They’re among the multitude of voices in the book, which covers some familiar ground if you’re into Silicon Valley history. But surprise quotes and anecdotes abound, and “Valley of Genius” makes you feel like you’re a fly on the wall during the early days of this generation’s most impactful industry.
“The book is supposed to represent this kind of idea that what we’re looking at is a networked society, like the landscape of Silicon Valley and the urban development itself, like the internet,” Fisher said. “It’s a network of characters, over 200 named characters, and 50 are recurring.”
Here’s a transcript of our interview with Fisher. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your book shows many parallels between the valley of the past and the valley of today. You note in your preface that Nolan Bushnell (of Atari fame) and Steve Jobs were not the best role models. What to make of the fact that the valley continues to have a problem with its leaders behaving badly? Is this a Silicon Valley thing?
A: Every good history is not really about the past. It’s creating a story that helps you understand the present and how you navigate the future. How we can fix the future.
People are just going to have to decide for themselves whether this kind of behavior, of rule-breaking, is part of creativity or the corruption of early success. However, I will point out that virtually every foundational, important company in the book — from Atari to Apple to Napster to Google to Facebook — were founded by people who were not old enough to even drink. The “older” ones were in their mid-20s.
Zuckerberg was a sophomore in college (when he founded Facebook). Why are people sophomoric in Silicon Valley? Because many of them are actually sophomores.
Q: The same people pop up again and again to create different things — like you said, the recurring characters. Part of that is because some powerful companies eventually failed. Who will be the next General Magic or Atari?
A: I don’t have a crystal ball. Here’s the thing: There will be a next generation. What the kids want will happen. If the kids in grad school decide that 3D printing is cool, then we’re all getting 3D printers in five to 10 years. Same with flying cars, or blockchain-enabled identity. They’re building the future. Facebook, Google, Apple will almost certainly be overthrown because that is the lesson of history — companies overthrown by idealistic youngsters.
Q: It was also a tale of two valleys: the place where you could network your way into a meaningful job vs. the place where you got backstabbed and victimized by the Purple People Eaters at Apple (that chapter was about how Jobs pitted two teams against each other to create the iPhone).
A: It could be a brutal place. But no one’s ever really out of a job. It’s one big company. You fail, you just go work somewhere else.
I deliberately did not talk to VCs. I wanted to focus on creators — the hackers and the engineers and their desire to create something that helps people. The ugliness comes when the financiers come in and bring their corrupting influence, or when companies get in monopoly positions.
Q: Who was the most interesting person you interviewed?
A: Jim Clark, because he literally did do everything. Here’s a guy who dropped out of high school, is educated in the military, and ended up at Stanford and hanging out at Xerox PARC at the same time as Jobs. Clark looked at the (Xerox) Alto and thought he could do better. He created the graphics processing unit (GPU), he created Silicon Graphics International, whose technology was then used by Pixar. Then he ended up co-creating Netscape. Now what’s the GPU doing? It’s underlying all our artificial intelligence.
Some guys have had maybe two big hits. He’s the one guy who straddles the whole modern history of Silicon Valley.
But he’s no longer in the valley, where he says there’s too much money. He said this as I interviewed him at his house in Miami Beach, and he opened a $10,000 bottle of Bordeaux for us to drink.
Adam Fisher profile
Position: Freelance writer, speaker and author
Previous jobs: Senior features editor at Wired Magazine
Education: Bachelor of Arts from Duke University
Residence: San Rafael
Family: Married, with a 5-year-old daughter
Five things to know about Adam Fisher
1. He grew up in Silicon Valley and amused himself after school by snagging computer time at the Byte Shop, making simple circuits by wiring chips from RadioShack together, and trying to turn Dungeons and Dragons into a computer game — using BASIC.
2. He had his own subscription to InfoWorld in 1980.
3. He asked Santa for an Apple II in 1981, and found an IBM PC under the tree.
4. He was the happiest (and geekiest) camper during one of world’s earliest computer camps, on the shores of Lake Tahoe in 1982.
5. He hit puberty late, and finally figured out that girls were more interesting than code.