Searching for silicon soul

"The Nudist on the Late Shift" and "The Silicon Boys" sift the valley's culture for something more than wealth and greed.

Published June 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

For a place that most everyone agrees does not really exist physically, Silicon Valley sure exerts one hell of a gravitational force. Entrepreneurs, investors, journalists -- they're all inexorably drawn into the nexus of the New Economy, pulled along willy-nilly, whether they come to cash in or to criticize. So what if they can't find it on a map? Silicon Valley is a state of mind, a template for how to conduct techno-capitalism, a perpetual fountain of greed and innovation: easy to envy or deplore, but darn hard to ignore.

For writers, that very "no there, there" quality so intrinsic to the valley beckons with irresistible allure. The challenge for wordsmiths is clear: How do you capture the exotic appeal of a region where nearly everyone works in identically nondescript low-slung office buildings and speaks in identically vapid streams of freshly minted marketing jargon?

The easy answer is to simply count the change and dwell on the dollars -- money exudes an easy-to-grab exotica all its own. A very strong case can be made that the companies located in Silicon Valley -- the Suns and SGIs, Ciscos and 3Coms, Netscapes and Yahoos -- are a chain of locomotives pulling the entire U.S. economy forward. The phenomenal wealth bestowed upon the engineers of those locomotives is a natural draw, for better or worse. Journalists who cover the valley can be counted on to wax rapturous over the multimillion-dollar public offerings for Silicon Valley start-ups even as they sneer at conspicuous consumption in the town of Woodside, home to many of the valley's most prominent millionaires.

The much harder task is to avert one's eyes from the piles of moolah and strive to make sense of What It All Means. Is there real culture to be found in the land of stock options and microchips? How did this all happen, and where is it headed? For at least two decades now, writers have been tackling these questions with varying degrees of success. But today, now that the Net has pushed techno-culture squarely into the mainstream of society, the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of Silicon Valley is more relevant than ever before. So it's not all that surprising that journalists, novelists and academics have been swarming the office parks of Mountain View and Santa Clara -- every bit as insatiable in their eagerness to pin down the essence of the valley, as venture capitalists are to see a 30 or 40 percent return on their investments.

What is surprising, or at least intriguing, is how different the various takes on the valley can be. Two new books, Po Bronson's "The Nudist on the Late Shift" and David A. Kaplan's "The Silicon Boys," offer up explorations of Silicon Valley that contrast so sharply with each other that at times one wonders whether the authors were even looking at the same continent. Bronson, a novelist and magazine writer (who has written for Salon in the past), delivers an impressionist work of art, a collection of snapshots of people in a particular place at a particular time, a series of set pieces loaded with nuance but devoid of historical context. Kaplan, a senior writer at Newsweek, takes the opposite tack. Kaplan lavishes context all over his subject -- to the almost absurd, yet delightful, point of delving as far back as the geological formation of the land mass that equates to the "valley." Both books are valuable contributions that bring us closer to an understanding of Silicon Valley. But neither one takes us all the way there.

Po Bronson likes the valley. He likes it so much that after writing a pretty funny novel about the place -- "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" -- he found himself unable to move on to other things. For him, valley gravity pulls especially hard -- Bronson is respectfully fascinated by the people who are willing to risk everything for that start-up chance. There is endless romance to be found, he argues, in the ceaseless creativity and innovation bubbling up in Silicon Valley. To Bronson, the valley isn't just "smoothly working chaos" -- it's also a "stew that never comes off the gas heat. The juices meld, and the histories intertwine, and it's spiced up with high achievers from every nook of the world."

Bronson describes this world as a novelist might -- "The Nudist on the Late Shift" is a pastiche of keenly observed scenes and characterizations. Bronson hangs out with programmers, makes sales calls with salespeople, sits in on meetings between start-up entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and captures it all with the same kind of breezy eloquence that makes his novels enjoyable reads. In his spot-on, inside account of what the process of going public is like, he describes the terrors of being beholden to the vagaries of the stock market with classic exuberance.

"The market is a tyrant," writes Bronson; "it's a crack-high speed-whacked monster; it's a moody morass. It's the market of Joe Q Cyber Trader, quick to snatch and quicker to panic."

The grander theme uniting Bronson's chapters ("The IPO," "The Entrepeneur," "The Programmers" ) is that Silicon Valley is pioneering the total merger of work and play, of business as culture. "To ignore the obvious ways business elected itself the new culture would be to turn a blind eye at what most needs to be seen clearly," he writes. The programmers who sleep under their desks, trade stocks online instead of grabbing a coffee break and work 90-hour weeks are rewriting the rules of corporate culture. Their wacky habits -- toy-car racing between cubicles, Quake death matches during office hours -- aren't aberrations. They are evolution. As the nudist programmer who strips down after hours notes, "work today has to be half work, half play. We spend our whole lives at the workplace."

The blurring of lines between what previously were distinct professions is closely related to this work-play synthesis. "I walk into a conference room and I cannot tell which are the bankers, which are the lawyers, and which are the entrepreneurs," writes Bronson. "High tech and high finance haven't met halfway, it's more that they've both gone all the way. It's not a culture clash, it's a culture mash."

That "culture mash" is fertile ground for a writer with Bronson's eye for the odd and absurd. Bronson grooves on his sense that Silicon Valley changes so fast that he can never quite catch up to the whole picture. But his collection of true tales doesn't quite add up to a cohesive whole. One problem is the inclusion of previously published articles -- in particular, profiles of futurist George Gilder and all-around genius guy Danny Hillis that appeared in Wired magazine -- that don't mesh neatly with the rest of the narrative. The 3-year-old Gilder profile doesn't appear to have been updated at all for the book -- making it seem strangely archaic in contrast to the state-of-the-moment feel of earlier chapters.

An even larger problem is Bronson's lack of interest in providing any background for his forays into the valley. At one point, near the finish, Bronson wonders whether Silicon Valley represents "ground zero" for just the technology industry or whether it is a model for a much vaster social transformation. But questions like that can't even be entertained unless one is willing to look at the larger historical pageant from which the current version of the valley has emerged. Bronson doesn't appear at all interested in exploring that history. Why did money and talent come together here? Who are the people who made this happen? Bronson offers no clues.

These are the questions for David A. Kaplan and "The Silicon Boys and their Valley of Dreams." Where Bronson generally devotes his attention to people and companies most readers will never have heard of, Kaplan hunts bigger game -- Oracle's Larry Ellison and Netscape's Jim Clark, celebrity venture capitalists like Kleiner Perkins' John Doerr, and supergeeks like Mosaic Web browser creator Marc Andreessen. Kaplan loads layer upon layer of history and detail on the reader -- not only do we learn about how the legendary Stanford dean Frederick Terman was single-handedly responsible for creating the uniquely close bonds between the university and the entrepreneurial valley community, but we also discover that while Hollywood has only two Lamborghini dealers, the valley boasts four.

Kaplan doesn't like Silicon Valley. Or at least, he doesn't like what it has become -- a place where "nobody's in charge, except rampant capitalism," and where "Schadenfreude -- glee in the misfortune of others" is the key motivating force for monomaniacal competitors.

"Where Silicon Valley used to be about adventure, now it represented complacency and extravagance -- a citadel of greed," writes Kaplan. "Gearheads once were proud to be social misfits: banging away on their keyboards, tinkering in the garage, unaware of the benefits of hygiene. Today, they're lining up to learn about napkins, stemware, and why you don't hold that bottle of Chardonnay between your knees when removing the cork. Etiquette courses are the rage in the valley. Marc Andreessen, meet Miss Manners. How dull."

Kaplan lays the lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous shtick on pretty thick -- at least at the outset. He kicks off his book with a catty, gossipy chapter on the habits of the rich in Woodside, taking evident enjoyment in skewering nouveau-plutocrat excesses. But although he returns to this theme intermittently in the rest of "The Silicon Boys" (taking a particular interest in detailed descriptions of the fabulous yachts commissioned by the likes of Clark and Ellison), the bulk of the book is a straightforward narrative written in a smart, engaging style.

"The Silicon Boys" works best as an introduction to the valley for readers who come to the table completely uninformed. Drawing heavily on secondary sources, Kaplan links together a string of compressed accounts of the biggest events and brightest stars in Silicon Valley history -- the seminal birth of valley trailblazer Fairchild Semiconductor, Microsoft's sneaky entry into the operating system market at the expense of valley hero Gary Kildall, the fall of Steve Jobs, the rise of Larry Ellison, the Netscape IPO, the showdown between Netscape and Microsoft and the stunning ascent of Yahoo.

Perhaps there are places in the English-speaking world where people have escaped the endless media mythologizing of Silicon Valley heroes, and are ready to gobble up Kaplan's rehash. But much of it will be familiar ground to readers who have been paying attention. How many times does the story of how Wozniak and Jobs founded Apple in a garage need to be told? How many times do we need to hear about Larry Ellison's womanizing or his Japanese culture fetishes?

It's a pity, because Kaplan is obviously an excellent reporter -- his narrative is packed with nuggets of information that could only have been obtained by dogged persistence and snooping. Nowhere is that more evident than in the two excellent chapters in which Kaplan dissects the single most influential institution in the valley -- the famous venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the partnership that bankrolled, among others, Sun Microsystems, Compaq, Lotus, @Home, Netscape and Excite. Kaplan delivers a clear picture of the personalities that make up the firm and the strategies it uses to ensure that it has a finger in every pot worth stirring, that comes off as the freshest, most noteworthy stretch in the entire novel.

Indeed, one wonders whether Kaplan would have been more successful in his overall attempt to portray the decay of the valley into a money-grubbing wasteland if he had structured the entire book around Kleiner Perkins (or "KP" -- as the locals like to say). KP's roots go so deep, and it has played such a huge role in the ongoing formation of the valley's biggest companies, that it could easily have provided a narrative hook for a comprehensive examination of Silicon Valley.

Perhaps then Kaplan could have supported his damning conclusion, in which he declares that "The valley once was a new machine. It changed the world. It may do so yet again. But the machine has no soul anymore."

It's a pretty harsh judgment -- not to mention a direct allusion to one of the best books of computer journalism ever written, Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine." But Kidder succeeded by getting deep inside the hearts and minds of a team of managers and programmers building a new computer, by immersing himself so deep in one thing that the reader ends up feeling he or she really understands how a computer is designed and created -- and how the creative process itself works.

Conceivably, Kaplan could have pulled off a similar feat -- with respect to the valley -- by getting inside Kleiner Perkins. It's not that he is wrong about the valley having no soul -- he just doesn't make the case. He doesn't get in deep enough.

More books on Silicon Valley are to come. Michael Lewis, author of "Liar's Poker" -- a bitingly hilarious account of 1980s investment bankers -- has one in the works, as does New Yorker writer John Heilemann. There's an outside chance that one of these authors will write the definitive treatment on Silicon Valley. But there's a better chance that they won't. The valley is a protean place, reflecting a different image for each new beholder and scurrying on to a new revolution before most people have absorbed the last. Neither unadulteratedly good nor bad, it simply is. Money-grubbing? To be sure. Romantically creative? Yes indeed. And that's just the beginning.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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