Four Books to Help You Understand Silicon Valley
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s a boom time, and there’s more to it than money.
By Sanjena Sathian
OK, so you’ve got startup fever. The heady, multibillion-dollar valuations, the ease of building your own app and the dream of being the next Zuck all intoxicate the air these days. But before you head west to the Bay Area in search of gold and Silicon fortune, there’s a lot to learn about the worlds that make up — and that led to — today’s fertile crescent of technology. These four books will spin you a tale of Silicon Valley’s past and present to help guide your quest to rule the future.
What the Dormouse Said, John Markoff
Silicon Valley’s not all software, hardware and machine-learning jargon. It’s also a place full of some countercultural ideas, like the notion that everything should be open source, from books to the code powering megacorporations. Or even the idea that, say, it’s OK to micro-dose on LSD at work if it helps you program better. And how did that sort of philosophy arise in a place so moneyed and occasionally even corporate? The answer, writes longtime New York Times reporter John Markoff, is hippies. During the ’60s and ’70s, software visionaries mingled with rambunctious folks like Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Lesson: Techies flooding Burning Man is nothing new.
The Circle, Dave Eggers
Fast-forward a few decades and we find ourselves fearing a techno dystopia. I’m not much of a fan of this novel, written by the San Francisco heartthrob and McSweeney’s founder, which portrays a Googlesque company that slowly devours its employees by offering them perk after perk for drudge work and never allows them to escape the Mordor-like gaze of the megacorp. That said, it’s written at about a fifth-grade reading level and is a neat summary of much of the sentiment bubbling around among critics of the new tech behemoths.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
In this slim, readable novel, written by a former Twitter employee, an out-of-work techie seeks a job. He finds one in an unlikely place: a musty, forgotten San Francisco bookshop that inexplicably stays open all the time. (The book began as a short story, which Sloan posted online, of course, in open-source fashion.) Responsible for staffing the store during the witching hours, Sloan’s protagonist gets himself wrapped up in a good old-fashioned mystery. It’s a fast, enjoyable read.
The New New Thing, Michael Lewis
Written in the heat of the first tech boom, Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short and Liars’ Poker, followed around a now slightly forgotten entrepreneur named James H. Clark for this piece of amusing and informative journalism. Clark, however, is a Valley legend. The founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape, he’s one of those figures looming over our present, without whom much of our modern tech couldn’t exist. A fixture at one of the most important organizations in tech history, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), Clark is a lively character in Lewis’s telling, an adventurer (we accompany him on a few adrenaline-inducing journeys) and an emblem of the just-do-it techie-king charisma that drives so much of this booming place.
(Honorable mentions: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe, and The Innovators, Walter Isaacson)