"The ideas that made Silicon Valley as powerful and rich as it is now are utopian ones" – interview with writer Adam Fisher

Adam Fisher is a born and bred Silicon Valley-ite who began writing about technology and culture more than two decades ago. A long-term editor at the legendary Wired magazine and the author of the book Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley, he has interviewed many seminal tech figures from Sergey Brin and Larry Page to Steve Wozniak.

Today, he is a freelance author whose true passion lies at the intersection of technology and arts and exploring the question “What is next?”, the answer to which he most often finds in the technical counterculture.
This interview was conducted by Kristel Kont, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

Your presentation at sTARTUp Day is titled “How can we repeat the Genius of Silicon Valley?” Can you give a taste of what you will be talking about?

I’m not giving an actual speech – it will be a Q&A. But if you ask me what is behind this genius, I think it’s a mindset of experimentation which, in the case of Silicon Valley, came directly out of the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The rock’n’roll of that era was in a cultural sense centered in San Francisco.

I’ve talked about the gaming company Atari, early Apple, and Xerox PARC in the 1970s as the start of modern Silicon Valley. That was the point where Silicon Valley stopped building scientific instruments and started building mass-market products, which really affected the culture. And all those companies were highly, highly influenced by the counterculture.

Now that’s not the story Silicon Valley wants to tell. Because Silicon Valley still needs to raise capital, and no one wants to give a lot of capital to some crazy counter-culturalists. And of course, Silicon Valley has changed, and many companies in Silicon Valley today are as buttoned up as companies anywhere else. But the startup scene still comes from countercultural roots. And a lot of people at the highest level in big companies, like Google, Facebook, and Apple, are at Burning Man every year.

There is this general mindset of open-mindedness and willingness to think about things in a new way and create the world anew, which I believe is what allows big breakthroughs to happen and makes the difference.

In your book Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley, you describe the romantic, idealistic origins of the Valley as well as the excesses of the dot-com boom, when the tech sector got flooded with money. Then, the bubble inevitably burst, leading to a fresh start. Where are we now?

The question for Silicon Valley now is can this original spirit survive the huge influx of Harvard MBAs and more money-oriented people from more conventional parts of the United States. To a certain extent, you need those people and that kind of responsibility, especially when a company grows and becomes public. But, yeah, I think it does threaten to overwhelm the system.

And undoubtedly, companies like Facebook, Google, and (I would even argue) Apple have turned into problematic oligarchical corporations. Now, I don’t think they’re as bad as some people think, but they clearly need to be regulated more than they are.

So, I do think that Silicon Valley is in danger of forgetting where it came from and turning into just another Wall Street or extractive industry where they’re just mining data and ultimately using people. That’s why I wrote Valley of Genius. Today, I focus on Silicon Valley’s frontiers and the edges: on “What’s next?” and “What’s over the horizon?”. And that’s a happier place.

Your book talks about the constant drive to push the frontier that has been deeply entrenched in the Silicon Valley character ever since the Gold Rush. In the 1970s, the frontier was the PC; in the 1990s, the Internet. Where is the frontier for today’s young entrepreneurs?

I think there are two things. The first is crypto, and what is important there are not the coins ‒ the bitcoin, the ether, and all the others. The important thing to understand is that the idealist engineering types that invented it ‒ and to a certain extent are still there ‒ were never building an asset class or a currency. They are building a new kind of infrastructure explicitly designed to destroy the big Internet monopolies. They think they can create and secure their utopian, bohemian ideas of what freedom is and should be with a new kind of software architecture.

So that’s one frontier. Again, since crypto is so tied up with money, it’s unclear whether it will survive the people who have shown up just to make a quick buck.

The other frontier, interestingly enough, is hardware. One of the big historical patterns in tech has been the swing between hardware and software. First, it was the microcomputers, then Microsoft showed that the real money was in the software, the operating system. Then Silicon Valley created another big software boom with the Internet.

I think that now we’re going back to hardware again. The whole maker movement has made rapid prototyping in people’s garages possible, so that’s something to watch. For instance, I just did a big story about a guy who, essentially as a COVID project, made a flying car in his garage. Whether you can make money on either of those things is a different question. But as far as what’s pulling the young, free-thinking engineers in, it’s making hardware and crypto, as far as I can tell.

How has the pandemic affected Silicon Valley? Do you think there will be any long-lasting effects?

Sure. For one, I think people are starting to have a more measured and realistic view of the Valley after a period where it was essentially blamed for Trump, which I think was unfair. During COVID, Amazon and Zoom provided a real lifeline for people. You could still send your kids to school. Certain jobs could be done over Zoom. We started to spend a lot more time online and experiment with different kinds of technology-enabled solutions to our problems: for example, in my family, meal kits took the place of going out to restaurants. Big technology companies and small tech-oriented startups made life a little more livable.

Basically, in a technological sense, the pandemic pushed us 5 to 10 years into the future. I personally think that most jobs will go back to in-person, but a good 20% – or maybe a much higher percentage of jobs in the Valley – will remain remote. And that will have a profound effect on the country. Similar to building the interstate system, it will just fundamentally change where people choose to live.
So while COVID did not create anything new ‒ besides the vaccine ‒ it accelerated the virtualization of life, which is run on Silicon Valley servers and software.

What about you personally? Did you take up any new hobbies during the lockdown?

Oddly, the pandemic made my life better. The problem with being a writer is that you’re lonely ‒ you’re just in a room, typing. But my family has been with me a big part of that time, so it’s been nice for me. We do a lot more camping, hiking, and those sorts of things. I’m really leaning into my outdoorsy Northern California roots.

A lot of people are hurting, so I feel bad about saying it was not such a big deal for me. But that’s the truth. And I think that’s true for most people with Silicon Valley types of jobs.

So silicon Valley kind of enabled people to get on with civilization, and then it also enriched the Valley, which is ironic. The rich get richer syndrome is a big structural problem that is going to have to be solved or at least mitigated at a political level, and you can see that happening now.

You are a freelance author. What are you working on at the moment?

I have written another book, it’s about Yves Béhar, who is maybe the most influential designer working today, and it's coming out early next month. It’s a big coffee table art book/design monograph. And I did a couple of privately published books for tech billionaires.

I also continue to write super fun magazine stories, mostly for Alta, a kind of West Coast version of The New Yorker magazine. I did a piece on the rebel Burning Man that happened last year. And a big piece on that flying car guy, Dezső Molnár. And I just published a piece on Phil Ross, a bio artist from San Francisco who was working with mushrooms when he realized that he could make them grow into almost any form. He started a little company called MycoWorks, and now Hermès, the Parisian fashion label, uses his mushroom leather in their new bags.

So, I’m doing these Silicon Valley technical underground counterculture type of stories. You won’t find me reporting on Facebook or Google or Apple because to me they’ve become boring. I like to figure out what’s next, and I find the answers more often than not in the technical counterculture.

As a journalist and book author, you have interviewed many tech rock stars. How difficult is it to connect and talk to them?

The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley is 95% based on original interviews. I had to use archival interviews for people who were dead, or I just couldn’t get to, like Mark Zuckerberg. But if you go one level down, you can get pretty much at everyone. Some of the most interesting people were people who were just there: you know, the secretary, the chef, the intern.
They are important to interview because they saw what happened, too, but they don’t have to buff their reputations. So, some of the most authentic stories came from people who are not tech rock stars.
One of the virtues of Silicon Valley is its very flat structure. Generally speaking, people drive their own cars and answer their own emails. It’s not that hierarchical – it’s a network. New York, for example, where I worked for a long time in the media, is a hierarchical system. There is a kind of king-type figure and a court with courtiers. You know exactly where you are on the pecking order, and there’s a ladder to get up. Kind of a European system, historically.

On the west coast, it’s different. It still is a frontier – Northern California still is very wild and basically undeveloped. And there is a different kind of social structure. I think it’s no coincidence that the Internet is a network-type structure with nodes in the net densely connected. Yes, some nodes are more important than other nodes, but fundamentally, it is a network.

So, I was able to work my personal network to get introductions to many true insiders, and where I couldn’t, I was able to send an email. And not always, but way more often than you’d think, I’d get an answer like, “Yeah, I’m familiar with your writing. I like what you do, and so sure, I’ll spend an hour talking to you.” Some of these people are billionaires, so that’s the equivalent of getting a million dollars of their time. It’s very generous.

Yet, some of these tech rock stars are known to be very demanding and difficult people…

The greatest hero of Silicon Valley was probably Steve Jobs. And he was unquestionably a total asshole and on so many levels, a troubled guy, ultimately. And many people channel his personality when trying to invent themselves. For example, Elizabeth Holmes, who ran Theranos, clearly modeled herself on Steve Jobs to the point of picking up his bad habits and the way he treated people.

There are almost no VCs or money people in the book, it’s all technical people. All the technical types of founders I talked to universally didn’t have great things to say about the VC community. The VCs today have changed for the better now because they need to ‒ there’s just more money chasing fewer good ideas. But VCs are motivated differently than the countercultural engineers. VCs are still not in the Valley to help people or bring about a technical utopia.
They’re in it for one reason, profit, and a single minded pursuit of profit can lead to a lot of bad behavior.
So, there’s plenty of toxic stuff in Silicon Valley, and I don’t want to lead anybody astray by pretending that there isn’t. I’m just saying that when you work your way back to the spark of insight or creativity that created the wealth, at the end of the day, Silicon Valley is utopian, countercultural, and kind of beautiful. And the bigger the idea, the more so, the smaller the idea, the less so. There’s a lot of stupid small ideas that were started just to get a quick exit.

But the ideas that made Silicon Valley as powerful and rich as it is now are utopian ones. And I do think that the way to create another Silicon Valley is to get that essential insight and apply it in whatever tactical direction is fascinating to the people who build stuff.

A final question: would you share some book recommendations for the approaching long autumn evenings?

I’m going to recommend ‒ and that’s different than saying I agree with it ‒ a super nerdy self-published book called Where Is My Flying Car? that is only available as an ebook on Amazon. It will enrage some people and delight others. But if you want to know what I mean by the “technical counterculture” and if you are looking for a pure strand of Silicon Valley crazy, technical utopianism, you can’t do much better than that book!

Adam will discuss what is behind the phenomenon of Silicon Valley at sTARTUp Day on August 27. Check out the whole festival program.
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