As another foray into reading more deeply (and in an effort to trim my to-read list), I decided to pick up a collection of books on Silicon Valley. Mostly, they’re focused on the tech companies that started here. It’s been an interesting experience spending so much time on one topic and I’m excited to share how it’s gone. As I’m trying to write more thoughtful reviews, I’ve found I like having the book around when I’m writing the review. Unfortunately, I’ve returned this first book to the library already, so I’ll just have to do my best without!Title: The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball
Author: Noam Cohen
The author of this book struck me as pretty critical of silicon valley companies. He focuses on the libertarian leanings of many of the founders. In particular, he contrasts their apparent belief that everyone should get by on merit with the reality that their success depended on the people and investors they had access too. He also presents an interesting vision of what the internet might have been like had it become less commercialized. In some cases, I thought the author was overly judgmental. For instance, the way he describes Bill Gates asking to be paid for his software reminded me of people who think artists shouldn’t sully their hands with earning money. I’m also not sure our lives would be better if we’d converged on a model of the web where everyone could edit any page. Think of the chaos! But if we could live without the tracking enabled by cookies or if google had resisted ads (a la wikipedia and craigslist), perhaps we’d be seeing fewer businesses where our data is the product.
My main complaint with this book is that it felt pretty light and opinion based to me. I didn’t think the author made arguments that would be convincing to someone in a different place on the political spectrum. I would have liked more statistics or even just more anecdotes supporting the author’s interpretation of events.
This fascinating oral history of silicon valley began with an intro full of hero worship and certainly doesn’t ask for any self-examination from the reader. Initially, I found the author’s choice to paste together sentences from interviews with various people hard to follow. The intro included so many people! Fortunately, the majority of the book is more focused and includes only a few, related people per chapter. I still had to get used to reading with one hand holding open the cast list at the end, but it got easier as I went and I ended up really enjoying the style. The author did a great job putting together a cohesive, chronological narrative with fascinating first person perspectives. I thought this was a unique and valuable record of the origins of silicon valley, despite the author’s uncritical examination of the topic.
Until I picked up this book, I didn’t realize how much context I was missing in the previous book! While Valley of Genius was an amazing resource, it focused on a few key people for each company or notable event it covered. This book told the story of the origins of silicon valley as a more cohesive narrative. The author included more of the people involved in each story and did a better job situating these stories relative to what was happening in the rest of the world. I think she was able to do this in part by focusing on fewer stories over a shorter time frame. She also added a few stories I really enjoyed though, including a story about the founding of the biotech industry; a story about the first woman to take a company public; and the story of a woman who started her career on the assembly line and ended it as a marketing exec. This variety of stories, not all focused on the founders of the big tech companies, gave me a broader view of how companies in silicon valley work.
I have two more books on silicon valley that I’ll be reviewing later, but I can already say that I’d most highly recommend pairing Valley of Genius with The Troublemakers if you want the best history of the valley. Between the two, they cover a ton of key moments from both a personal and a broader social perspective. They complement each other perfectly.