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From Gordon Moore to Brogrammers, a Silicon Valley Generation Gap

Some of the booming parts of the tech industry might benefit from a refresher course on Gordon Moore.

Screenshot from the Chemical Heritage Foundation

A standing ovation was waiting for 86-year-old Gordon Moore at the end of his only public appearance marking the 50th anniversary of his famous prediction that semiconductor capacity would increase exponentially. He appeared at an event hosted this week in San Francisco by Intel, the company he co-founded, and his own Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“This is a titan of industry — a humble man, credits his team, credits the government even. It’s very Silicon Valley,” said Keval Desai, a venture capitalist at InterWest, at a cocktail reception, after Moore appeared on a stage set amid the hands-on science exhibits in the main hall at the San Francisco Exploratorium. “When you come to Silicon Valley, there should be an orientation course,” Desai said. “Semiconductors, operating systems, networking, the application layer. And a culture class: Don’t be an asshole.”

Desai’s nostalgic take is part of an increasingly prevalent undercurrent from long-time techies who are frustrated with tech’s new “brogrammer” culture. He and others feel that the latest members of the industry have a lack of appreciation for what came before they showed up on Sand Hill Road or at Y Combinator’s doorstep with visions of unicorns dancing in their heads.

The thing is, Silicon Valley’s technology industry is young enough that its founding fathers, such as Moore, are still around. Yet they are not necessarily core to today’s narrative, which thinks of ancient history as “before the iPhone released an app platform.”

In recent years, Moore has put his focus into funding basic science research, rather than leading a public life in the tech industry. That said, a new biography of him was released last week, called “Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary.”

Onstage Monday night, in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman before an audience of former Intel employees, Silicon Valley leaders and press, Moore said it took him 20 years to become comfortable with the coinage “Moore’s Law.” Only the passage of time and his prediction’s continued accuracy now allow him finally to “say it with a straight face,” he said.

In his introduction of Moore, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich tried to hammer home the immensity of the past 50 years of chip improvements. Chips are now 3,500 faster, 90,000 times more energy efficient and a 60th of the cost.

By comparison, said Krzanich, take the landmark 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. Today, that super-charged car would go 300,000 miles per hour, get two million miles to the gallon, and cost four cents. (“But it would still be stuck on the 101 getting here tonight,” he joked about Bay Area traffic.)

The white-haired Moore, who wore a loud tie decorated with the periodic table of the elements, may have needed a bit of support from Krzanich to make the short climb up to the stage, but he was sharp as ever in his recollections and observations. Friedman told the crowd that he was also asked to interview Paul McCartney of the Beatles on Monday night, but he chose to come talk to the real rock star. The effusive praise spanned generations, at least for one night. Later, I spoke with Shubham Banerjee, the 13-year-old creator of the Braigo DIY braille printer, which was made originally with Legos. He described the experience of meeting Moore in person as “amazing,” something he never thought would happen in his life.

“The secret of Silicon Valley is that we remember to pay it back,” wrote HotOrNot founder James Hong in a Medium piece last week, describing his own experiences with generosity from Google, Ofoto and Yahoo in the early days of building his seminal Web 1.0 photo rating and dating site. Later, Hong returned the favor by giving free hosting to companies like BitTorrent and Twitter when they were just starting up.

Perhaps it’s rose-colored glasses about the purer and truer aspirations of the past. But Hong is not the only longtime techie who’s commented to me that the industry seems to have taken a less genuine turn around the time of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network.” In the semi-fictional 2010 movie about the rise of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the triumph of the arrogant programmer dude who mistreated collaborators and made billions was held up as the ideal.

In that case, the Hollywood version seemed to become a clarion call for the current incarnation of the tech gold rush. So maybe it’s about time someone made a big movie about Gordon Moore.

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