O'Mara, Margaret. The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. New York: Penguin Press, 2019. Pp. xiii, 496. ISBN 978-0399562181 (cloth) $30.00; 978-0399562204 (paper) $20.00; 978-0399562198 (EBook) no price listed.
Reviewing this book suggests a question: What does Silicon Valley history have to do with communication research? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the kinds of questions we ask in our profession as researchers and people generally ask about how we communicate in our present context of global communication and social media. The question is partly about how the technology affects how and with whom we communicate. But it is also about the ecosystem from which that technology came and how it has penetrated the everyday lives of much of the world's people. The book addresses not just stars of technology, like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, or Jeff Bezos, whose stories are often told. Much has been written about Silicon Valley, but a look at its entire 70-plus year history has rarely been attempted. The present book is one of the best of those attempts to date. The author, Margaret O'Mara, is a historian who tells the story of the ecosystem that began after WWII and continues today and includes the big names of technology in Silicon Valley (and Seattle), but more importantly, emphasizes the complexity of the community of engineers, lawyers, politicians, venture capitalists, academics, and many other contributors who make up a complex and unique system. Finally, a personal note: I spent 13 years at Stanford during the early middle years of this 70-year arc, and the book has helped me better understand my own trajectory as a professor of communication.
This is a story of people and of technologies set in the unique geography of Northern California in a particular historical period from 1946 to 2020. But it is a story that is more complex than just engineers and their inventions. It includes critical elements often left out of the rise of the techno-billionaires: the importance from the beginning and continuing today of government/defense money and legislation; marketing promotion and journalists writing about the technologies who helped create the myths and heroes; the rise of venture capital as a funding mechanism; the role of Stanford and its university research symbiosis with the emerging tech companies; the role of law firms in the first stages of new companies' growth; finally, the increasing importance of political lobbying in Washington. The author uses a metaphor for this complex system, calling it a Galapagos, a unique ecosystem in Northern California (that includes Seattle, but with limitations) at a certain historical time that makes it almost impossible to replicate. The narrative structure is a straightforward chronological accounting, but it includes all of these elements woven together and makes a revealing response to the question O'Mara begins with: Why it has been so hard for others to replicate Silicon Valley elsewhere in the United States as well as internationally?
It will be impossible to give...