Antipathy toward the companies in Silicon Valley, where technology-minded entrepreneurs for the last 60 years have invented the future, appears to be higher than ever.
Consumers worry that tech companies are invading their privacy. Law enforcement agencies want tech firms to unlock digital devices. Politicians and others worry that civic trust is being eroded by easily manipulated social media.
Little of this is new, however. The history of Silicon Valley is riddled with tension and surprising outcomes, said Leslie Berlin, project historian of the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. Again and again, founders of technology companies started out to solve an immediate problem only to see their work grow into something with broader, sometimes global, consequence.
Berlin is author of the new book "Troublemakers: Silicon Valley's Coming of Age," which chronicles an especially productive period in the 1970s and 1980s. She compared the societal impact of firms like Google and Facebook today to how the U.S. chip industry was seen in the 1980s, when there were fears it was being surpassed by Japan's. "There were arguments that if we lose the American chip industry, we're going to lose the American economy," Berlin said.
In the case of Fairchild Semiconductor, where the microchip was invented, she said, "This was eight guys who hated their boss. And 20 years later, they're in a situation like that. Same with Facebook. This was a way for college students to say who they think is hot. And 20 years later, there are congressional hearings on it."
In the book, Berlin focuses on seven executives and engineers, five men and two women, whose work led to five new industries — personal computing, video games, biotechnology, venture capital and advanced logic chips.
"They put one foot in front of the other," Berlin said. "It's only when they turn around and look behind that they see, 'Oh wait a second, I cut a path there.' "
Berlin, who a decade ago wrote a biography of the microchip inventor and Silicon Valley giant Robert Noyce, this time wrote about people who did important things but were relatively unknown. "So much of what happens in the valley happens on the fringe of the spotlight and I wanted to show that," she said.
Her new book profiles the intersecting work and lives of Bob Taylor, who shepherded the Arpanet, the forerunner of the internet; Sandy Kurtzig, a software designer who became the first woman to take a company public; Al Alcorn, the engineer who created the first Atari video games; Niels Reimers, a Stanford administrator and patent innovator; Bob Swanson, co-founder of Genentech; Fawn Alvarez, who went from a factory line to the executive offices at ROLM; and Mike Markkula, the third wheel to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the start of Apple and its chairman for years.
Berlin said she long wondered why Apple survived out of the dozens of small computer makers in the San Jose area in the 1970s. "They almost all had a technical guy, not at the level of Woz, and a business guy, not at the level of Jobs, but still strong," she said. "And yet, one after the other they fell or didn't even get off the ground."
The difference at Apple was Markkula, a former chip industry executive who brought discipline and investors. "He, for my money, is the person who took Apple from an idea to a company," Berlin said.
While some people believe the Silicon Valley story is unique, Berlin said it can be found in communities around the U.S., including the Twin Cities, where the medical device industry grew in much the same way as those she researched.
"There are certain connectors who keep showing up, a degree of serendipity that plays into it and a start with the academics that grows to encompass business," Berlin said. Minnesota's medical device pioneers, she added, went out on a limb because they thought they were going to save children. "There is always this fundamental belief they were doing something that was very important."
In Silicon Valley, the public conversation and the hype is almost always about what's ahead. But one of the people who appreciated the importance of history was Apple's Jobs. In his early 20s, Jobs met many of the founders of the early chipmakers in the Valley but zeroed in on Noyce as a mentor and friend.
While researching the book on Noyce, Berlin asked Jobs why he wanted to spend so much time with Noyce. He replied by grabbing "On the Sufferings of the World," a book by the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and reading a passage that said: "He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer's booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once, and when they are no longer a novelty and cease to deceive, their effect is gone."
Eventually, young people in Silicon Valley with ideas and drive sought out Jobs the way he did Noyce.
"You have what Steve Jobs called 'the baton pass' from one generation to the next generation, what Noyce called 'restocking the stream,' " Berlin said. "That is a completely underappreciated part of Silicon Valley history, the people who make it turning around and helping the next people up."