The Silicon Boys book review

Book review of The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams, by David A. Kaplan.  Allen & Unwin, $24.95.   This review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in 1999.

Back in 1988, film critic Neal Gabler published a book entitled An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invented Hollywood.  As a Jewish film critic, I regard Gabler’s book as the best ever written about Jews and film, with ground-breaking insights.  In what is effectively a group biography, he shows how how the Jewish immigrants who founded and came to dominate the American film industry – Zukor, Cohn, Laemmle, Mayer and the Warners – created an image of America out of their own idealism, and were deeply influenced by their European Jewish backgrounds.

Now along comes David Kaplan (another Jewish writer, a journalist for Newsweek) who is attempting to do the same for Silicon Valley in his The Silicon Boys and their Valley of Dreams.  You might call this one “An Industry of Their Own:  How the Geeks Invented Silicon Valley”.  In contrast to Gabler’s social history, Kaplan focuses on a “geographical” history of the those two counties (Santa Clara and San Mateo) just south of San Francisco that are now known colloquially as “Silicon Valley”.  This is both a strength and a weakness.  Kaplan’s early chapters – where he describes the early economic history of northern California and ties this to the growth in recent years – are definitely the highlight of the book.  He points out that California has always been a “boom” state, dating back to the discovery of gold in 1848.  This set off “the largest voluntary migration in world history”, with the non-native population of the state booming from 12,000 to 300,000 in just six years.

Kaplan then neatly ties the geology and sense of impermanence felt by Californians (the ever-present risk of earthquakes as well as forest fires and landslides) to the willingness of the entrepreneurs to take risks.  This is good (albeit popular) psycho-social history, and helps to explain alot to the uninitiated.  But here is where the historian fades away, and the journalist takes over.  Most of the rest of The Silicon Boys focuses on the personalities who made Silicon Valley.  It makes for interesting reading (the people are indeed fascinating), but reads more like an extended magazine piece rather than an insightful history.  What really motivated these men (and they are almost all men)?  Are there some common denominators, other than wanting to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?  These questions remain unanswered.

This is where Gabler’s work leaves Kaplan in the dust.  When you finish Gabler, you leave with a complete thesis about how Hollywood was made (and by whom) and how it in turn made America.  When you finish Kaplan, you have a whole lot of interesting stories but no real unifying thesis as to what made it happen in the way it did.

There is, of course, another difference.  Hollywood was founded by Jews.  Silicon Valley was not.  The Hollywood Jews came from Europe to the US east coast, then moved on to southern California.  The Silicon founders came from Midwestern and Western US.  They were “small town engineers whose very distance from the conservative ways of the Atlantic seacoast seemed to nourish their imaginations”.  They had names like Lee de Forest (from Council Bluffs, Iowa), William Shockley (Palo Alto, California), John Bardeen (Madison, Wisconsin), Walter Brattain (Tonasket, Washington), Jack Kilby (Great Bend, Kansas), Lester Hogan (Great Falls, Montana), Gordon Moore (Pescadero, California) and Robert Noyce (Denmark, Iowa).

Succeeding generations brought the Jewish entrepreneurs – people like Andy Grove, a co-founded of Intel.  Born Andras Grof in Budapest, he survived both the Nazis and the Soviet takeover to become one of the kingpins of the digital era.  Another was Gene Kleiner, born in Vienna in 1932 and fled with his parents to New York in 1940.  He became a founder of Kleiner Perkins, reportedly the most “muscular” (all partners have been men, after all) of the new Silicon Valley venture capital (“VC”) firms.  Is there significance in these key Jewish Silicon Valley types being Holocaust survivors or refugees?  Kaplan never attempts an explanation.

Unfortunately, The Silicon Boys is much more interested in the lifestyle excesses of the residents of Woodside (just about the richest bedroom community in Silicon Valley, which is full of a whole lot of rich communities) than it is in drawing themes and understanding from what is happening there.  Almost 10% of the book involves his occasionally snarky discussion of Woodside and its residents.  The result is highly readable, but the “new” information fits into about 1 1/2 chapters, the rest being simply a mixture of gossip and recycled history.

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