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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Book review: Troublemakers offers a riveting look back on the early days of Silicon Valley

The tech industry’s founding fathers landed long before Steve Jobs

Northern California is home to one of the greatest and stealthiest revolutions in the history of mankind. Getty
Northern California is home to one of the greatest and stealthiest revolutions in the history of mankind. Getty

In 1968, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm introduced his groundbreaking study, Industry and Empire, by remarking that “the Industrial Revolution marks the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the world recorded in written documents”.

It is difficult to imagine a scholar who might wish to quibble with Hobsbawm’s characterisation of that epoch. Yet as he was composing his words, and as he could not reasonably have been expected to intuit at the time, in a quiet corner of California an array of technologically-minded savants were starting to assemble modes of analysis, communication and production that would inaugurate a social transformation, the effects of which would prove at least – if not more – as profound than anything Hobsbawm found in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The world of which the British historian wrote was one in which machinery was starting to assist, replace, and in some ways, liberate mankind. Yet at the very moment Hobsbawm chose to chronicle that transition, another development – of equal, if not greater, magnitude – was beginning to establish itself. The results, broadly, are what we now know today as the “internet age”. And here are how things look in this era.

The email in which I have filed this article to be printed here will be one of more than 200 billion sent every day. In the time it has taken me to write that sentence, more than 400 hours of video content will have been uploaded to YouTube. The video-game industry is now larger than the movie business.

Five companies enable this extraordinary activity and revenue, and they are five of the six most valuable organisations on the planet. Three of them are based in Silicon Valley, California. And in addition to revolutionising contemporary forms of recreation, communication and commerce, they have transformed the nature of employment and trade.

The so-called high-tech sector now accounts for 9 per cent of employment in the United States. It generates 17 per cent of gross domestic product, 60 per cent of US exports, and facilitates a biotech industry valued – in the US alone – somewhere in the region of $325 billion (Dh1,193 billion).

The subjects of Hobsbawm’s great study were horrified and in many instances, impoverished, by the advent of mechanised forms of production. The advent of computerised automation in the US has now reduced the number of citizens engaged in manufacturing-based employment to just under 10 per cent of the population.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that the electronics and manufacturing equipment industry spends up to $60 million each year. Online social networks are used and abused to perform geopolitical manipulation, further impoverishing and endangering a global populace that is impoverished and endangered anyway.

And yet in some weird masochistic deference to these deprivations, 46 per cent of Americans say they are unable to live without their smartphones, and a third of adults claim they would rather deny themselves a meaningful personal relationship than a few dopamine-inducing clicks on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Given these extraordinary calculations, and adding to them the experience we all have had of the tyrannies (and yes, the benefits) that the advent of “connectivity” has had on our lives, it now seems urgent to find a way of establishing how our lives could have been so stealthily and comprehensively revolutionised. Or, as the biographer and behavioural scientist Leslie Berlin puts it – with characteristic mildness – in the introduction to Troublemakers, Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age, “it makes sense to ask how we got here”.

In pursuit of this question, Berlin opens her perceptive and energetic study of the beginnings of Silicon Valley with the nauseating advertising copy that was Apple’s auto-hagiography of 1997: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers... They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can can change the world, are the ones who do.” Yuck.

But, to be fair, Berlin is not so much concerned with this miserably ersatz radicalism. Rather, she wants to understand the steps that led to it. Accordingly, she devotes her attention to telling the story of the “generational hand-off” that took place between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, “as pioneers of the semiconductor industry passed the baton to younger up-and-comers”. In constructing this narrative, Berlin introduces us to seven relatively unknown figures whose activities in the period proved momentous.

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We meet Bob Taylor, who “kick-started the precursor to the internet, the Apranet, and masterminded the personal computer”. We are granted table time with Apple’s first chairman, Mike Markkula, who had an ownership equal to that of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak but of whom we hear little today.

Al Alcorn joins the party as the figure who “designed the first wildly successful video game”, in the form of Atari’s Pong. Fawn Alvarez turns up and brings with her the example of a woman who was able to rise from the position of an assembler on a factory line to that of the the luxuriously be-chaired executive. Then the early software entrepreneur Sandra Kurtzig arrives, and we are acquainted with the tale of the first woman to take a technology company public.

Berlin chooses to focus on these individuals not simply because of their achievements, but because of who they are. And in this she succeeds admirably. Her analyses of her subjects’ lives and achievements are careful, enlightening, fair and entertaining.

Occasionally her book pays insufficient attention to the behaviour of the more gruesome figures – one thinks of William Shockley, authority on semiconductors – who inhabit the unhappier corners of her narrative. But on the whole Troublemakers offers a riveting, surprising and intelligent account of a period of history that is at least as momentous as that which was chronicled by Hobsbawm half-a-century ago. His was a subject that transformed the world. Berlin helps to show why hers is too.

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