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Valley of Genius author Adam Fisher on what it’s like to create an oral history of Silicon Valley

Valley of Genius author Adam Fisher on what it’s like to create an oral history of Silicon Valley


Silicon Valley is a culture story

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Adam Fisher grew up in Silicon Valley, but left to pursue journalism in New York. Though he continued writing about technology and the internet, he found that the stories reported from afar were different from the stories that he had heard growing up.

“Silicon Valley has made a huge amount of money and it’s usually presented as a business story of our times,” says Fisher, “but that business story is embedded in a larger story, which is a cultural story and it’s really becoming, in my view, the popular culture.” Nerdiness is becoming cool, he claims, especially among the kind of people who make the pop culture. You see it in rappers becoming venture capitalists, xkcd being huge, The Martian becoming a phenomena.

Fisher is the author of Valley of Genius, an oral history of the last half-century of Silicon Valley created through over 200 interviews. “There are many histories, but no one’s really told the story of the last 50 years of Silicon Valley and I wanted to present it as the history understood by the people who knew they were making history,” he says.

The Verge spoke to Fisher about researching the oral history, the biggest surprises, and what was left out. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tell me about the process of doing research for the book. How much of it was research versus archives? You have many quotes from Steve Jobs, for example.

Image: Courtesy of Adam Fisher

Of course, I did not interview Steve Jobs myself. There are some other very big names that are essentially impossible to get interviews with. But people like Jobs had given lots of interviews in their lives and there are archival things at the Smithsonian, or I went back to journalists who had interviewed these guys and convinced them to give me their original takes.

But the vast majority of sources in the book, probably about 200 people, I interviewed face-to-face, for many hours at a time. At the end, I had about 10 million words of material and I had to go through that and cut out all the boring stuff to get it down to 500 pages. I locked myself into my office for over four years to do it. It was a huge undertaking that took a lot more time and money than I expected or had.

What were the most surprising stories?

I was amazed to discover when I interviewed Steve Wozniak that he didn’t go to Steve Jobs’ memorial service. He was invited, of course, but he was too busy and kind of blew it off. And it just speaks to the core division, the core tension of Silicon Valley, between the engineering types and entrepreneurial types.

Another shocker was about Steve Jobs himself. I’d read more than a dozen books about him and I came across this fairly widespread rumor that he took a high dose of acid on his deathbed. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to track down that rumor and figure it out. It remains an interesting mystery.

What do you feel like you left out?

Well, it’s only the last 50 years. I didn’t talk about the silicon in Silicon Valley.

“I’m looking for Silicon Valley’s rebirth.”

And there’s a current conversation about diversity and women in Silicon Valley and that was difficult. There was the balance of not pretending there were women in places there weren’t, versus the problem that a lot of histories did erase the women who were there.

How is the myth evolving?

The media narrative seems to have done an about-face fairly recently. It used to be that no one in Silicon Valley could do wrong and not every story might be the Theranos story. I think that’s the normal boom-bust cycle. But I also think that the problem is that what’s good about Silicon Valley maker culture has been overwhelmed by what’s bad about the financial culture, the B-school culture, and get-rich-quick ventures. I think that’s an outside culture corrupting the real nerd culture. So in a way, I think these busts are good for Silicon Valley because they tell the people who are not motivated by creation to get away. You get this rejuvenation and rebirth. I’m looking for Silicon Valley’s rebirth.