In the first installment of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Margaret O’Mara speaks with Neta Alexander about her book The Code, begun while she was a 2014–15 CASBS fellow.
Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, John Doerr, Jeff Bezos, Andy Grove, and Fred Terman are the eight men decorating the cover of political historian Margaret O’Mara’s new book, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. But mapping these famous men’s contributions to what we now know as “Silicon Valley” is only a small part of O’Mara’s impressive historical analysis. Instead of rehashing familiar clichés about dusty garages and the birth of startup culture, she digs into the history of Northern California to uncover the unsung heroes of Big Tech. Her research traces many of our current technological concerns—not only about the industry’s sexism, but also about privacy and information overload—back to the mid-20th century and illustrates how American political forces formed the tech-centric world we’ve come to inhabit. O’Mara spoke with me about tech’s less recognizable figures, our age-old obsession with snooping, and what’s really underneath the myth of Silicon Valley’s exceptionalism.
Neta Alexander (NA): Your new book is not the first history of the tech industry’s early days. What was missing?
Margaret O’Mara (MO): I wrote this book to show that what happened to Silicon Valley had to be understood within the history of America from the 1950s onward. I’ve been asked over and over in the almost 20 years since I wrote my dissertation (which became my first book), what’s Silicon Valley’s formula, and how do we build another Silicon Valley?
Too frequently the answer to this question emphasizes the Valley’s exceptionalism, characterizing it as a place of freewheeling entrepreneurs who shook off stodgy bureaucracies to build remarkable new products. The real story is far more interesting: Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is not a place apart, but a place made by broader transformations in American government, economy, and culture. Recognizing this intertwined history—how America made Silicon Valley and how, in turn, the Valley remade America—is essential to understanding today’s tech-saturated landscape, and where we might go next. Political historians have not done a terribly good job of reckoning with the evolution of the tech industry and its political impact. I really wanted to wrestle with that in this book.
NA: I finished reading the book last night, and when I closed it, I saw eight photos of eight white men on the cover. Someone encountering your book through its cover might think you are adding to the reputations of the founding fathers of the global tech revolution. But this doesn’t do justice to your celebration of the unsung heroes of the Valley, from Ann Hardy to Liza Loop to the countless immigrants who made microchips and built the tech industry. Do you feel that theirs is the story that the book is trying to tell?
MO: The production of that homogenous image of whiteness and maleness in Silicon Valley is part of the story. I want to both explain that dominant narrative and disrupt it.
The men are known by their first names. You need no introduction for Mark and Jeff and Steve and Bill. Why is there no Ann and Sarah and Margaret as well? And why weren’t there more people of color? That’s why it’s necessary to link Silicon Valley’s story to the broader history of American politics. When you look at the context of race and gender, of protest and liberation movements, of local culture, of demographic change, then those absences become more legible. And once they’re recognized, they can be addressed.
Silicon Valley is not going to unwind its diversity problem with some corporate diversity program; it’s going to change only if it recognizes how deeply embedded this problem is, and that the assumptions made in the industry about the characteristics that make people successful are biased assumptions. For instance, that you need to have a personality that aligns with traditionally masculine qualities. And that your work culture must be extraordinarily intense, because the only way to do important work is to have a person living on ramen noodles for two years while he builds something new.
Silicon Valley and its champions need to recognize that the “startup hustle” is an extremely exclusionary construct. If you’re caring for a parent or a child, if you’re an immigrant who’s sending money to family back home, if you don’t have family money to support you working an entry-level job in a place like San Francisco, living on ramen noodles and making zero salary is not practical.
NA: Though it’s tempting to ask you how the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have shaped the history of Silicon Valley, I’d actually like to spend our time talking about some less recognizable figures. Can you tell me about Ann Hardy?
MO: Ann Hardy was a self-trained programmer who worked for one of the early startups, Tymshare, in the 1960s. She was the only woman in management. In the early ’70s, Hardy discovered that she was the only employee not invited to an offsite retreat because the male employees had invited prostitutes. She was also the only employee who didn’t receive stock options.
When I interviewed her for The Code, Hardy did emphasize to me that the men who ran the company were sympathetic, even though they were sometimes clueless. After the prostitute incident, she talked to her boss, the CEO, and the guy who had planned the event got moved out of that position and, eventually, out of the company. The responses were always post hoc, though. She always had to be the one to raise the issues. She stands for a lot of women who were discouraged from their technical ambition again and again, but who somehow found a way to do the work.
You wouldn’t know it from the way the industry looks today, but originally, software programming was a profession that was very open to women. It was understood to not be very difficult: anyone with secretarial skills could do it. As soon as it became clear that programming was perhaps the most important thing that one could contribute to a computer project, women got pushed out and software programming became computer science. Those who stayed in the field built up a pretty tough skin to get by. They put up with the bad behavior.
It’s also worth noting that computing and electronics were closed off to women beginning in childhood, when it was boys who were down in their basements tinkering with radio sets. Even in the 1970s and ’80s, when the marketing of videogames and personal computers took off, it was entirely aimed at men and boys. It’s only in 1984, when Apple introduced the Mac and started going hard at the college market, that they were looking at students, both male and female, as an important market. So, women worked in computers, but it was predominantly men who were the purchasers of these devices.
NA: You also give the example of Gotcha, an Atari videogame whose controls were designed to look and feel like a woman’s breasts. Why do you think this culture was—and still is—so sexist?
MO: I think the Atari example was great, because they couched the sexism in an attitude of, We’re just boundary pushing—it’s all fun. That attitude is alive and well. Even this September, there was news about Richard Stallman at MIT—who was a legend, the guru of the free software movement, and a hero in Steven Levy’s book Hackers1—defending Jeffrey Epstein and child pornography. He’s someone who’s been carrying on with eccentric and offensive behavior for decades.
In the Valley, people get away with totally inappropriate behavior because, Oh, he’s really—it’s always a he—he’s really brilliant and he’s creating this extraordinary software. And, yes, he may be brilliant, but that doesn’t give him a free pass to create an atmosphere in which women come away thinking, There is no place for me there.
NA: Another woman who was influential in paving the way for the personal computer revolution was Liza Loop, who was an early proponent of using computers in education. What was her role in these early days of turning the computer from an industrial tool into a personal commodity?
MO: In the early 1970s, a lot of people started to get interested in computing for idealistic reasons. They were thinking about computers as tools for education, tools for social change, for communication. Not all of them were computer nuts. Liza Loop was one of those idealists who had been interested in computer education. She continues that work to this day. There were other idealists like her who were part of the movement and then got left behind when it became an industry. They were computer evangelists, but they weren’t computer capitalists.
The shift really happened when a business-spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, came on the market for use with Apple desktop computers. Before that, the personal computer was seen as an expensive toy. Now it was a thing you could use for business or personal finance. This was 1979. All of a sudden, the computer became something that could actually be used in an office. And that’s when Apple becomes a very, very fast-growing company.
The computer movement was once full of these idealists. They were building wooden boxes around microprocessors and talking about computing as a tool for personal and social liberation. But within the span of a decade, the personal computer industry left them behind because someone like Steve Jobs was an evangelist and a capitalist. And that’s why he’s the one that has become the face and the name of the era.
NA: One of the best reasons to read this book is that it traces many of our current concerns—such as privacy and information overload—back to the 1970s or even the 1960s. Do we tend to mistake these issues for new developments? Are they actually new?
MO: No, nothing is new. Well, there are new versions of old things. Americans have been worrying about computer privacy ever since the advent of the home computer. We see this Big Brother rhetoric again and again. In the 1960s and early ’70s, Capitol Hill was consumed with hearing after hearing about electronic snooping. Most of it was concerned with the downsides of government computers. It was the era of Vietnam and Watergate, of J. Edgar Hoover and domestic spying. And there’s a backlash: the government needs to be smaller. So, the Privacy Act of 1974 addressed private computers and government computers, but put no restriction on what private industry was doing.
Today, we have a backlash against the Silicon Valley tech companies and the technologies they use. The industry has developed commercial and social programs with a whole lot of statistical data about people. But we forget that, not that many years ago, we created this opening for companies like Google and Facebook to exist.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Anchor/Doubleday, 1984). ↩