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Book Review | Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley

The Story of Silicon Valley, in the words of those who created it.

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4 out of 4 stars

Valley of Genius tracks the birth of Silicon Valley from its origins in the ’60s to present day. Along the way it chronicles the stories of numerous entrepreneurs, nerds and investors.

The author of the book, Adam Fisher, grew up in Silicon Valley, worked there and hence, is best equipped to provide a subterranean perspective on Valley’s advancement over the years.

Valley of Genius is also his first book, but, interestingly, he wrote very little of it.

The Unique Format of Valley of Genius

Fisher interviewed over 200 founders, visionaries and techies who have been a part of the Valley scene since the ’60s. However, Fisher doesn’t go the conventional way with the book. He invents a counter-intuitive format to tell the Valley’s story instead.

He collates the conversations he’d had with the founders and puts them in a continuous narrative. A quotes-based narrative that moves forward from the mother of all demos in 1968 until Steve Jobs’ death in 2011.

Reading every chapter makes you feel as if you are sitting around a campfire surrounded by these tech icons and trying to keep up with powwow about a whole lot of topics.

See, Fisher could have chosen to devote chapter after chapter to each era’s major inventions. He still does that but in a very different format; a format never been done hitherto.

Fisher kicks things off with the story of Doug Engelbart – the inventor of mouse and bitmap display. It was Engelbart’s inventions that set the Silicon Valley juggernaut in motion.

As the narrative progresses, you get introduced to several tech icons, most of whom come across as happy-go-lucky, colorful types. I am sharing a few stories that impressed me below:

Atari – The Company That Started It All

Nolan Bushnell is one of the more endearing and wiser characters in Valley of Genius. Fisher uses his perspective on a number of subjects in different chapters.

A part-time amusement-park manager, Bushnell was 26 when he founded Atari. In 1972, he and his team released Pong – a game that came to define the era.

Atari made video games an enduring pop-culture phenomenon. It was the first Silicon Valley based tech company to permeate the masses.

Valley of Genius
Nolan Bushnell in 1986, with Atari’s first game, source: http://techland.time.com

In its heyday, Atari was a $3.2 billion giant, bigger than the entire Hollywood. But the upward trend did not last long as Atari failed to push out one blockbuster game after another.

Bushnell, in ways more than one, epitomized the initial waves of Valley’s startup culture. He wasn’t extraordinarily bright, but he knew how to hustle and he put that to good use.

Apple – The Hustler-Hacker Duo that never got along

Valley of Genius also explores the story of two Steves. Jobs and Wozniak.

That Steve Jobs was a hard taskmaster who drove others around him crazy has been corroborated by many. But you would be surprised at some of the opinions of those who worked very closely with him.

The accounts of Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, Alvy Ray Smith and many others also indicate that Jobs had a mean streak about him. Competitive spirit some may call it. Anyways, here’s Wozniak:

If Steve Jobs had started without me, where would he have gone? Keep in mind Steve tried to make 4 computers in his life – Apple III, the Lisa, Macintosh and the NeXT – all failed.

Steve Wozniak, Co-founder Apple Inc

It’s intriguing how the two came to loggerheads over the years so much so that when Jobs passed away, Wozniak chose to skip his memorial service.

You get this impression that Steve Wozniak is an embittered man. He feels Jobs stole his entitlements. There might be an element of truth to that. Wozniak was a hacker genius, but Jobs was craftier of the two.

Xerox PARC – an Icon that wasn’t

Xerox PARC invented a number of computer peripherals and applications. Mouse, bit map graphics, Graphic User Interface, but they never managed to commercialize most of them. Jobs & company made most of them viable for the masses. How?

Xerox PARC story in Valley of Genius
Earlier versions of Mouse, source: https://www.parc.com

The answer is that you can always copy, steal or get inspired from someone else’s ideas. As long as you run with it, disassociate the idea from its source and make it your own, you are in.

In Silicon Valley, it’s all about how you take a good idea and run with it and improve it. It’s a lot more taking from this, taking from that and trying to make something work.

Dean Hovey, designer of first commercially viable Mouse at Apple

This is precisely what Steve Jobs did with Xerox PARC’s mouse and Alto, the world’s first personal computer whose design he copied.

In the end, Xerox PARC despite having brilliant minds like Alan Kay, Larry Tesler, Alvy Ray Smith at the helm couldn’t hold its own as others raced ahead.

Suck: The birth of online snark

Two HotWired employees Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff launched a webzine (blog would be more apt) called Suck way back in 1995.

Home page of Suck
Suck’s Home Page, source: https://thehistoryoftheweb.com/

A moonlight project, Suck was different from others of its ilk in that it was irreverent and snarky in its tenor. The duo poked daily fun at the tech and media culture of that time. Oddly, Steadman and Anuff were part of the same culture they were criticizing.

The beginnings of internet meme culture came from Suck.

Howard Rheingold, American Critic and Writer

Within three months, the cover was blown and Steadman-Anuff had to sell the website to their employers.


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Napster and the Über-Kids of Hustle

One of the most fascinating stories in Valley of Genius to me is that of Napster. Actually, Napster marked the first of anti-establishment, internet services. It was the inflection point.

The brainchild of Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker and Jordan Ritter, Napster rose to become a P2P pioneer. It allowed users to access each other’s computers and download MP3 files. Just like Atari in its day, Napster turned into a cultural symbol of the early noughties.

Napster was much less of a company and more of a revolution. It was a social revolution, a cultural revolution.

Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster
Valley of Genius
Shawn Fanning in October 2000, source: https://medium.com/

Fisher remarks, “There was just not all that much fun to be had online – until Napster came along in 1999.”

Sadly the fun didn’t last long. Napster shut down in July 2001 after being sued by record associations and bands like Metallica.

For all those who use various apps to listen and download music, the unassailable truth is that we all live in a post-Napster world.

Facebook – Hoodies and World Domination

I though I knew all of everything related to Facebook and how it was launched. Of course, I have seen the movie, read a few books. Yet when I read this chapter, I thought it gave a new perspective altogether.

Again, the beauty of Fisher’s format is that you get a kaleidoscopic POV of at least three dozen people on the same topic. It’s not just pov but also the revelations, by the way.

For instance, Aaron Sittig, the first graphic designer at Facebook, reveals that Mark Zuckerberg wanted to resurrect Napster as a Facebook feature this time. Zuckerberg even had a name for the feature, Wirehog.

Fisher’s interviews give more than a few peeks into the early days culture at Facebook. Here’s one quote:

People were drinking the whole time, like all night, but starting around nine, it starts solidifying: What are we going to release tonight? By 11, we’d know what we were going to release that night.

Max Kelly, former Chief Security Officer at Facebook

Conclusion

What works best for Valley of Genius is the originality and unabashedness of the interviewees. Be it Steve Wozniak’s no-holds-barred criticism of Late Steve Jobs or Apple’s techies’ candor about copying ideas. It works for the reader.

Fisher keeps most of the conversations as they happened, unsanitized and uncensored. So expect obscenities and F-bombs, just a caveat in case you are a puritanical sort.

Adam Fisher deserves full marks for capturing the Silicon Valley zeitgeist of different times since 1960s in a near-perfect fashion. He specifies that hippie ethics and counterculture inspired the culture of many companies.

Fisher started interviewing people from year 2008. He collected and banked interviews over the next 10 years. An arduous effort indeed. But one that led to a befitting fruition.

He never got around to speak to Steve Jobs though. By his own admission, he never interviewed Steve Jobs. He uses his quotes from various interviews and lectures he had given early on in this life instead.

I am a huge sucker for well-researched books that deep dive into their respective subject matter. Valley of Genius does just that.

Somehow when it comes to writing great books, hustle does not work. You have to be patient, focussed to get your best work out there. Adam Fisher’s inordinate patience proves it. The end product is what matters and he has brought forth a spectacular one.


Valley of Genius

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