Historian’s candid look at Silicon Valley success

Historian Margaret O’Mara’s new book called The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, is an exhaustive account of Silicon Valley’s evolution into the headquarters of modern technology. 

The book also looks extensively into the circumstances that saw military financial muscle used to support research and development projects at Stanford and the early companies that led the way to the greatest social communication revolution the world has known. 

Talking with The Information newsletter Ms O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington, also predicts the next breakthrough in development and where the research emphasis will fall. 

She also emphasises the next big move in technology. 

“You talk to anyone in the Valley and they’ll say AI is the next thing,” she said.  

Asked what theme a similar book to hers written in 20 years time would be about she said:  

“I would hope it would be about the people who are the new generation of technologists in their 30s and 20s who are coming up in a world that is more sceptical, where the techno optimistic bubble has burst slightly.  

“They still have faith in the power of technology, but perhaps recognise that the Silicon Valley vision has its limits and has a destructive effect.” 

She said her current new book was an overall view of Silicon Valley rather than individuals.  

“We have biographies of some of the most iconic tech leaders, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. We don’t have a biography of the whole place. That’s what my book sets out to be.  

“Ever since I started writing about and looking at the history of the Valley…the question that came up again and again was “What’s the magic formula? How did the Valley do it?”  

“It’s even more important and urgent now that we have these big five companies birthed on the west coast of the United States.” 

The book suggests Silicon Valley might not have developed as successfully without military spending. 

“I don’t see how it could, particularly the Northern California geography. You think about the West Coast…you have these hubs of Cold War economies,” she says.  

“In Seattle, you have aerospace. In LA you have aerospace. In the Bay area, you’ve got shipbuilding. On the peninsula, you have small electronics. That becomes its wheelhouse really early.  

“That’s valuable for two reasons. It’s very important to the Cold War. The military industrial complex needs radar, needs these small electronics, to transistorise electronics.  

“Then it gets a huge kick with the space race. All of a sudden the Apollo program is the major customer for the newly invented integrated circuit.” 

Ms O’Mara said she had never seen, or even imagined that employee activism would become as significant as it has in the modern world. 

“And I don’t declare that lightly. Historians…we come in and say, “Well, we’ve seen this before.” We haven’t seen this before, this type of activism among particularly the white collar, the privileged tech employees.” 

“I really have been wondering what Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett would make of this. 

“Silicon Valley business culture has its origins with them. They were very consciously building a company that was going to be different from the dominant companies of the day.  

“What was the hallmark of the dominant companies of the day? It was labour-management antagonism. Think about the ’40s and ’50s. There were strikes all the time. There’s this ethos of if you have a union or any sort of worker mobilisation, that’s a sign something’s wrong with your company, that you’re managing it wrong. 

“We do things differently. That has become so embedded in the way that the tech industry thinks about itself…as a meritocracy, which it isn’t. As a place where the interests of executives and of the rank and file are aligned. Everyone’s Googley. That’s not right. We’re seeing that really vividly at Google right now.” 

Ms O’Mara said privacy had always been an issue, dating back to written warnings from authors back in the 1960s.

They were not ignored, but all the focus was on the biggest single customer of computers and user of computers, which was the government.

“Where it got all tangled up with was the rising suspicion of government, the national security state, the FBI, law enforcement. 

Asked ifthe passing decades had bought a change in attitudetoward money and wealth in the tech industry, she told The Information newsletter:

“I would hear again and again from folks who had been around for a long time that in the olden days, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the tech. People cared about building tech. “It’s always been about both the tech and the money. By the time you get to the early ’70s, when companies like Intel are first hitting, you have semiconductor executives like Jerry Sanders making headlines for buying a Rolls-Royce one week and Mercedes the next, just this conspicuous consumption.”