“The Modern World Starts Here”—The Birth of Silicon Valley

Narinder Singh

In case it’s not already clear to you from every single thing in modern life, the impact of microprocessor technology on human history is akin to that of the printing press, and is probably making the wheel and fire nervous. (If it’s not clear, you can get an app for your phone to remind you.)

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Michael Schwarz and Kiran Kapany of Kikim Media—headquartered in the heart of the tech industry, in Menlo Park, California—tackle this history in their new stellar three-part series for the Science Channel, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The tale is a very personal one for Kiran, whose father, the physicist Narinder Singh Kapany—pictured above—who emigrated to Northern California from India via England in 1960, is often called “the father of fiber optics.” (If you’ve ever had an endoscopy, you should thank Professor Kapany: it used to be a lot worse.)

As longtime residents of the Valley who labored over this sweeping and deeply thoughtful documentary series for many years, Schwarz and Kapany surely did not expect it to air in the midst of a massive public scandal involving the tech community. But the issues on the front pages today are informed by the story they tell in this documentary. It is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the DNA of the place at the very heart of modern innovation, not merely in tech but across the spectrum of human experience.

EARLY ADOPTERS

In Schwarz and Kapany’s series, Satjiv Chahil, formerly senior vice president of Apple, says that Silicon Valley is to our world today “what Florence was to the Renaissance—the epicenter of a global cultural change.” Denizens of the Valley are prone to such pronouncements, but they aren’t wrong.

The series places Silicon Valley in the context not just of the history of science and technology, but of all of American history, painting an eye-opening portrait for the tech world layman. Dipping back into the pre-history of modern tech, it contextualizes Silicon Valley amid the gold rush of California in the 1840s (prefiguring the gold rush redux of the dot com boom) which first attracted “dreamers, visionaries, and rebels,” setting a tone that lives on to this day. Similarly, it connects the Information Superhighway with its metaphorical forerunner, the railroads where Leland Stanford made his fortune, which fittingly led to the creation of the private university that bears his name, which in turn midwifed the late 20th and early 21st century revolutions in both hardware and software.

Schwarz and Kapany highlight the “ecosystem” of the Valley and the unique combination of factors that conspired to create ideal conditions for the incubation of modern computer technology. To tell that tale they touch on the stories of numerous iconic companies that sprung from this fertile ground, including Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple, Facebook, PayPal, What’s App, Atari, and Airbnb, this last of which owes its success in part to Barry Manilow’s drummer. (You’ll have to watch Episode 3 to understand why.)

Says Schwarz: “Scholars who study the region have long used that term to describe it, because much like an ecosystem in nature, Silicon Valley has evolved over a long period of time and has a number of interconnected elements that collectively help sustain it and enable it to thrive. Take any one away and the rest probably won’t do quite as well.” Among the diverse forces in play were the needs of the locally-based aerospace industry; the research going on at Stanford (which deliberately encouraged students to start companies outside the university); the fact that non-compete clauses are in illegal in California; even the generally freespirited ethos of the Bay Area and the legacy of the Haight-Ashbury era.

HP garage

The Hewlitt-Packard garage in Palo Alto, CA

Many of the values we now associate with the tech industry were first promoted by Hewlett-Packard, the Palo Alto-based company that arguably started it all in the 1930s. HP’s crewcut engineers in old black-and-white photos aren’t the image immediately conjured by the words “Silicon Valley,” but Bill Hewlitt and David Packard were visionaries responsible for much of the ethos that defines the Valley to this day, the most impactful of which was their sheer wisdom and generosity. Rejecting the usual paranoia, Hewlitt and Packard actively encouraged their underlings to strike out on their own, arguing that it’s OK to change jobs, it’s OK to fail, and that cross-pollination serves the greater good and benefits all—veritable mantras in Silicon Valley to this day.

Famously, HP was started in the garage of a house at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto—now a state and national landmark—creating the original prototype and ur-myth of all garage-birthed tech giants, as if they were rock & roll bands. As the author Michael Malone says in the series, “I really think the modern world starts right there.”

The stories of the misses are just as fascinating as the hits. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak loved working at HP so much that he begged them to buy the first Apple machine that he built. HP passed five times. Xerox had the vision to create the famed Palo Alto think tank Xerox PARC, from which emerged such innovations as the mouse and the Alto personal computer that was the forerunner of the Macintosh. But Xerox’s top leadership—fixated on its lucrative copier business—failed to see the full potential of computers and let the golden goose get away.

Even the great ones had their off days. Nolan Bushnell, the visionary founder of Atari and inventor of Pong, had in his employ a 19-year-old Steve Jobs (who taught Atari’s staff how to solder), but passed on a chance to own a third of Apple for $50,000.

(For fictional depictions of the tech world, both tragic and comic, see AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s Silicon Valley, for my money, the funniest comedy on television today.)

There are darker stories as well. One of the most fascinating subplots in the Science series is that of William Shockley, the Nobel prize-winning physicist and co-inventor of the transistor, whose scientific achievements are tarred by his racist belief in eugenics. It seems no coincidence that Shockley’s repulsive politics go hand in hand with his Captain Queeg-like management style— the polar opposite of HP’s progressive mindset—a style that drove out superstar employees who went on to start a half dozen landmark companies that made the Valley what it is today. (Shockley once subjected all his employees to lie detector tests over his fervent belief that a cut finger suffered by a secretary was deliberately arranged by a saboteur within the company.)

AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY

MS and KK

Kiran Kapany and Michael Schwarz, producers, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story

Silicon Valley: The Untold Story rejects hagiography as it dives headlong into the industry’s embarrassing record on diversity, one that has barely improved over the past twenty years. It bravely documents the overwhelming white male-ness of Silicon Valley and indeed the whole tech community—notwithstanding the strong presence of Asian and Asian-American engineers—even as that community ostentatiously prides itself on being a meritocracy. In that sense, the tech world makes for an apt avatar of a widespread delusion in America at large. The series likewise explores the endemic sexism of the industry, from the early role of female “computers”—see also Hidden Figures—to its own version of the Rosie the Riveter phenomenon, with comments from legendary female pioneers like Kim Polese of Marimba and Heidi Roizen of T/Maker and Apple (who describes how she cleverly jiu-jitsued that very sexism into a marketing ploy).

Belying another beloved myth, Schwarz and Kapany also show how decades of US government funding and tax dollars subsidized and nurtured the tech industry, disabusing us of Silicon Valley’s treasured self-image as a paragon of rugged individualism and a triumph of unfettered capitalism. The resistance of many of today’s tech companies to governmental regulation and their sanctimony on the alleged superiority of the free market betrays their ignorance of their own history. Neither the cheerleaders for Milton Friedman-brand laissez faire economics nor megalomaniacal tech entrepreneurs themselves—who prefer a narrative in which they are freestanding iconoclastic geniuses who went it alone—like to admit it, but Silicon Valley as we know it simply would have been an impossibility without massive public financing, principally via defense contracting.

Schwarz again:

World War II spurs a big increase in government funding of university research. After the war a much bigger chunk of that money goes to the engineering school at Stanford, largely thanks to the Cold War and the efforts of Fred Terman, its Dean of Engineering. But in 1957 the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union comes as a nasty shock. It’s no coincidence that the US government sets up NASA a year later—and NASA takes over a government aviation lab in the Santa Clara Valley that runs the world’s biggest collection of wind tunnels. NASA is intent on getting to the moon first, but you can’t build rocket ships with vacuum tubes. So it becomes what Paul Saffo describes in our film as an early adopter—“someone who is happy to pay way too much for something that doesn’t quite work”—and spurs improvements in the technology for integrated circuits made with silicon, which give the Valley the name we know it by today.

 The military industrial complex’s insatiable Cold War need for technological innovation is one of the great ironies in the genesis of Silicon Valley, and its impact was both large and small, institutional and coincidental. On the former count, of course, we owe the Internet itself to DARPA. (With a special shout-out to the Jesuit priest and polymath Teilhard de Chardin, who conceived of what he called the “noosphere” back in the 1920s.) On the latter, Schwarz and Kapany recount how Steve Wozniak’s father worked at the Santa Clara Valley-based Lockheed factory that made the Polaris missile, which is how Steve got four hundred “defective” transistors—rejected for cosmetic deficiencies—to use as switches in the development of the original Apple computer. And so, the production of weapons meant to deal death and destruction in a thermonuclear war accidentally gave birth to technology that transformed the world in a way that now seems an inevitable part of the march of “progress”….or at the very least, transformation.

That said, the ways in which tech and the Internet can themselves be weaponized and turned to nefarious ends have been recently quite evident. At the end of episode two, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story even presciently addresses the very privacy issues roiling us in the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandals.

BOB@STANFORD

Among the series’ most fascinating stories is that of inventor and engineer Doug Engelbart, who envisioned both modern computing and the Internet as far back as the mid 1960s. Ironically, Engelbart drew inspiration from the pioneering work in hypertext and analog computing done by Vannevar Bush, who during World War II had overseen the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb. Few at the time could really comprehend the tectonic implications of Engelbart’s work, which featured a new vision of the computer as not merely a number-crunching machine but something that could deal with text, images, audiovisual material, and could—and this is the crazy part—talk to other computers. As Paul Saffo puts it in the series, Engelbart was offering “ten-speeds for the mind at a time when we were building tricycles.”

As a longtime devotee of the IBM Selectric typewriter, I remember the first time I really grasped the concept of the “word processor” (in 1989—I was a bit late to the party). It was like taking acid, or the moment when The Wizard of Oz turns from black-and-white to color, or hearing the drum break in “In the Air Tonight” for the first time. Having been genetically attached to my word processor ever since, I’m not sure how anyone wrote anything before its invention, at least not beyond a first draft. If you think Dickens and Dostoevsky are longwinded as it is, imagine if they’d been able to cut and paste.

Five years after that, in 1994, I started grad school at Stanford— sadly for my net worth, in the documentary film program, not engineering. I was nonplussed that all of the university’s administrative actions—course selection, communication with professors, posting of grades, etc—were done electronically. I’d never even used email before; at that time relatively few people had. It was so new that my email address was Bob@stanford.edu. (Not even “Bob1.”)

In the summer of 1995 I actually took a graduate school course at Stanford in how to search the Internet.

I’ll repeat that:

I actually took a course, for graduate credit, on how to search the Internet.

That was in the days of Lexis/Nexis, when that task was tedious and complicated and unreliable. At that exact same time, across campus in the aforementioned engineering department, two grad students named Sergey Brin and Larry Page had just met and begun work on a project to improve that search process, which led to the creation of a private company that you might have heard of. It starts with a G, and is synonymous with a number containing 100 zeros, which coincidentally is roughly its current valuation in US dollars.

Like Apple, Brin and Page at first tried to license their innovative technology to others, and spent a year doing so with no luck, before they decided to start their own company. (I can only presume that the VCs who passed on what would become Google are now Facebook friends with the record executives at Decca who passed on the Beatles in 1962.) That same summer I worked at restaurant/bar in Palo Alto (the Blue Chalk Café, for those who care, or remember) and was at the door checking IDs the night Netscape went public. Its staff—all newly minted millionaires, on paper—rolled into the joint like drunken Vikings, Revenge of the Nerds-style, no doubt imagining that they would rule the Internet search world forever. Ah, good times.

Like Jobs and Wozniak, and Engelbart before them, Brin and Page had created something so far ahead of its time that it took the rest of the world a while to catch up. What they realized, in the words of author Michael Malone, was that “the ability to search for knowledge is the transformative event of our era.” It’s hard to argue.

HUDDLED MASSES 1, NATIVISTS 0

Another salient point Schwarz and Kapany make in their series is one that ought not need stressing, but in the current political climate, clearly does.

A third of Silicon Valley’s population is foreign born; more than half its engineers are. Even in a country built on and by immigrants, the tech world stands as a shining example of the value and vigor immigrants bring to this country, from Sergey Brin to Elon Musk, Jerry Yang, Andrew Grove, Jan Koum, Andy Bechtolsheim, Vinod Khosla, Narinder Kapany, and—going further back in their families’ histories—Jobs, Wozniak, and just about everyone else including even the odious Dr. Shockley himself (who as far as I know is not Native American). In addition to the other factors that made the Valley the perfect habitat for the tech explosion that occurred there, arguably no other country on Earth has the immigrant tradition that would allow for this welcome phenomenon.  Of course, the same is true of almost everything that’s happened in the United States of America full stop since about 1607, but that’s a topic for another day.

Says Kiran Kapany of her family’s experience:

When my father came here in 1960 to found his first company, Optics Technology Inc., there were few other immigrants. And here’s my father, a Sikh with a turban who didn’t cut his hair at all, and a full black beard and mustache. He was initially funded by Don Lucas of Draper, Gaither & Anderson and then later by the executives of Hewlett-Packard and Bank of America. Tom Perkins of Kleiner Perkins ran the business side of OTI. These folks were some of the greats of the Valley. No one saw my father as an “immigrant”: he was an inventor, a visionary making a huge contribution to the world.

I would like to propose legislation banning the likes of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the rest of the build-the-wall America Firsters from using any technology invented by immigrants. Guys: we’ll send some folks around to collect your cellphones and computers, and you can go back to mimeographing your neo-Nazi leaflets and passing them out in pawn shop parking lots. (Oh wait, the mimeograph was invented by foreigners too.)

THE DREAM OF PROGRESS

By its very nature, technological innovation always presents itself as beneficial to mankind—what we call “progress.” In the series, anthropology professor Jan English-Lueck calls Silicon Valley “almost the crystallization of this dream of progress.” Of course, many observers, from Thoreau to Ted Kaczynski, take issue with that notion.

Kaczynski—himself a product of the late Sixties techno-academic world of Berkeley, by way of Harvard, Michigan, and CIA experimentation—is no one’s idea of a hero, but his critique of technology in the so-called Unabomber Manifesto—properly known as “Industrial Society and Its Future”—is sobering and filled with cogent arguments…..at least right up to the part where he concludes, “And that’s why I had to kill people.”

One salient critique of much of current cutting edge tech is that it represents exactly what privileged, single young people in the industrialized world—that is to say, the chief demographic of developers—would create. Facebook, Tinder, and Uber are applications that benefit that community. (For me, the ATM, GPS, and Shazam alone represent earth-shattering advances that have transformed my life, making me guilty of the same selfishness.) By contrast, fewer resources  and brainpower are being applied to thinking up ways to provide clean water for the Fourth World.

But it has always been thus. How many billions of dollars were devoted to developing Viagra and Rogaine instead of curing any number of diseases that cause untold suffering for millions? There is certainly money to be made in a cure for cancer, but probably more in a cure for baldness. (Note: the patriarchy at work.)

Even so, should our species survive, future generations may look back on those of us who lived through this era as having been the lucky witnesses to an epochal change in human history. But of course that same history shows that the very same potential for transformative good can be turned to equally nefarious ends. We feel it every day as we navigate this brave new world: most recently, in the Orwellian issues of privacy, governmental surveillance, and authoritarian control that have been at the heart of science fiction—and science fact—as far back as the Industrial Revolution. As noted above, the very parentage of the Internet—the love child of the Pentagon and California hippies—speaks to that dichotomy.

As a child of the Valley,  Kiran muses:

 I look back at those more peaceful days….what the elder statesman of Silicon Valley were doing compared to the young innovators of today. We are certainly moving away from the stability we had in the advancement of technology. You look at founders of silly apps becoming billionaires overnight, the lack of privacy, hacking into this site and that site, the value of AI to our society, data mining and the risk to democracy thanks to companies like Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Palantir. Would that have happened had those early pioneers in the Valley had today’s technological tools? I’d like to think there were a stronger set of morals and ethics at that time, but who knows?

In closing, I would simply like to say that I wrote this on a computer, and if you’re reading it, you are surely online.

You can close the pod bay doors now, Hal.

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