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The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

By Margaret O'Mara
Penguin Random House, January 1, 2019, 40.00

In the early 1980s, InfoWorld described the personal computer as “the Electronic Man on Horseback riding into the (sinking) Western sun. He is the last of the rugged individualists and the personal computer is his only effective weapon.”

This example of the hype and hubris that has accompanied the computer age is one of many nuggets of rhetoric straight out of Mary O’Mara’s new book The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

Brisk and breezy, The Code is a jargon-free, clear-eyed short course in the history of the second industrial revolution. O’Mara punctures many of the high-flying balloons launched from Silicon Valley by high tech entrepreneurs, the media, venture capitalists and political boosters who promised that new technologies would strengthen democracy, end inequality, set free human potential and change the world.   

Despite the title, the book is about far more than a small area in northern California. O’Mara cannot tell her story without also telling the story of Seattle-based Microsoft and Amazon, or companies like Electronic Data Systems of Texas. And she periodically tours the East Coast, home of postwar academic giants Harvard and MIT, and industry behemoths IBM, Digital Equipment Corp and Data General.

One question O’Mara poses through the book is: “Why not Boston”? Why, despite the advantages of early dominance in computer development, did Boston eventually lose ground, lose investment, lose people, and creative energy to the West Coast of the United States? Apparently it wasn’t just the weather. What was so unique about Silicon Valley that the phrase came to represent the entire industrial movement, not just a geographical location?

Although her answer is complex, a significant factor for her is the valley culture of incessant job-hopping by developers. It allowed for constantly shifting creative and professional collaborations that were impossible in other states. California did not have their strict non-compete laws that prohibit employees from taking ideas, work-in-progress and client lists from one job to another.  

While leading the reader on the journey from room-sized mainframes to integrated circuits to facial recognition software, O’Mara doesn’t hesitate to take some high-tech titans down a notch. She’s particularly dismissive of Steve Jobs’ “techno-evangelism” and irritated by the so called self-made men, like H. Ross Perot, whose fortune was fueled by a multi-million dollar government contract to build and operate the Medicaid/Medicare data systems..

She also takes aim repeatedly at the origin story Silicon Valley tells itself; a “free market narrative” about a miraculous place of extraordinary visionaries; bootstrap operations in garages and dorm rooms and abandoned valley prune sheds; high risk entrepreneurs who would never take government handouts.

O’Mara points out that the technological revolution in America floated on a multi-billion dollar sea of postwar defence funding. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the short orbit of Laika the dog, showed a scientific and technical expertise that gave America the heebie-jeebies. In response they made massive investments in research and development of rockets, missiles, tracking systems and all their electronic innards. 

Funding has ebbed and flowed with different federal administrations since Eisenhower, but it remained constant even during the era of insane venture capitalism.

The focus shifted periodically from super-computers, to artificial intelligence, scenario modeling and cybersecurity. Successive governments have bowed to industry pressures for tax credits, or reduced capital gains tax. In a largely unregulated environment, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon grew like hothouse triffids to epic proportions.

While the book jacket has cameos of a few great men — Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Bezos and others — the illustration is completely at odds with one of O’Mara’s themes: the revolution wasn’t just the product of a few great minds.

The road from UNIVAC to server farms was designed by thousands of well-paid engineers; it was built by a programming army and assembled by hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S. and overseas who were completely quarantined from the great fortunes being made.

O’Mara addresses the cut-throat culture of the one-dimensional, exclusionary high-tech offices which were occupied for decades by white males, sporting crew cuts and pocket protectors — engineers who remained deeply conservative under a later thin veneer of counter culture. One journalist she quotes described Microsoft as “the frat house from another planet.” Silicon Valley was so closed- off that O’Mara frequently refers to it  as “a brainy and well-resourced Galapagos.”

There were some women in the mix and O’Mara acknowledges a handful, like Lore Harp and Carole Ely who started Vector Graphic; Pam Hardt, co-founder of Bulletin Board Community Memory; Jean Richardson, marketing head at Apple; and Ann Hardy, founder of Key Logic, the security software company,

But most receive only a brief mention and readers will have to go to other books — like Carole Evan’s Broadband — to get a more complete picture of the contribution of women to the technology revolution. 

These days, there are still computer cowboys, but instead of riding the high tech range, they’re more likely to be sending their favourite car into a several million year orbit around Mars. The overheated corporate prattle continues. For example, OpenAI, a machine-learning software company explained in a recent press release that their ambition was “capturing the light cone of all future value in the universe.” Um. Whatever.

The explosion of software applications, some with sinister overtones, continues. And there is still a tight relationship between discovery and defence funding, exemplified by the Microsoft-Amazon cage fight for a $10 billion Department of Defense contract to supply “war cloud-computing services.”

Whether Silicon Valley holds a uniquely American story, as O’Mara argues, the technologies of the post war period certainly re-made America and more; they’ve had a global impact. It’s hard not to conclude the inventors changed the world, just like they said they would, remaking it in their own image. 

O’Mara’s book is of particular interest to those who never learned to program their VCRs and now feel as though the big high tech truck went by and left them curbside. But it is also informative for readers who know Siri is recording their conversations and want to know how we got to this point.

Image: lk T/Flickr