US high-technology seems to be overwhelming the world right now, for good and ill. Five of the most valuable public companies on the planet (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft) are American tech firms. Some two billion people – more than a quarter of the global population – actively use Facebook every month. Unlike Europe and the UK, the US is only now beginning to wrestle in a serious way with issues of privacy, monopoly, pay parity among the sexes, and free speech.
As a historian of Silicon Valley, I know from decades of research that these problems, as well as the great successes they shadow, have long been in the mix. My new book, Troublemakers: How a Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented the Future, chronicles how the narrow strip of peninsula south of San Francisco transformed itself from an obscure region with a single technology at its core to the birthplace of five major industries: personal computing, video games, modern venture capital, biotechnology and the advanced semiconductor logic that has been so essential to the rise of today’s technologies.
Below are eight of my favourite books that shed light on how American technology got where it is – and two that offer a glimpse of where we might be heading. The historical books share a common theme: there is no single company, technology, or person that deserves credit for an invention or successful launch. When looking forward, I am wary of so-called futurists, so I turn to fiction.
1. From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog by Martin Campbell-Kelly
Software makes our phones seem magical. Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Facebook are software operations, as are more than half of the new companies that get venture capital funding these days. Campbell-Kelly’s book traces the history of this industry. Opening with a charming description of a typical day that traces his interactions with software (on the computer, making coffee, at the ATM), Campbell-Kelly next takes the reader back to software’s birth in a 1950s airline reservation system. He offers fine analysis right up to the Microsoft anti-trust cases at the turn of the 21st century. I would love to see a sequel.
2. Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove
The greatest guide to how technology becomes business – from one of the tech industry’s greatest managers. Grove, who died in 2016, was a hugely influential and successful CEO at Intel, the pioneering microchip company. He describes how he led the company and fostered teamwork among employees (measuring everything and imposing discipline are key features). In some sense a harbinger of today’s data-heavy management practices, the book also shares great stories. My favourite details how Grove and board chairman Gordon Moore made the wrenching decision to abandon the company’s core memory business to focus on the microprocessors that today are at the heart of Intel’s success.
3. Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech by Sally Smith Hughes
High-tech is much more than chips, computers and software. Hughes’s book, based on extensive oral histories and crucial primary-source documents that she was among the first to use, shows the rise of Silicon Valley’s most storied biotech firm, Genentech. It’s a gripping story of collaboration and pushback among academics, scientists and venture capitalists, and a global population terrified and entranced by the possibilities of what was then called “genetic engineering”.
4. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
My first fiction pick. A novel set in the near future, this book was published in 2011 and already feels more like a blueprint than a work of fiction. Characters here are never without their “äppäräts”, electronic devices that they wear around their necks. The äppäräts tell them about the people and places they encounter and tell others – including the government – about them. Targeted advertising, near-transparent “onionskin” jeans, hotness scores, the substitution of the virtual for the real and images for words: Shteyngart has called it thus far. I hope he is not right about what awaits us.
5. The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal by M Mitchell Waldrop
Waldrop’s book is a two-for-one: a history of the birth of both the internet and interactive personal computing. Licklider was a 20th-century technological visionary who, as early as the 1950s, pushed for easy-to-use computers that were connected to each other. From his offices at the Pentagon and MIT, he was both the philosophical animus and an important early source of funding behind a movement to make computers interactive so that they could help people think and amplify their creativity.
6. The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
The classic account of Data General’s efforts to build a then cutting-edge 32-bit “superminicomputer”. Both computer and company (once known as “the Darth Vader of the computer industry”) have faded from memory, but the book remains one of the best accounts of life in a high-tech firm, written years before the phrase “high-tech firm” entered the public lexicon. Never has a business tale been more suspenseful, as Kidder charts the race between Data General and its greatest rival, Digital Equipment Corporation, the cooperation and tensions among different divisions in the company, and the unforgettable personalities of the major players.
7. Neuromancer by William Gibson
Another classic and another work of fiction – this time, a science-fiction novel. I was in college the first time I read it, and the computer on my desk was networked only as far as the printer attached to it by a cable. Gibson’s account of a man exiled from a place called cyberspace, where people “jacked into” a global computer network to experience simulated reality, was pure fantasy. Today, of course, the ideas have obtained reality of sorts, and other works of genius, including the 1999 film The Matrix, owe a debt to Gibson’s masterpiece.
8. Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine
The “valley” in the title is Silicon Valley, but Freiberger and Swaine tell a much broader story that opens with Charles Babbage’s difference engine in the first decades of the 19th century. The famous companies, Apple foremost among them, are here, but the real gift of the book is its reminder of the ecosystem of clubs, newsletters and magazines, technical swap meets, and incidental meetings that fostered the personal computer’s rise. Note: it is worth tracking down the first edition, if you can find it; the details are exceptionally rich.
9. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon by Steven L Kent
For great stories and oral histories, nothing beats The Ultimate History. Who knew that Pac-Man was originally called Puck Man – until someone realised that it would be easy for vandals to change the “P” into an “F”? The video game industry is now bigger than movies, but its origins lie in the shady worlds of gambling, pinball halls and possible mafia connections. Kent’s book should be supplemented by more academic analyses, but it’s another work that I would love to see updated to the present day.
10. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Schwartz Cowan
(A cheat since the technology is not traditional high-tech, but too good not to mention.) A great look at how the work of maintaining a household became a woman’s responsibility over two centuries of industrialisation. Cowan’s central argument is that as cleaning technology advanced, it mostly replaced work done by men and servants. At the same time, standards of cleanliness rose. The result? The amount of time that women spent cleaning remained constant or even increased.
- Troublemakers: How a Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented the Future by Leslie Berlin is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £14.99. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £12.74 including free UK p&p.
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