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THE CODE by Margaret O'Mara


Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

by Margaret O'Mara

Pub Date: July 9th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-399-56218-1
Publisher: Penguin Press

Thoughtful history of the Bay Area enclave that has remade the world in the years since World War II ended.

As O’Mara (History/Univ. of Washington; Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections That Shaped the Twentieth Century, 2015, etc.) writes, Silicon Valley has long been held as a place of the singular American virtues of bootstrapping and lone-genius entrepreneurship, a place of garages where big things happen, as when David Packard built his first gizmos after graduating from Stanford in the late 1930s. There’s some truth to that view, but the larger reality is that Silicon Valley was the product of massive federal investment throughout the Cold War, when thinkers such as Vannevar Bush urged that the federal coffers be put to work funding big science—including the computer revolution. As a result, writes the author, “the U.S. government got into the electronics business and became the Valley’s first, and perhaps its greatest, venture capitalist.” Even such famously government-averse entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs benefited from federal largess: If Apple didn’t sell its products to the Pentagon in quite the numbers that Microsoft did, it made plenty on the federally supported educational front. Along the course of her illuminating history, O’Mara, who worked in the Bill Clinton White House in the early days of the internet, describes the emergence of civilian venture capitalists—but even they, exemplified by Georges F. Doriot, known as “the General,” worked plenty of government connections. Though much work was done by antinomians and countercultural types in the first days of the personal computer revolution, it was usually within a carefully constructed and controlled setting. Hippies they may have been, but “the fact that Northern California had been such a hub of Cold War science was why many of them were there in the first place.” Today, of course, the military-industrial complex thrives even though Silicon Valley has helped change the culture of the Pentagon in the bargain “to get government bureaucracies to behave like start-ups.”

A well-researched book students of technological history and the emergence of the digital economy will want to know.