A History of Silicon Valley

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These are excerpts from Piero Scaruffi's book
"A History of Silicon Valley"

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

The Selfies (2011-16)

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The Empire Continued

The influence of Silicon Valley over the rest of world was increasing, as was increasing the gap between Silicon Valley and any other region of the world. Gone were the days when Europeans looked down on Silicon Valley as a childish and doomed experiment. Gone were the days when Boston thought it could compete easily with those eccentrics of the Far West. By 2015 the Bay Area dwarfed any other region of the world for technology and science. The top most valued companies in the world (by market evaluation) were in the Bay Area: Alphabet/Google and Apple. The Bay Area boasted the number-one companies in social media (Facebook), semiconductors (Intel) and business software (Oracle). If it declared independence, the Bay Area alone (not the whole of California) would rank 22nd in the world for GDP and third in GDP per capita. The San Francisco Bay Area would rank fifth behind the USA, Britain, Germany and France in Nobel Prize winners. In 2016 Forbes compiled a ranking of cities based on the combined net worth of their billionaires. Palo Alto came out 7th and San Francisco 10th. The other cities all had more than 8 million people. San Francisco didn't even have one million, and Palo Alto was a tiny town of only 50,000 people. In 2016 the MIT Technology Review compiled a list of the 50 most innovative companies in the world: in the top 25 there were 5 from China, 2 from Europe, 1 from Japan and... 9 from the tiny Bay Area (more in the Bay Area than in all other continents combined). In 2017 Denmark became the first nation to formally create a diplomatic post to represent its interests in Silicon Valley and Casper Klynge became, de facto, the world's first foreign ambassador to Silicon Valley. Basically, Denmark admitted that tech behemoths like Google and Facebook had acquired as much power as many governments of the world, and perhaps even more power than most governments.

But this disproportionate political power came with a price, an increasingly dysfunctional and unethical (and unregulated) system.

Russian president Vladimir Putin was widely considered to be behind the persecution (and sometimes murder) of dissident journalists in Russia. No other region of the USA was applying the "Putin doctrine" more diligently and fervently than Silicon Valley. Its billionaires had little patience for journalists analyzing their lifestyle and their speculative investments, especially when those reports revealed paranoid personalities and dubious business practices, if not outright scams. In 2016 Paypal's cofounder Peter Thiel admitted that he had spent 10 years secretly financing a lawsuit against Gawker Media, a media company guilty of exposing his homosexuality in 2007. Gawker filed bankruptcy in 2016, sending a chill through the media world: Thiel had just warned the entire industry of the financial risk displeasing a Silicon Valley billionaire. Thiel's new venture, Palantir, was a secretive arm of the CIA developing technologies to "search and analyze data" (in other words, to spy on citizens). Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla commented that journalists need "to be taught lessons". And there was no doubt in anyone's mind that all Wikipedia articles on Silicon Valley celebrities and corporations were being carefully edited by hired guns, not by independent Wikipedians. The most popular blogs of Silicon Valley (Techcrunch to name one) were as acritical of and as servile towards Silicon Valley celebrities and businesses as the Russian newspapers were of Putin. In 2011 Peter Thiel had already created controversy by launching his "20 Under 20" fellowship that pays bright students under the age of 20 a generous amount of money ($100,000) to drop out of college and go work.

Despite all the hoopla about the inclusive multi-ethnic community of Silicon Valley, the facts spoke otherwise: Silicon Valley had been and still was very much dominated by the white male culture. The technology (the transistor, the computer, the operating system, the database, the Internet, the personal computer, the World-wide Web, the smartphone) and the ideology (Fred Terman, the first startups, the venture capitalists) had been invented by Caucasian males.

By the second decade of the 21st century not much had changed: sure there were many startups founded by Asians, but the ones that defined the industry (Apple, Oracle, Netscape, Google, Facebook) were almost all founded by Caucasian males (as were Microsoft and Amazon in Seattle, and as were Texas Instruments, Motorola, Compaq, Dell and so forth in other parts of the southwest).

Women like Meg Whitman and Marissa Mayer made news when they were appointed to the helm of a large corporation, but they were not founders (nor inventors), and this was true in general of the high-tech industry in the world (Virginia Rometty, Marillyn Hewson, Ellen Kullman, Phebe Novakovic, Anne Mulcahy, Ursula Burns and so forth, and incidentally all of them Caucasians except Burns). Ditto for venture capital, that was mostly in the hands of big firms run by Caucasian males. The idea of Silicon Valley as a melting pot of brains from all over the world and of both sexes was still mostly just that: an idea.

At the end of 2017 the Silicon Valley giants were hardly popular in the USA. First, allegations of rampant sexism led to the ouster of, among others, 500 Startups' co-founder Dave McClure and Uber's co-founder Travis Kalanick. Ellen Pao published the book "Reset" in which she recounted how she sued Silicon Valley's legendary firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for sexual harassment and discrimination in a widely publicized case. To make matters worse, a Google engineer posted a memo titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" in which he argued that women are genetically unsuited for engineering jobs. In 2015 a whopping 85% of both Facebook and Yahoo engineers were male. At Google the number was 83%, at Apple 80%. At Twitter the percentage was even 90.

Then executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter came under fire from lawmakers in Washington following investigations on Russian exploitation of social media to destabilize the presidential elections. And then leaked documents detailed how Apple had stashed as much as $252 billion dollars in the tiny island of Jersey, a British rock off the coast of France, to avoid paying taxes in the USA.

The nation first became of the implicit viciousness of social media like Facebook and Twitter when, in August 2014, a user of the online platform 4chan, Eron Gjoni, launched an harassment campaign (later known as "Gamergate" because of the hashtag #GamerGate) against his ex-girlfriend, the videogame developer Zoe Quinn, a campaign that was spread rapidly by trolls on social media.

In 2018 the controversy over the use by Russia’s hackers of US social media during the 2016 presidential election to spread "fake news" led to intense scrutiny of Facebook and Twitter by the US Congress. In 2019 Facebook came under attack when it announced a digital currency called Libra, and Google terminated its "Project Dragonfly" that aimed at introducing a censored search engine in China.

Furthermore, the idea that the World-wide Web constituted a sort of open, utopian Wild West, free of both government and of big business control, lasted only a few years. Cyberspace was quickly settled, colonized and parceled out. Within 20 years it was overpopulated, littered with pornography and fake news, infiltrated by spy agencies, mostly controlled by multinationals, increasingly censored by authoritarian governments, infested with swarms of trolls, bullies, spammers, and now even A.I. bots. Right or wrong, the world viewed Silicon Valley as the physical driver of this transformation.

click here for the other sections of the chapter "The Selfies (2011-16)"
(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

Table of Contents | Timeline of Silicon Valley | A photographic tour | History pages | Editor | Correspondence