Lisa Hawes

Silicon Valley: Ideas “R” Us

"Silicon Valley" premieres on PBS on February 5th.

“Silicon Valley” premieres on PBS on February 5th.

At the Sundance Film Festival last week, one of the most buzzed-about screenings was that of the new Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher. With a second Jobs movie in the planning stage, scripted by Aaron Sorkin from the Walter Isaacson bestseller, Silicon Valley is becoming an entertainment locus for stories as well as the new digital technologies changing how movies are made.

Sorkin kick-started it with The Social Network. Who would have thought a movie about the Internet could be so captivating? Geek culture is suddenly glam. Bravo tried a really bad (in my opinion) “reality” series called Start-Ups: Silicon Valley although most of the 20-something entrepreneurs worked and partied in San Francisco. Mike Judge is currently casting a comedy for HBO called Silicon Valley, which I imagine will have a sensibility similar to that of Office Space, his cubicle-dweller classic.

These shows have dipped a toe in fact but were primarily fiction. If you want insight to the true stories of the pioneers of Silicon Valley —and why they still matter— you have to go back in time much farther than Zuckerberg or even Jobs, to the late Eisenhower era of white button-down shirts, skinny ties, and square black-framed glasses.

On Tuesday, February 5th, PBS will debut a new documentary as part of the American Experience series called —you guessed it— Silicon Valley. It’s the story of the engineers working in the valley’s first semiconductor companies, the ones who put the silicon in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a hub of immigrants. I know very few second-generation residents, let alone third-generation ones. Most people who live here know only the barest historical facts about the place. They know of the Gold Rush and the Beats and the Summer of Love in San Francisco, but not the details of how a valley of fruit orchards transformed into office parks in just a quarter-century. They may have heard of the HP garage, but not the Shockley lab or Fairchild Semiconductor — the centerpieces of the documentary.  The reason this is important is that 55 years after the “Traitorous Eight” abandoned Shockley Semiconductor to set up Fairchild, Silicon Valley remains the center of innovation. New data from the Brookings Institution shows that the metropolitan area covering San Francisco south to San Jose, including both sides of the Bay, achieved over 16,000 patents per year on average from 2007 to 2011. The next runner up was the New York metro area with fewer than 7,000. Ideas “R” Us, indeed.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, you can watch Silicon Valley on KQED-TV (Channel 9) at 8:00 p.m., followed at 9:30 p.m. by the 2011 documentary Something Ventured: Risk, Reward and the Original Venture Capitalists, which sheds light on the development of a parallel industry without which the start-up culture could not flourish.

I frequently hear people lament they’ve missed a TV show and then query if it’s available on Netflix. Because Silicon Valley is broadcast on PBS, you’ll be able to catch it at least six times this month on multiple PBS stations (KQED repeats its programs on at least three different channels). Most American Experience documentaries are eventually streamed in their entirety via the PBS website, too, although currently only the 16-minute first chapter is available.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the high tech industry and some of its colorful pioneering personalities, I strongly recommend Robert X. Cringely’s classic Accidental Empires in both its 1992 book and 1996 PBS documentary forms. Cringlely will shortly begin a “reboot” of the book by serialization on his blog, as preparation of a new annotated edition and eBook. I read the book and watched the TV series 15 years ago, when I was planning my move to Silicon Valley, and it got me excited to visit Mountain View and Menlo Park. Yes, really!

Lisa Hawes can be reached at lhawes@sterlingpr.com. Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes.

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Lies in the service of the truth? Or just lies?

Mike Daisey is a liar.

He may not see it that way, but no reasonable person can hear or read the misrepresentations and outright fabrications in his stage act, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” without concluding that he has a problem with the truth. A rather big one.

Daisey’s veil of lies was ripped to tatters when he allowed the NPR program “This American Life” to air an excerpt of his stage play earlier this year. Asked direct questions by the program’s producers about the details of his polemic, Daisey could have easily admitted that he embellished and fabricated certain facts and events and that would have been that.  The show wouldn’t have broadcast and he wouldn’t have come under the journalistic scrutiny that ultimately (albeit somewhat tardily) revealed his falsehoods. Instead, Daisey doubled down and vouched for the authenticity of his “facts,” even going so far as to invent new lies  to make it harder for the program’s producers to independently verify his story.

It all came apart when the China business correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, noticed inconsistencies between Daisey’s alleged experience and what the correspondent himself had seen in the course of his own reporting. So Schmitz decided to do some digging. It quickly became obvious that Daisey simply couldn’t have experienced some of the things he claimed to have seen and heard first-hand. And the details of some of his stories bore a striking resemblance to news reports of incidents that happened thousands of miles from the factories Daisey claimed to have visited. It just didn’t add up.

Because it wasn’t true.  In a startling and painful retraction segment last weekend, This American Life’s host Ira Glass tried to get at the root of why Daisey lied. Daisey hems and haws, offers a half-hearted apology, cops to being afraid of the reaction if people knew he was dissembling, talks about art versus journalism, of a desire to provoke an emotional response in his audience in the service of a greater truth. Ultimately Daisey argues that it’s OK for him to lie because his purpose is noble.

Daisey goes further with this line in a couple of  posts on his own blog. Apparently immune to irony, he even hints that the retraction segment on This American Life was creatively edited to make him look worse.  It’s … infuriating.

That Daisey thinks his lies are excusable because he is attempting to shed light on an often-overlooked problem – the harsh working conditions endured by many Chinese factory workers – is beside the point. That he characterizes his lies as “dramatic license” is convenient and equally irrelevant. What matters is that Daisey lied – and continues to lie – to US, to his audience, to the people whose sympathy he is trying to gain. He lies because he doesn’t trust us with the truth. And because the truth is complex, messy and not at all conducive to simple, black and white storytelling about good vs. evil, wealth vs. poverty, or corporate greed vs. basic human rights.

Then there’s the simple unfairness of his screed. At one point in his monologue, Daisey claims to have met a 13 year old girl and her friends outside of a factory. He quotes her as saying that not just she, but lots of underage workers are employed building Apple products. Then he asks the audience a rhetorical question: “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”

The implication, of course, is that Apple does not just callously disregard the deplorable working conditions in the factories that make its products but essentially condones the use of child labor. They are not just tolerating this illegal activity, but complicit in it. It’s a serious charge. If true, it’s a black mark not just on Apple’s brand but on the very integrity of the people who run the company.

And once again, Daisey lies. He met no such underage workers. He channels his inner Stephen Glass and simply makes them up. For the story. For the cause.

He uses fake people to impugn the very real reputations of Apple executives. Never mind that Apple is considered a leader in pushing its foreign suppliers and partners to improve working conditions. Or that, long before Daisey came along,  the company published its own reports on working conditions and child labor violations and its efforts to eliminate them. All that matters is Daisey’s narrative. Facts be damned.

The thing is, despite his protestations to the contrary, Daisey’s lies will hurt his cause. People tend to turn their backs on those who dupe them, to be skeptical when somebody cries wolf. The next person who comes forward with criticisms about Chinese factory working conditions will have to bear the weight of Daisey’s lies. They’ll have to overcome a wariness that we’ve heard it all before. And it wasn’t true.

Lies in the service of the truth are still lies. They don’t serve the truth so much as they obscure it. Ultimately, they diminish us all.

Kevin Pedraja can be reached at kpedraja@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @kpedraja.

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Halloween Goes Social

Halloween Pumpkins ImageWith the proliferation of social media, gone are the days of thumbing through a newspaper to find out about Halloween events, or browsing through a store to come up with ideas for a costume. People are flocking to Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites more than ever to decide not only where to go, but also who to be for Halloween.
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Kawika

Open the Door

We’re an all-Mac shop at Sterling Communications. We’re big fans of Apple even when one of their computers isn’t a fan of us. So when Steve Jobs resigned as CEO from Apple, we (like most in the tech world) were caught up in the moment, wondering:

And so on.

But the stories that interest me the most have been the smaller but more personal ones. Here’s a short tale of mine when I worked at Apple: (more…)