How Not to Tell the Story of Silicon ValleyPhoto: Courtesy of Science Channel TV Features Silicon Valley: The Untold Story
And the Squandered Opportunity Award goes to: Science Channel! Congrats, dudes.
I worked in Silicon Valley for much of the 1990s; for a doomed startup, a networking megalith, a dot-bomb with a 25-year-old CEO, and a Berlitz Language School where I taught ESL to relocated engineers from Korea, Japan and Russia. I know lots of stories. I even have a few of my own. I was never a real player in that world; it was something I did to keep the bills paid while I wrote poems (which it did, handsomely: Cisco Systems stock options are the reason I have ever been both a writer and a homeowner). I wasn’t a programmer, a software developer, or an entrepreneur. But I was there the day Amazon went live. I was there the day Google went live. And I was part of the team that “sold” the concept of purchasing things over the Internet, which, unbelievably enough, was once considered impossible or way too risky.
Silicon Valley: The Untold Story is a docuseries in three parts, comprising several hours of very, very much already-told stories about the history of the San Francisco Peninsula’s tech industries. I think I might be about to coin the term “doc-bomb.” Can I do that? Too much?
There is so much material here. There are so many angles, so many people, so many stories, that one could easily extrapolate it into a multi-season docuseries along the lines of Nature, with weekly episodes for years, each focusing on a specific bit of history, a company, a larger-than-life entrepreneur, that guy no one’s heard of who actually had the idea first; it could explore politics, gender, how the government bolstered and leveraged tech companies, the crisis-level broadening of the have/have-not divide in the San Francisco Bay Area and what it’s doing to those of us who aren’t employed by Facebook or Apple or Google. I mean, there are years and years’ worth of stories about the hows and whys and whens and wheres of the Peninsula. So when you have a lifetime’s worth of stuff you can document and explain, you really have to be focused. And organized. And clear, and non-repetitive, and attentive to the script. You can do this in an almost infinite number of ways. Start with a locus of invention: Stanford University, for example. And radiate outward. The people who met there, the connections that were forged, the companies that resulted. Or devote an hour to a specific rainmaker: A lot of people know a lot about Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, but there are zillions of men and women who designed companies, technologies, business models and products that changed the way we live. Look at one company per episode and deep-dive into its culture, its contributions, its issues. Look at the social aspects: The still freakishly male-dominated business culture and why it’s still like that would be a glaring example of something that gets touched on for 37 seconds in this series and actually could really use an entire episode, but it isn’t the only one by a long mile.
Silicon Valley: The Untold Story has almost no discernable organizing principle. It glosses over the history of the valley in a careening, surface-oriented style that tosses out tons of information but in a strikingly non-linear way, so that even the voiceover narration becomes confusing. (Talking about past events in the present tense—“Jobs and Wozniak create the Apple 1,” or whatever—shouldn’t create that much dissonance, but the way this is edited, it brought me up short several times.) One minute we’re talking about the history of web browsers, the next we’re kind of talking about the Pentagon in the 1960s and then the interactive TV speculation of the 1970s, then we get 10 seconds on the development of Java at Sun Microsystems and before you know it we’re talking about self-driving cars and then you blink and Justin TV is suddenly at the forefront and there’s a bizarre succession of diversions before we understand why we were on self-driving cars 5 minutes ago. The program jumps (hyperlinks, if you will) from business to business and personality to personality with very little contextualization. Timelines are hazy. The editing often just doesn’t work. The story (in this instance, selected at random from a million such sequences) is the story of Cruise (a self-driving car technology) being sold to GM for $1 billion, but getting there could probably make you carsick, not to mention the fact that it’s really hard to separate what’s still in the future from what’s already in the past.
Overall, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story is a deep vein of ore that’s been mined incredibly haphazardly, beginning with the title itself, which sets you up to believe you’re going to be given a tour of stuff people don’t realize about this hotbed of innovation and its uniquely risk-tolerant culture. That’s not what happens. We get a double-decker bus tour of the technologies and industries that have arisen or developed there, and the driver’s taking a lot of weird left turns and speaking through a faulty mic and only pointing out the landmarks you already know about. There’s a lot to say about Silicon Valley—past, present and future. There are lots and lots of untold stories.
Maybe the best way to look at this docuseries is to see it as a meta-picture of the Valley itself: 90% of ventures started in the South Bay explode into chaos and fail, but the 10% that become cogent and relevant are world-changers. As we flit from the past to the future to the present to the future to the past, and as we skate over soundbite after soundbite and concept after concept only to leave them basically unexplored, you could almost see it as a sort of map of the region. Maybe. I’m not sure. What I can tell you is that this docuseries should probably have been handled in a completely different way, because most of those stories we were promised still feel untold.
Silicon Valley: The Untold Story premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on Science Channel.
Amy Glynn once successfully used the conventions of formal poetry to explain token ring technology to a sales engineer. She is grateful that she no longer has to do that because she’s never been great with PowerPoint.