On this episode of Recode Decode, writer Adam Fisher talks with Recode’s Kara Swisher about his new oral history, “Valley of Genius: The uncensored history of Silicon Valley, as told to me by the hackers, founders, and freaks who made it boom.” Fisher interviewed some of tech’s biggest names for the book, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, but he discovered that “the most interesting, unfiltered, real stories” often came from people who were never in the spotlight.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You may know me as someone who’s always uncensored, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is Adam Fisher. He’s the author of a new oral history book called “Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley, as told to me by the hackers, founders, and freaks who made it boom.” He’s also written for Wired, MIT Technology Review and the New York Times magazine. Adam, welcome to Recode Decode.
Adam Fisher: Thank you.
You’ve been working on this for a while. You contacted me how long ago?
Five years ago.
Five years ago, right. I thought that. I was like, “Oh, he’s back.” So, why don’t you talk a little bit about your background and then how you decided to do this.
So, I grew up in Silicon Valley. I grew up as a total geek.
I played a lot of D and D. I programmed computers.
That’s Dungeons and Dragons, for normal people.
Yes. I programmed computers, you know, in the early ’80s. I actually went to the first-ever computer camp back when there was only one.
It was the first year.
Yeah. Where’d you go to school?
I went to school at Menlo.
Menlo. So, the heart of the beast.
And, you know, electronics classes ...
And programming for fun. The whole thing.
Yeah. Okay. So, here you were.
And somehow I took ... I was also a bookworm, and so somehow I took a left turn and decided I want to be a writer, and a writer of books.
That’s your first mistake.
It was a big mistake in a lot of ways, but, you know, I ended up in New York City right after I graduated, and was really, you know, just worked my way up through the kind of now collapsed magazine journalism system.
You worked your way to the bottom.
Yeah. I worked my way to the bottom.
But, I was really trained as a journalist, you know. New York Times, Esquire.
Ended up at Wired back in the web boom and bust.
What was your most famous article?
Oh my god.
Come on. You have one. Everybody has one.
Well, you know, it was a story that I wrote for the New York Times magazine that kind of unexpectedly, at least to me, landed on the cover, and that was my first ...
It was about?
It was about Google. It was an adventure story. I went with the Google Maps team on a trip down the Grand Canyon because they were putting the Grand Canyon inside of Street View, and of course they got lost. They got lost on the way. It was, you know ... That article got me noticed by kind of the book editors and that led directly to this book.
So, why did you want to do ... So, you decided to do an oral history. I love oral history. Vanity Fair does them all the time. Lots of magazines do them where you go to the principles and then they tell stories, essentially, and there might ... They’re very readable most of the time. Talk about why you decided to go this route rather than do a ... I’ve interviewed people that’ve done histories of Silicon Valley, either very historical like academics or, you know, there’s a million journalists who do like the history of Google, the history of Uber, even though I can’t believe people are doing story books on Uber right now. It’s a little early. And then there’s longtime histories like Walter Isaacson does on Leonardo Da Vinci or whoever.
So, talk about why you wanted to do the oral history. I like the idea of it, but in print because a lot of people do, you know, we do this podcast, but what was the thinking behind it?
Yeah. The oral history, it’s a very obscure form that I fell in love with when I was a magazine writer and editor. I did an oral history of space tourism and I interviewed every billionaire who went to the International Space Station. I just said, “Okay. Just tell me what you did on your summer vacation,” and they all had the same story. It’s like, you know, “I prepared. I went up. I went down. It was super cool.”
And then what you do is you take those transcripts and you cut them just like you would cut film, and you splice them together. So, it’s almost like ... It feels very much like watching a documentary. You have that “you are there” kind of feeling, and that’s what I wanted to do. That came out really well. And that’s what I wanted to do for Silicon Valley because I was just tired of everybody’s take on Silicon Valley.
Yeah. The quick take. The hot take.
The long take.
It’s just the death of journalism. You know. What the web has taught us is everybody has an opinion.
Right. They do.
And you know the rest of that quote, you know. So, I just wanted to take myself out of the equation and give the readers the stories that I heard growing up, right, in computer camp.
The tales around the digital campfire.
Exactly. The tales around the digital campfire in the, you know, in the server rooms. Later, in the bar rooms. Later than that, on the playa at Burning Man. And those stories were very, very, very different than the stories that I heard coming out of the mainstream media world in New York.
That’s because it’s anecdote, anecdote, example, you know. There’s a formula to it.
Well, there’s also this kind of unvarnished thing.
I wanted to hear, you know, everybody has a perspective, but I thought the people who actually made Silicon Valley, how do they see their own story? Because, you know, the story is what motivates people at how they see the arc of their own lives. And so, you know, they’re kind of running the culture and driving the culture now, so where are they driving it to? Well, the way to answer that is to ask them where they’ve been.
So, telling their stories, which is always from their perspective, too.
When I was doing a book on AOL, I would interview seven people and come up with eight versions of a story. You know what I mean? Like, what happened? Which is always interesting because they often conflict based on a person’s recollections, essentially.
And the nice thing about an oral history is when you get those conflicts, you just have one person telling it one way and the other person telling it the other way, and you intercut them, and you get this incredible 360 kind of view. I find it very compelling and I hope the reader does too.
So, what it does is require you then to pick who you’re going to talk to? You said what the founders ... What is it? Let’s see. “Hackers, founders, and freaks,” which could be just one person, really. Talk about how you decided, because that is an editorial decision of who you’re going to talk to. Is it just, “I’ll talk to anybody, Adam,” or what? Probably. “I’ll talk to anyone, Kara.”
Of course I’ll talk to anyone.
Yeah. So, how did you decide though? Because you had to ... There’s people that count and people who don’t. You know what I mean. Or maybe, no. It’s there.
It’s interesting, you know. I picked kind of the magic moments. Those were my editorial decisions.
So, name them. Your magic moments.
Well, the book starts at the birth of the PC live onstage in 1968 in a very famous demo. And then it ends at a very famous funeral. You’re in Palo Alto. You’re watching Steve Jobs be put into the ground. And I just said, “Well, who was actually there?”
At each of these.
At each of these. And sometimes it was the people who were actually on the stage who actually did the thing. And sometimes it was the people who were just there, just witnesses, like someone’s secretary or a young intern. And often, they had the most interesting, unfiltered, real-seeming stories.
Right. Right. Rather than say ...
You get both.
Steve Job’s sister or someone like that.
Yeah. So, you get both. And really these chapters, you know, if you’re going to do one of these moments, you really don’t want more than eight or 10 voices, or else it just gets confusing to the reader.
Right. In each of the moments.
In each of the moments.
Each of the moments.
And what’s interesting is that the same names keep reappearing.
You know, the names of the companies change, but you recognize the names of the people from prior chapters, and so there really is a continuity.
Now, you taped all these, correct?
Yes, I did.
That’s a lot of tapes. How many hours of tape? Lots.
Hundreds. I had on the order of 10 million words of transcript.
Oh my god.
So, printed out that’s from here through the ceiling, and I boiled that down to 185,000 words. So, 500 pages. It was a huge job.
Yeah. Absolutely. Which is a task, like how, what you pick and choose among all those people. Now, did you provide all those ... Are you going to publish all of interviews?
Nope. Just the ones you picked.
I mean, I’ll give ... I mean, they are published. They’re in the book called “Valley of Genius.”
But I mean all of it.
Yeah. It’ll go to Stanford.
Go to Stanford. Do these interviews. So, I think those are valuable, but years ago I wanted to interview ... I wanted to take all our ... Do a bunch of interviews of all the founders of these various companies at the time they were the founders, and then give them to the Smithsonian. I tried to convince the Smithsonian like, let’s do these now, because then we’ll have videos of Edison before he was Edison, you know. Marc Andreessen at 19, 20 versus ... And then do them later. Do an interview later.
And there are some archives, Smithsonian archives.
Yeah, but a real interview. I meant like a ... Anyway. So, let’s talk about these moments. Tell me why you started with the ... Explain your thinking and then go through some of the major people you interviewed and lesser people you interviewed.
So, why I started where I did?
Yeah. At the PC. This is the idea.
Yeah. So, Silicon Valley was named after the silicon of the semiconductor industry. It goes back, you know, very far. Silicon Valley was basically a war machine that was developing chips for rockets. And that story has been really well told by Michael Malone and other people.
I wanted to do really the start of the modern Silicon Valley. So, I started in ’68 because this is really the pre-history of the PC revolution where the microchip gets into the hands of the people, if you will. Where smart, young kids figure out that, “Hey, they can actually build computers too,” and you get Atari, and you get Apple. And really Atari is the first modern company with a consumer product that’s directly influencing the culture. It’s not, you know ... We’re not making components anymore in Silicon Valley.
I wanted to start there because I think that’s what the Silicon Valley of today is about. So, the first third is the intertwined stories of Atari, Xerox Parc, a very famous R and D outfit ...
From whence many things came.
From whence kind of everything came, and Apple. And that’s the first third of the book. So, the first third ends at about ’84, then we have this kind of weird interregnum where Microsoft had a long shadow and really there wasn’t much of a business story in San Francisco.
So, ’94 to ... Sorry. ’84 to ’95 would be ...
With the big boom of the Netscape IPO. And although that was not much of a business story, it was an incredible cultural story going on.
Kara entered the picture in ’91, ’92.
There you go.
That’s when it was starting. AOL and all the others.
Yeah. All the others. Then it’s ’95 to almost the present day.
Which is all internet.
All internet, but ...
Yes, it ends kind of with the big bang of the iPhone and the smartphone.
Which was ’94. 2004. 2004.
Right. Yeah. So, all right, talk about who you wanted to ... who you talked to, some of the people. Now, we’re going to play a clip here from Steve Wozniak talking about Steve Jobs. Can you set it up for us?
The most astonishing thing I found out when I interviewed Woz ...
Yeah. Who’s a talker.
Who is a great talker, great guy, and beloved in the Valley.
Was I said, “Hey, so, you know, tell me about the memorial service,” and he said, “Oh, I didn’t go.” And I was like, “What do you mean, Woz, you didn’t go?” I was actually shocked. You are not surprised. He was like, “Oh, you know, I was on a plane to Europe.” And I was like ... “My god.” And so, I think that sets this quote up nicely actually.
All right. Let’s play it.
Steve Wozniak: Look, I came up with the products that made Apple. Keep in mind, if Steve Jobs had started without me, where would he have gone? He tried to make four computers with millions of dollars in his life, and they all failed. The Apple 3 from marketing reasons, and the Lisa because Steve didn’t understand costs. The Macintosh, which wasn’t really a computer, and was going to lead to big problems later on, and the Next.
All right. So, that’s not very kind.
Well, let’s put things in perspective. You know, universally ...
Perhaps accurate, but not kind.
It’s an interesting perspective and it’s the kind of perspective you only get by going back to the sources, right?
That tends to drop out of interviews, because you’re like, “Oh, he’s just sour grapes,” because everything else was pretty amazing.
Yeah. You know, Steve Jobs had his virtues, but being a nice guy wasn’t one of them, and I kind of see this as Woz finally standing up for himself.
He had to do it after Jobs died, but we know what a domineering personality Jobs was.
Every friend he had or person he was intimate with as a young man, he burned very badly.
When he was younger, yeah.
When he was younger. And the question is, how much did he change? And of course, there’s a huge debate about that. I think he changed a lot.
I do, too.
In fact, one of the main arcs through this is about Jobs’s spiritual journey, which I think is often pooh-poohed, especially by the New York media, but because they think, “Oh, that’s just some woo-woo thing.” It wasn’t to Jobs.
I think that the going to India, the taking of the LSD when he was a young man was the most important ... It was kind of the lodestone of his ... The north star, the lodestone that he built his life around it, in a sense. I have these amazing stories from the funeral itself and the memorial service and his deathbed about, you know, he was surrounded by pictures of Neem Karoli, the guru that he went searching for, as he died. And there’s this incredible rumor that he took a massive dose of LSD to die.
Oh, interesting. I didn’t know that one.
I thought I knew the Apple story. I’ve been an Apple fanboy since the Apple 2. I’ve seen all the movies, I read all the books, and that was just a shocker to me. I thought the Apple story would be just easy. I put in the basics and move on to the rest, right? I thought everything that could’ve been said about Jobs has been said.
His sister wrote a beautiful piece about his dying.
One of the most beautiful pieces. At the moment of his death.
It was absolutely beautiful.
She read it at his funeral.
And she read it at his funeral.
And I asked this person who actually knew Jobs through this entire time, and I said, “Well, prove it to me. How did he, you know ... Did you give him LSD?” And he or she said, “No, but you heard what his sister said.” And I was like, “Of course I did.” Then this person said to me, “Well, what were his final words?”
Oh, wow. Oh, wow. And then he was like, “I rest my case.”
Oh, that’s not a resting case.
And I was like, “It’s not a resting case.”
That’s kind of a big deal.
I was skeptical, but I decided that I’d follow this through.
And I followed it until I got to the guy who almost certainly gave Jobs his first dose of LSD.
Right. Right. Which is back now. We just had Michael Pollan on talking about it. It’s a whole new thing, especially in Silicon Valley, which is interesting.
Yeah, but, you know ...
Jobs is ahead of his time.
Jobs had talked about it in basically every phase of his career. Sometimes even publicly.
I think I can’t go to a meeting without someone offering me something, some micro dosing, these days.
It’s everywhere. LSD really is everywhere.
Not just LSD, but mushrooms and ketamine and ...
Someone recently was like “Try this.” I was like, “Never in this lifetime will I be doing any kind of psychedelic drugs with you.”
In any case, when we get back we’re going to ... We moved somewhere to psychedelic drugs. When we get back, we’re talking to Adam Fisher. He has a book about the history of Silicon Valley. We’re going to talk about the technology and not the drugs right now. It’s called “Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley, as told by the hackers, founders, and freaks who made it boom.” When we get back, we’ll talk more about what he thought were the most important parts of it.
So the first part is about the birth of the PC, which was critical to everything, and that’s a lot of Apple jobs, IBM obviously. Who did you ... Talk about the technology, what you thought ... And then it moved into the Microsoft period, which was the fallow period, I’d agree with you. Talk about some of the people you encountered during this and what you thought were the most profound technology issues during this time.
In this first period?
Yes, this first period. And then moving into the second.
Well, you know, Alan Kay really is a genius. It’s called “The Valley of Genius,” and everybody’s super high IQ I talked to, but I was blown away by Alan Kay.
Alan Kay was critical.
Explain who he was and why.
So Alan Kay is interesting. He is a technologist, and he wasn’t technically the head, but he was one of the main guys at Xerox Parc, which was the main R&D shop in the Valley back in the day. And he wanted to build a computer for kids, and at the time, computers were ... Well, they were just out of the punch-card era, so they were in the command line thing.
So he said no, what you need is pictures, a graphical user interface, and a mouse, you know? And he adopted the mouse from someone else, but he built the desktop that we’re familiar with today; he was the first guy. It was called the Alto, it was a small-run research kind of a project, and Steve Jobs famously saw it and just kind of copied it wholesale for the Macintosh. And then, of course, Microsoft copied it. So he is responsible for what a computer looks like today. That was a huge breakthrough, the interface breakthrough.
Then the other side is kind of a little more complicated, but it’s on the chip level. The Alto used a chip just to control the keyboard, and it was a 6502. And it was just a little thing that pushed information, bits back and forth from the keyboard to the central processor. Well, Woz looked at it and said no, I can make a whole computer out of this. Not only that, he figured out how to turn it into a color computer by an incredibly clever, incredibly cheap method that was then copied everywhere, where he made the bits going to the screen turn on and off in the same kind of wavelengths that the colors would turn on and off. And that’s why the Apple II logo is in color, that was the big breakthrough.
Which was a mind-blowing thing.
It was mind-blowing. He did a similar thing with the disk controller. There are stories of people looking under the desk to try to find out where this technology was. So he was the real technical genius of the time and he is self-taught, you know? So those were the two ...
The two critical people.
The two critical things in that period that really, I think, matter to us today.
Now, are you gonna read something from that period, of this time?
I was gonna read something from my introduction.
All right, well, go ahead. Go for it.
All right. Okay.
“In the Silicon Valley where I’m from, the stories were almost never about money; they were tales about resistance, heroism, and struggle, yarns about the creation of something out of nothing and the derring-do required to pull such a feat off. That’s still true, at least in the Silicon Valley I know. Those were the stories that got me excited, and they still do. I am not saying that there isn’t an economy story to be told. In fact, I think what we’re witnessing is the greatest transition since the Industrial Revolution; a new economy, the informational economy, is being created. And at the center of that new economic order will be Silicon Valley, and if that’s not the business story of the century, what is?
“Still, the bigger question, in my humble opinion, is how that transformation will transform us. We begin to see the answer in the culture that’s being created in Silicon Valley now. It’s future-obsessed and forward-thinking, it’s technical and quantitative, it’s market-oriented, it’s simultaneously practical and utopian. It’s brainy, even in its humor. In short, it’s a nerd culture. And of course, there have been nerds since time immemorial; Leonardo da Vinci was a nerd, Ben Franklin was a nerd, Albert Einstein was the quintessential nerd. But the new thing is that the nerd culture is becoming the popular culture.
“Evidence for that idea, once grokked, is everywhere. Exhibit A: “The Big Bang Theory,” a show by, for, and about nerds, is one of the highest-rated and longest-running television sitcoms ever. Exhibit B: “The Martian’s” unlikely journey from self-published NASA fan fiction to blockbuster. Exhibit C: The fact that XKCD, a web-based comic devoted to quote “romance, sarcasm, math, and language” has any audience at all. Even more astonishing, at least to me, is that this new popular culture is a youth culture. The kids who are searching for an exciting life no longer want to be rock stars or rap stars, but rather Silicon Valley-style tech stars. They want to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk.
“As readers will discover, technology entrepreneurs have never made particularly good role models. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell essentially invented the role of the 20-something Silicon Valley CEO almost a half century ago, and he may have been the baddest bad boy that the Valley has ever seen. “His protege, Steve Jobs, was not much better. At the same time, this new nerd culture is the best possible news for our collective future given the awesome challenges ahead. Soon, there will be nine billion people crowding this warming planet, and each one will come equipped with a supercomputer in their pocket. So I’m optimistic, bullish even. Who better to inherit the earth at a time of crisis than a generation obsessed with science and engineering?
“It’s pretty clear where this new nerd culture came from; it came from the same place that the money did, Silicon Valley. And what is a culture? There is no mystery here either. A culture is simply the stories that define a people, a place. It’s the stories we tell each other to make sense of ourselves, where we came from, and where we are going.”
All right. I’m gonna push back on all of that because I think it’s not a good culture at all. I think it’s an awful culture. But let’s talk about the beginning of it.
Let’s talk ... I’d love to talk about that.
Yeah, because we’re gonna do that in the next section. Because the internet culture, I think, does display what went really awry with all of this.
But it did start with this resistance. So the first part is about the resistance, that it was counterculture, that it was pushing back against the business memes of the time, essentially. And a lot of the people had that mentality, correct?
Yeah. Like get out.
It’s a subculture, it’s an offshoot of the counterculture.
Mm-hmm. And how do you think ... What companies reflect it? Apple, all of them really. Atari?
Atari as well.
Yeah, with Nolan. Yeah.
I mean, even Xerox Parc famously was countercultural; they sat on beanbag chairs, they smoked pot. You can go back before that with Engelbart. He was heavily involved in ...
So resistance really was the ... What is it? What would you call it? It’s not really resistance. How would you ... Besides counterculture. There’s more ... Describe that more.
You know, I think it’s wrong to say that the counterculture and the geek culture were the same thing, but they were kind of allied cultures and parallel cultures in a way. So they just had a different idea of, you know, how the world is changing and how to change the world.
Right. And then how did that manifest? What do you think were the key inventions that came up during this early period?
Oh, clearly it’s the personal computer. There was a revolution that started in ’68, it’s the opening scene of the book, where Doug Engelbart famously showed a computer where you could type on it. That meant that the computer was waiting for the person. It was considered an outrageous waste of resources just to wait for someone to press return. But Doug Engelbart said no no, this is how it should be; the computers should be servants of humans.
Mm-hmm, which was the concept.
Which was the new concept at that point.
Right, yeah, at that point. Absolutely. Let’s go through the Microsoft period really quickly. So this happened, it was a huge boom, Apple was ascended, and then it wasn’t and Microsoft was. What happened there from your oral history?
So this is a history of Silicon Valley, and so Microsoft is not a Silicon Valley company.
Right, no. It’s in Seattle.
Yes. So what happened in that period was the rise of the cyberculture, okay? And that is this kind of imagined connection between the psychedelic culture, which was really getting long in the tooth, and this new geek culture, which the psychedelic culture kind of discovered and adopted. And there’s a number ... We can talk about the Well, we can talk about Wired, but I think the best way to talk about it is through an almost forgotten company called VPL, which was Jaron Lanier’s virtual reality.
Jaron has a new book out too.
Yes. Jaron Lanier’s virtual reality company. And, you know, it was literally built on a kitchen table, they had the computers running in his fridge to keep them cool, and they built this system which they thought actually would be a new graphical user interface for programming like beyond the desktop. Well, you’d have a room that you’re actually inside to just have a little hand that you point with that, you know, you actually point with your real hand, and you’d have these goggles and gloves, everything we’re familiar with. And people stepped in there and they said, “Oh, this is not an interface. This is a new reality. This is like a psychedelic experience that can’t be outlawed.”
You don’t have to take drugs. Right, yeah.
And you know, I keep coming back to this, but this was the Bay Area culture, this psychedelic experience. And this was seen as the next phase of that, and literally ... Terence McKenna, the great mushroom proselytizer, was heavily involved, proselytizing for virtual reality and its virtues. Timothy Leary was kind of best friends at the time with Jaron Lanier and was always talking about virtual reality, and became a tiny little VR entrepreneur himself.
And of course this all was preposterous and it collapsed. But it catalyzed, you know, this thing called the techno culture, which was picked up by Mondo 2000 and then turned into a more palatable, national-type culture by Wired. And then I think ... You know, we’re seeing the techno culture kind of writ large today. But the origins was in this so-called fallow period, and that’s what this middle period in Silicon Valley and in this book is about.
Right. Had they seen something gone awry or it was just the next thing they were, invented with the first part of the ...
It was the awakening of the geeks to the fact that what they created is not a bunch of tools, like Stuart Brand kind of wanted, but really that they created ... Those tools that they created created them, right? So there was this weird feedback loop.
The most obvious is desktop publishing, which came right out of the Macintosh, right? So with desktop publishing, you could create something that looked like a mainstream magazine, and you could manipulate pictures, and move them around, and you could create something that looked very slick. It wasn’t this kind of bricolage, this collage-type thing that maybe the Whole Earth catalog had. And so they imagined this kind of cyberspace techno culture that they took right out of science fiction and their, you know, drug-fueled imaginations, and then made it real by making a magazine about it; Mondo, you know? And then everybody said, “Oh yeah, that’s who I am,” and they started being that.
And so it literally created itself, and that’s what the techno culture is. This is the moment when the technology starts driving the culture, and that’s ... We’re seeing that now.
All right. When we get back, we’re gonna talk about where we are now and we’re gonna listen to ... It sort of was this more go-go culture with the internet and the money and everything else.
Oh my god.
We’ll play a clip from Biz Stone about startup funding and the internet part.
So talk about how we got to here now, because you would say that this ... So we had this techno culture that everyone started to pay attention to, but I think they really started paying attention when the money showed up.
The money is everything.
Which was the Internet Age.
Follow the money. That’s the journalist golden rule.
Right. It’s not that Jobs and Gates were not rich, but this was a whole ’nother thing where you just could come out here. I think I remember, maybe it was Wired, “Go West, Young Man” was the idea of coming out here and becoming a billionaire. So it was a whole ’nother level of what went on, and also the infection of the internet into everyone’s lives via the mobile phone and the uses of it, which led to Facebook and everything else. So talk a little bit about that part of the book.
Virtually every figure I talked to talked about the money and it’s kind of pernicious ...
Corrosive effects. And they were all worried, to a person, that the money culture would overwhelm this kind of creator/maker culture that is at the core of Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley still actually makes things, but less and less. We had an economy that was based on making things first, making chips and then computers, and then making bits of software, and then at some point we started getting everything for free; in quotes, “free.” And it stopped being an economy that made things. It became an economy where people made money by extracting things, by mining data.
So it flipped from a making economy to an extraction economy, and we have all the dysfunction that you would see in a mining site in the third world. Mining economies, extraction economies, are kind of corrupt economies because one person or one company ends up controlling everything.
Which is where we are.
Which is kind of where we’re headed. I mean, I do think the history of Silicon Valley shows that there’s always some young idealistic people somewhere who are railing against the machine. Often they’re being given a lot of support and money by the older generation who recognizes how important this is, and they’re trying to kind of destroy it. And so, you know, I think hopefully the kind of monopoly economy that we see is gonna be overturned as well.
There’s not a bit of resistance in this group of people, I don’t think. I don’t see ... I think there’s a lot of talking about it, but there’s not a lot of living it. Some of this earlier stuff, I think, was bullshit too, by the way. Just like any counterculture thing, it’s very twee and it’s ... You know what I mean? Like it’s change and it’s a lot about middle-class white kids raging in some way. But here, I don’t see any commitment to real social justice or change or anything else.
Well, you know the future is beyond the scope of the book. I wrote a history, okay?
So, I don’t know, all I can say is in the past Silicon Valley has overturned these type of monopolistic things in the past. And I have hope ...
That they’ll do it again.
That they’ll do it again.
But no one can see the future. You can’t, I can’t. The best you can do is look in that rearview mirror as you’re driving into the void. And that’s what this book is.
All right, let’s start with this clip from Biz Stone, who is an early Twitter founder and left the company later, talking about funding. Because I think it did become about the money.
Biz Stone: Only in Silicon Valley can you be like, “Yeah we would like $10 million and we’ll sell you a percentage of our theoretical company that may one day have lots of profits. And if we lose all the money, we don’t have to give it back to you and maybe we’ll start something else.” In what crazy world does something like that exist? Wait, you can just blow money and then you don’t owe it back, just wash your hands clean, done? “Sorry about that, sorry I spent all your money, oh well.” I mean, it’s just crazy. And not only that, here’s another scenario. Here’s what some people do, they say, “We need $25 million but, you know, just so we can stay focused, my co-founder and I each need $3 million. All of that money in our bank accounts. So that we don’t have to worry about bills and we can really focus, okay?” And then they blow the money and they say, “Oh well, that didn’t work out, but we’re still keeping the three million each so now we’re rich.” What the hell? That is crazy. So it’s a crazy world. This is like some kind of nutty place where you can do that kind of stuff.
What the hell?
What the hell?
What the hell?
I mean look, I deliberately stayed away from talking to bankers and financiers and VCs.
That’s a good thing.
Because they’re the helping profession, supposedly. They’re like the PR people. You need to have them but they’re not the core of the culture. The core people of the culture all said things like that. They’re very worried, very upset that what made Silicon Valley great was being extinguished by the money. And you see a lot of nostalgia for how it was. And yeah, nostalgia’s always a little bullshit. But it’s important to see how they see themselves because I think ...
Absolutely. So why do they see themselves like this? Because first of all, they were never part of that first culture, and second of all they built this culture. Lack of responsibility is fascinating to me, like, “I can’t believe this happened.” From all of them. And when they were the creators of what happened, essentially. Sort of a Peter Pan-y kind of thing, like, “Oh no, there’s a big mess in middle of the room. How did that get there?”
Well, you know, I think that’s the broad brush and true for some and not for all.
Well, talk about who you thought was really interesting in this period.
I think Ev Williams is really interesting, you know?
Certainly. One of the founders of Twitter also.
Yeah, and Twitter, it made a huge mess, arguably made things worse, and so what has he done? He’s very quietly kind of beavered away to create kind of an anti-Twitter. It’s Medium, which is his new company. It’s long form instead of short form. It’s subscription-supported, not ad-supported. It actually has curation. It actually pays writers. Instead of just a “Like,” a single “Like,” there’s a clapping system where it can be metered and assumably monetized, i.e. you give people who ...
You like money.
You give the people who ... give those people money. And so, is it as big as Twitter? No. Is he trying to fix in version 2.0 the problems that were created by social media 1.0? I think he is, and I think he’s sincere about it. Other people I think might be less sincere about it but it’s still so early in this game.
So this started, where are you putting this era starting? It would be Netscape, right? Marc Andreessen and Netscape?
This new money area? Absolutely Netscape. But of course there have been ups and downs and booms and busts, as you well know.
And then how important is Facebook in this equation, in this section? Or is that ...
I have a chapter on Facebook.
So talk about that.
I have two chapters on Google, so.
So talk about both those two companies. They’re pretty much the most important companies, have been the most important companies. Apple has continued throughout to remain a powerful, important company. But really, the tone was set by Google and then continued by Facebook.
So Facebook, the most interesting thing I came across was this patent that is supposed to exist and I was told they patented a keg very early on. It had a system where if you went to the keg and poured yourself a beer it would say, “Hey, Adam.” It would say to all the people around send a message. “Hey, Adam Fisher is at the keg, why don’t you join him?” And I was fascinated by this not because of the technology, although it may be the start of their face recognition technology actually. But I was fascinated that this tiny little startup was building kegs instead of a social media platform. Why was that? So I started asking around. And really it turned out that beer was as fundamental to early Facebook culture as it is to any fraternity on any campus in the nation.
For example, and this is my favorite Facebook story, there was the typical, people would roll in to early Facebook at noon, often in their pajamas, hack, go out to dinner and beers at five and basically drink all night until they collapsed. But there was one guy who was tasked with getting to the door at nine a.m. every morning and that’s because these guys who could build a social network, hackers all of them, these guys couldn’t figure out how to reprogram the automatic lock on the door. And so they actually had to have a person there so that no one would come in and steal all the computers. At nine it would un-clunk, unlock, and he’d push open the door and he said, “Every time I’d just be pushing through a pile of beer cans. Just sweeping them away,” and there’d be people kind of passed out on the couch and stuff. So it really was a frat culture, which makes sense. I mean, these guys were sophomores who were running the company.
So we see the echoes of that. They are trying to grow up and we’ll see if they succeed.
On our dime, how nice.
On our dime.
That said, all these companies’ early days were pretty wild. The big surprise really is how much fun people were having. These are basically kids in the act of creation. That’s why I talk about a youth culture, and it’s really an intergenerational youth culture where the older generation often helps the younger generation, Andy Hertzfeld is a perfect example.
Yeah, from Apple, from General Magic, from lots of places.
Exactly. Really there’s only like 50 super-important names that kind of invented everything and they just reappear and reappear. First as kids and then as kind of mentors to the next generation of unmanageable young geniuses.
Yeah, General Magic, that movie is about to come out about it. That was one of the founts. Everybody was there.
Everyone was there and everybody who is in that movie is in my General Magic chapter. In fact we worked pretty closely together.
Right, and General Magic was this company that was creating basically an iPhone way before, or something like it.
They had a working equivalent of an iPhone.
In ’95 I think it was?
Yep, all the concepts were there. I have it in my garage.
I do too. And if you look at it, it actually as the same pixel resolution, it has the same ...
It’s the same thing.
The same keyboard on screen. It is fascinating.
Same people. Hertzfeld, Kadel.
It’s the same people.
Pierre Omidyar was there, who started eBay. So let’s finish up talking about Google. Let’s finish up. So how important from your perspective ... They also, they created the great wealth, I think that was the first company that really ...
They pulled us out of that. That trough that we fell into after 9/11.
Which was started in the trough.
It was started. And that was one of their great advantages in retrospect. They could just hire everybody for cheap. But yeah, I’m a Gmail guy, I love Google. I was there at Wired when all of this was happening and I thought I knew it. But I came across this photograph and it showed, it was from a long time ago and it showed Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two co-founders, at Burning Man, half naked, covered in dust in front of their pup tent. And in between them was a guy that they were both embracing who was like in full kind of raver regalia. And I was like, “Who the heck is that guy?” And I did some research, it’s this rarely acknowledged kind of third founder of Google, Scott Hassan. And I tracked him down and oh my God did he have some amazing stories to tell.
He was there when Larry Page was building ... So Larry Page was a PhD student at Stanford and his big idea was he was going to get a PhD by studying the web. But in order to study the web he had to capture the web. He had to download the whole thing. You could still kind of do that back then. So he wrote this piece of code called the Spider, which would suck it all down into a stack of hard drives in his grad student office. The code he wrote, in Scott Hassan’s estimation, was absolutely pathetic. Because it was, yes, downloading the web, but it was downloading it slower than the web itself was expanding. So by definition ...
He would never catch up.
He would never catch up. And so just as kind of an exploit or a joke, Hassan broke into the office over one weekend, threw out all of Larry’s code and wrote the program his own way and it was many, many thousands of times faster and allowed Larry to download it and then make his great kind of breakthrough: Page rank. And then it was Scott Hassan — in Scott’s telling, at least, which is in the book — that was the guy who said, “Let’s make a search engine.” And Larry and Sergey were like, “No, no, it’s too hard. It’s not research.” And he’s like, “No, it’s easy. I’ve done it before.” And he and Sergey actually were the ones who turned it into a search engine.
Where is Scott Hassan now?
So Scott, the reason we don’t know much about him is he got kind of tired, I think, waiting around for those guys to start a company. And he went off when the web boom was really booming and he made something like $20 million in 18 months. And I think then kind of came back and met those guys at Burning Man. I think that may have been the inspiration for Larry and Sergey to go try to make their own company. So Scott Hassan is a billionaire, he’s an investor, entrepreneur. But his big thing is robots. And curing deafness and colonizing Mars.
I’d love to do that.
I’m not going to get into that.
He’s the most Silicon Valley character I came across.
Well, perfect. So last conclusion of this. What did you come away with? You’re hopeful, obviously.
I’m hopeful, and the money story and the business story I find super depressing. This is your gruel that you have to eat every day. But looking at it from a cultural angle, I really think this is the next global culture after rock and roll, then hip hop, and now kind of this geek culture. And I think that really is a good thing, because obviously we see the dysfunction. But it’s really about science and being smart and making things, and I think that’s what the world needs.
I think what’s happening has been noisy and raging and insulting and it gives people tools to do their most base instincts without thinking about the responsibility.
It’s that too. It’s that too. I don’t disagree.
I don’t see anything else right now. Where’s the hope? Give me one hope company right now. You can’t name one.
It’s not about companies. It’s about culture, Kara. It’s about culture.
Our culture is now screaming because of Twitter and Facebook and Google and the rest of them. We have too much information and not enough wisdom.
It’s about people who don’t want to study postmodern literary criticism like I did. It’s about people who want to become engineers.
Yeah, they haven’t invented ...
And build things.
But they haven’t invented the next thing. They haven’t invented the thing that’s beautiful. They’ve invented all of the things that are ugly. They’ve been used. The tools have been used for ugliness more than they’ve been used for beauty. Although I like Chrissy Teigen, she’s very funny. You know what I mean? Otherwise, in any case we’re going to disagree on that. But it was great talking to you. I’m sorry to leave with ... Adam, I like your hopefulness, but I think these are incredibly immature young men, even when they’re old.
Lots of the women in this book are ...
Good, name me one important woman in this culture, or person of color. I’m sorry to be remiss.
Do you know David Lovett? Person of color.
He’s incredibly interesting and important.
And represents all that’s good and is building interesting stuff.
I would agree.
I think Brenda Laurel is hopelessly overlooked.
Explain who she is.
Brenda Laurel, so interesting. She has a theater background, she was a researcher at Atari Research, which basically laid down all the kind of multimedia and even virtual reality stuff we have, see today. She then did a couple of companies and then retreated into academia. Those are kind of my favorite woman in the book, and my favorite black guy.
Yeah, do you think women and people of color have been overlooked in this Valley of Genius?
You know what, it’s interesting, I think as you know — and there was a recent book about this — women were the software side of the technical culture.
For decades, and then they got pushed out. Okay, so why did they get pushed out? I think it didn’t get pushed out, it was something about the gaming culture. Weirdly, the first video game, the first real, successful video game, was Pong, was a two-person game in bars. It was really how you meet the opposite sex. It was about interaction and it was really about men and women kind of equally. And somehow the video game culture just went down this adolescent hole and created a lot of the dysfunction that we see and pushed out the women because games were kind of the gateway drugs to computer science and then into ...
Right, absolutely. That’s a very good, impressionate thing to say.
And so I do think it’s changing, not fast.
Robotics has a lot of women in it, it’s interesting I’ve noticed. In robotics, certain areas. Not AI, but robotics, yes, automation.
AI seems to be very Chinese, so in the ethnic sense I think Silicon Valley is a remarkable melting pot.
And I think there are way more women than you would think in the history of Silicon Valley that are important. Carol Bart is another overlooked person, perhaps because her politics are on the wrong side right now. But I have hope. But yes, to your point, there’s absolutely not enough and there hasn’t been enough for a long time. And I’m glad it’s at the top of the agenda to change that.
Well, we’ll see. All right, Adam, this is great talking to you. The book is called “Valley of Genius, the Uncensored History of Silicon Valley.” It is an oral history. I urge you to read it. And thanks for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.