Book Review: Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom) by Adam Fisher

I don't know where to begin—and I mean that in a very positive way. I can best describe Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom) as a "literary documentary". The book provides a sort of oral history of the Valley from the legends who built it.

The author, Adam Fisher, grew up in Silicon Valley. He continues to live in the Bay Area, so he's been exposed to many of the early technologies created in the region. He eventually became a computer programmer and writer, writing for Wired magazine and other publications. Valley of Genius is his first book, but he wrote very little of it—and he didn't need to do much more than piece together the many interviews he conducted to form a wonderful and continuous narrative that begins as early as the 1950s.

The story starts off with the very first computer that was more than just a super calculator created by Doug Engelbart. With a small team, he built a prototype: the oN-Line System, or NLS. It even was equipped with a "mouse"! The story continues on to the first video games manufactured by Nolan Bushnell and company in their pre-Atari days.

The book also details how, in parallel, Engelbart's prototype inspired the computers of the future developed at Xerox PARC, while the Spacewar video game would motivate a young Steve Wozniak not only to help Steve Jobs create video games for the later Atari, but also eventually to build the original Apple computer.

The narrative progresses with the birth of Apple, the company, was born and took the world of personal computing by storm—at least initially. What followed was an emotional roller coaster. The Apple II was a success, and up until Jobs looked to Alan Kay's visions preserved in the Xerox Alto, Apple continued to fail, but then later turned it all around with the Macintosh, as the story goes.

The book covers the evolving hardware (and software), and how the culture it nurtured evolved along with it. It explores how the early versions of the internet connected the youngest and brightest, and how ideas were shared—all of them centered around the concept of openness.

It looks at how passionate people started flame wars, and how publications, such as Wired, captured those times and emotions best. The book explores how Wired also rode the internet wave by shifting some of that focus toward its HotWired website. It considers the early days of the internet, at a time when it was all research and bulletin-board systems (or BBSes), and the problem of how to navigate this new World Wide Web. It describes how early web browsers, such as Mosaic and Netscape Navigator (the Mosaic killer or Mozilla), solved this need—and with it, helping to open the internet to more users.

Valley of Genius details how following the release of the Macintosh, Steve Jobs would be driven from the company he founded and started a new computer company, NeXT, and even gambled on a new and exciting digital animation company called Pixar. A struggling Apple eventually invited Jobs back, acquiring NeXT in the process. The book describes how by leveraging the NeXT ecosystem, the iMac, in all its colors, was conceived. Apple was back.

The book also explores how Napster went away as quickly as it arrived and how its legacy changed the shape of the internet. Next it follows the Dot-com bubble (ca. 2001) and how the internet was becoming more than just a source of research and information, and was turning into a channel for commerce and communication—a hub for sharing, opening the door for average individuals to experience a more personalized web.

Valley looks at how Facebook rose from the ashes of Friendster and MySpace, and how the creators of Blogger started Twitter after the failed Odeo. And it considers how, in the midst of all those events, Apple redefined itself with the iPod and shortly after, the iPhone.

All of this history, told in full detail and described firsthand by the many individuals who invented or developed the technologies, is captured in the book's nearly 500 pages. The author also does an excellent job in capturing the emotions of the folks he interviewed. And in a few cases, the reader will observe some of the resentment some held for others. What I find to be the most fascinating thing about Valley of Genius is the many connections among all of these tech pioneers—Nolan with the Steves, Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker (Napster and Spotify), Alvy Ray Smith (Xerox PARC and Pixar) and Steve Jobs. There are many more examples in the book's pages. Everyone seemed to know someone, implying that one cannot truly succeed alone.

The book closes in the year 2011 and on what may be considered the end of an era, with the premature passing of Steve Jobs. However, it doesn't end with doom and gloom. There is a light—the promise of a new era, a new chapter yet to be told.

This publication prompted me to look back on my own history in computer technology, and I often was left feeling quite nostalgic. I highly recommend this read; I enjoyed every bit of it.

Petros Koutoupis, LJ Editor at Large, is currently a senior performance software engineer at Cray for its Lustre High Performance File System division. He is also the creator and maintainer of the RapidDisk Project. Petros has worked in the data storage industry for well over a decade and has helped pioneer the many technologies unleashed in the wild today.

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