Silicon Valley Roots: Is What the Dormouse Said Still Audible?

Industries in the United States have always defined various geographic regions of the county. In the nineteenth century, indigo and cotton plantations became symbols of the South, while Northern life was literally built around factories. In the early 1900s, Detroit became the Motor City and the Midwest established itself as the Corn Belt. Countless other examples of geographic specialization exist. Even after some of these industries collapsed, their cultural footprints were fossilized in the structure of towns, city architecture, street names, geographic landscape, and, most importantly, the pace of life in these regions.

Silicon Valley is the technology hub of America, but as businesses from the Valley continue to sprout after seed funding, many seem to drift further and further from their cultural roots.

The history of Silicon Valley, predating the well-known stories of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, is captured in John Markoff’s 2005 What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Markoff follows the unsung heroes of the computing industry, tracing their personal and professional paths across the mid-twentieth century in Northern California. But mostly, What the Dormouse Said also presents how, in one rare instance of American history, an extraordinary culture birthed an industry.

The founders of the Silicon Valley were in many cases misfits –  gifted minds who fled the stifling culture of East Coast suburbia for the freedom of 1960s counterculture in California. They found passion envisioning a new way of life aided by technology. They lent their time to corporations and the government as they dedicated their minds to projects of personal interest, embracing the freedom espoused by the Free Love movement. This zeal is also present in the histories of some recent companies. Both Facebook and language translation company Transperfect grew out of college dorms.

During the age of the corporate-ladder-climbing crony, the majority of men were buttoned-up in strict hierarchies, often working 30+ years with the same company. Myron Stolaroff, however, prototyped America’s first magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorder and then began guiding Silicon Valley residents down the rabbit hole of group-moderated LSD trips, meant to “open their minds to new creative visions.” Meanwhile, Robert Albrecht was facilitating knowledge flow throughout the Valley with the People’s Computer Company newsletter (named after Janis Joplin’s band, naturally). Fred Moore and Gordon French took Albrecht’s vision a step further, holding meet-ups to foster hobbyist computer passions and encourage idea-sharing among a gifted young crowd, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, with their now famous Homebrew Computer Club.

This insular community of techies created a camaraderie unique to the West Coast. This camaraderie gave rise to a dynamic personal computing industry that morphed and progressed parallel to the minds of its members. But as years have distanced the personal computing industry from its roots, a new question has sprouted: is “what the dormouse said” still audible?

Silicon Valley, though still our country’s undeniable tech hub (no offense; keep truckin’ Silicon Alley), seems to have forgone the collaborative growth of times past in favor of reality shows, buzzwords, and Klout scores. Self-proclaimed serial entrepreneurs build businesses for profit, then cash out to start the venture over again.  Even in the 70s gifted minds in the personal computing industry looked to turn their enthusiasm into profits, and Moore’s Homebrew Computer Club generated a variety of companies including Apple and North Star. This isn’t a new or terrible phenomenon; if businesses were started solely out of passion, our shoes would likely lack laces and plastic bags would be a scarce commodity. But it is, in a sense, a perversion of the process. In a complete turn-around from the Silicon Valley of the 1960s, start-ups are driven by the desire to build a financially successful tech business rather than build on a passion for a better tomorrow. The result is a slough of clones — so many iterations of the same product that companies can’t always justify their versions as improvements upon a concept (much less as new original concepts), different brand names notwithstanding.

The scientists of personal computing history approached innovation from multiple angles. IBM set the computing standard with punch card computing. From there, Hewitt Crane pushed magnetic computing. And Doug Engelbart, close friend and colleague of Crane, opted to raise digital computing from its nascent form, creating the framework for the Internet and personal computer, including the mouse, display, and html, and then unveiled them in an epic demo (thought Steve Jobs came up with those moves himself?). Though Engelbart’s concept won out, each took his individual concept as far as possible and then allowed the ideas to coalesce into a more refined product. There were failed companies and mutinies, but throughout the process knowledge was constantly shared at sociopolitical hubs like Kepler’s Books. Today, talk of idea-sharing among companies is usually in reference to patent lawsuits.

There are some companies that are innovating and not creating replications of already successful products. The tablet has long been seen as the only child of the personal computer, but some start-ups are looking past the tablet and furthering the spirit of Silicon Valley, taking the personal computer to extremes. Livescribe smartpens house a computer in the shell of a pen and turn paper into an interactive display. Google, opting to bypass the tablet route, aims to further integrate computing into our lives via Project Glass. And both Microsoft and Burton are attempting to make William Shatner proud by developing 3D holograms. There are also myriad start-ups bringing innovative ideas to an increasingly tired space. As Silicon Valley progresses, the companies that are planting new seeds rather than adding tepid water to saturated soil are those that are paying mind to the flowering culture that bore their industry. What’s left to the rest is to be inspired by the inspirational, but go beyond what exists. And remember what the dormouse said–feed your head.

Livescribe is a TriplePoint client.