year gap from 1984 to 1994 — and Amazon, both Seattle-based companies that challenged the monopoly of their California counterparts. Mr Fisher acknowledges this gap as an outcome of his desire to focus on the unique contributions made by Silicon Valley stalwarts not just in engineering but in redefining tech and mainstream culture.

For obvious reasons, Steve Jobs lords it over this history, one of the only men who dominated all three eras captured in the book. Mr Fisher did not get a chance to interview him in person so the book resorts to including his publicly available views as dialogue in other conversations. This gives the impression of Steve Jobs participating in long-ranging interviews, achieved with a seamlessness that must have been arduous for Mr Fisher to manage editorially. 

The in-depth accounts of how early Apple products such as the failed Lisa and the infinitely more successful Mac were conceived would appeal mostly to nerds looking to glean the source of the company's mega success. But Valley of Genius puts paid to any romantic notions of tech wizardry. The real technological breakthroughs that led to the development of the PC by IBM and the Mac by Apple were orchestrated at Xerox PARC, a division of Xerox that developed technologies that are the backbone of modern computing: Graphical User Interface, Ethernet, laser printing, and so on.

But the parent company was slow to catch on to the prospects of its R&D division. Based in New York, Xerox took too long to capitalise on the inventions emerging from its West Coast subsidiary, which were lapped up by the likes of Apple and Microsoft. The success of Silicon Valley goliaths, Mr Fisher reminds us, is as much a story of their spotting the right opportunities as it is of rival businesses missing the bus. 

Mr Fisher is a Jobs fanboy but the weight of evidence against him, both in the book and publicly available, is hard to ignore. One of the most damaging incidents involves Steve Wozniak who pioneered Apple I and Apple II but was forced to hand over the design of Mac to Mr Jobs due to an airplane accident. The relationship ultimately soured due to Mr Jobs' reluctance to acknowledge Mr Wozniak's contribution to Mac's success. It reached such a low that Mr Wozniak did not attend Jobs’ funeral in 2011.

Valley of Genius also covers Mr Jobs’ personal journey, from his spiritual awakening during an India trip in the 1970s to his reliance on LSD. In this regard, a substantial chunk of the book is devoted to chronicling how the hippie and anti-Vietnam movements of the 1960s influenced major Silicon Valley figures. According to this account, technology was another conduit to reshaping a world racked by violence and guilt.  

Mr Fisher repeatedly emphasises this vision, of an Eden of innovation ultimately corrupted by money. There may be some truth to this idea - given, say, the appeal of eastern philosophy to many of this saga’s protagonists — but to argue that material success was not a driving force is to stretch the argument thin. The catfights the book mentions and the heavy purloining of ideas and technologies it documents significantly lessen the appeal of those gentler emotions Mr Fisher would have us believe were the primary motivation of the dramatis personae.

For all that, Valley of Genius is a mostly unbiased account of how a number of factors worked together to transform the Bay Area into a global hub of innovation. Like all the best stories, there is a fair bit of luck and pluck in this tale. Some achieved outsize success while others were pushed out of the limelight. In going behind the scenes and making available these accounts in the characters’ own words, Mr Fisher may have righted the balance somewhat.