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The Code

Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

By Margaret O'Mara
18-minute read
Audio available
The Code by Margaret O'Mara

The Code (2019) examines the remarkable history of Silicon Valley, the lush Californian valley that became synonymous with tech startups and the creation of some of our society’s most disruptive inventions like the internet. With a curious, critical gaze, The Code uncovers the reality behind the myths, and shows that while entrepreneurship and technical genius were important to the valley’s rise, none of its most famous achievements would have been possible without military collaborations and enormous amounts of federal funding.

  • Entrepreneurs curious about the Silicon Valley blueprint for creating successful startups
  • Technophiles wanting to know more about the birthplace of some of our most disruptive technologies
  • Social historians interested in the human stories behind the headlines

Margaret O’Mara is professor of history at the University of Washington. Her previous books, Cities of Knowledge (2015) and Pivotal Tuesdays (2017), were published to much acclaim. Prior to her academic career, she worked in the Clinton White House and as a researcher at the Brookings Institution.

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The Code

Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

By Margaret O'Mara
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
The Code by Margaret O'Mara
Synopsis

The Code (2019) examines the remarkable history of Silicon Valley, the lush Californian valley that became synonymous with tech startups and the creation of some of our society’s most disruptive inventions like the internet. With a curious, critical gaze, The Code uncovers the reality behind the myths, and shows that while entrepreneurship and technical genius were important to the valley’s rise, none of its most famous achievements would have been possible without military collaborations and enormous amounts of federal funding.

Key idea 1 of 11

We need to see through the mythology of Silicon Valley.

At a time when many of us treat our smartphones as extensions of our bodies, it’s hard to imagine that just a few decades ago there was no such thing as the internet, and the few computers that existed filled entire rooms.

This technological transformation has truly been, as Ronald Reagan predicted in 1988, a “revolution.” It has changed how we communicate and organize ourselves, and has fundamentally transformed our political landscape in ways that no one could have predicted. 

And it all emerged in Silicon Valley – a once-sleepy area of Palo Alto, California. Silicon Valley is much more than a place. It has become synonymous with a global network, a startup sensibility, and a disruptive way of working and thinking. 

The key message here is: We need to see through the mythology of Silicon Valley.

But how did Silicon Valley become a technological powerhouse? There are many origin stories. A romantic narrative peddled by Steve Jobs and scores of others is that it became a hotbed of innovation because it’s always been anti-establishment and steeped in the counter-cultural ideas of the 1960s. 

Others will tell you that Silicon Valley is so successful because it’s been so supportive of entrepreneurs. Free from oppressive corporate dogma and government interference, brilliant engineers like Bill Packard and Dave Hewlett were free to turn budding ideas into major businesses, run according to their own eccentric ideas of how a company should operate.

These stories aren’t untrue, but they’re incomplete. They focus on the brilliance of a few individuals while ignoring the political and institutional structures that allowed them to develop their ideas and make them reality. For example, Steve Jobs’s innovative company Apple wouldn’t have been possible without the invention of small and economical computer chips. The company that invented these chips would never have had the resources to bring them to market were it not for the enormous amounts of federal funding they received for research and development during the Cold War. And Steve Jobs became a household name partly because he was born into a system that rewarded white men with every opportunity, while blocking access to women and people of color. 

To truly understand the success of Silicon Valley, we need to go past the myth of the entrepreneur as lone wolf, and analyze the political, social, and institutional systems that allowed some tech entrepreneurs to flourish.

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