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!