There are two ways to drive through Santa Clara County -- the place that's best known as Silicon Valley.
One is to take Route 101, a gritty, smoggy, arterial highway clogged with the traffic of changing shifts at the Lockheed, Intel, National Semiconductor and other plants that scar the landscape. The view is unrelentingly bleak, commercial and ugly.
The other highway is 280, a longer drive, to be sure, but one with a irresistable aesthetic appeal. The mountains that carve into the California blue sky, the BMWs and the Porsches that skim along the roadway, the breathtaking houses that fit snugly into the mountainside are all part of this view. This is the Silicon Valley above the grime and sweat and toxic chemicals of the wafer fabrication plants. This is the Silicon Valley of entrepreneurial dreams fulfilled.
Two new books also offer similarly disparate views of Silicon Valley and the technological revolutions it spawned. Michael Malone's "The Big Score" (Doubleday, $18.95) provides a blood-and-guts insider's perspective of the people and companies that turned Silicon Valley into the high-tech capital of the world, while Howard Rheingold's "Tools for Thought: The People & Ideas Behind the Next Computer Revolution" (Simon & Schuster, $17.95) gives a more pristine and cerebral angle on the future of the technology.
Both books are well-researched, well-written and do an excellent job of giving context to the sweep of people, economics and technologies that have shaped the Valley.
Ignore the title; Malone's book is less about The Big Score than the people who play the Silicon Valley game. His book contains perhaps the finest collection of Valley entrepreneur profiles yet written. The sketch of Jerry Sanders -- the founder and ultraflamboyant chairman of Advanced Micro Devices (the chip company) -- has got more violence, pathos, unquenched ambition, pink pants and high technology fused into a few pages than his company can pack circuits on a chip.
Here's a guy who was beaten up and left for dead in a teen-age gang fight in Chicago, wanted to become a Hollywood movie star and instead ended up peddling chips for Fairchild. He launched his own company, struck it rich and flaunts his wealth the way peacocks fan their feathers. (Sanders has a thing for Rolls Royces).
Sanders' social life (divorced, dating women decades younger than himself) is also a part of the mix.
Similarly, Malone's profile of Les Hogan -- the engineering wunderkind who who built Motorola into a semiconductor power but failed to work his magic on an ailing Fairchild -- is a masterful study of physics, psychology, management and failure. (In fact, the size of the financial package used to lure Hogan away from Motorola to Fairchild has become a Silicon Valley unit of measure -- the Hogan -- that other recruitment lures are tested against.)
Indeed, Malone's descriptions of Fairchild and the people who ran it is the centerpiece of this book: a profile of perhaps one of the most important high-technology companies of this century, important not because of what the company necessarily did, but because of how it irrevocably changed the lives of the people who worked there.
What "The Big Score" offers is a sociological Baedeker into the people who made Silicon Valley Silicon Valley. Of course, the Hewletts and the Packards and the Bob Noyces come in for their due. But there's also a host of integral, but lesser-known characters who had their roles to play amidst this backdrop of technological and economic churn.
The Big Score -- the urge to get rich quick -- was (and is) an important part of the Valley lore and psyche. But Malone's profiles -- which also delve into the seamier side of Valley life such as the silicon sweatshops and aberrant real estate values -- make it clear that the Valley represents a different kind of fusion of American values.
The Valley just isn't like Route 128 or the Rust Belt or the Sun Belt. It has its own ethos of achievement and wealth. To know it, you have to look beyond taking companies public or appreciating the intricacies of semiconductor physics -- you have to know the people that the Valley admires and/or fears. The people who made it big and failed big.
While Malone leaves an awful lot out, I was surprised at just how well he put this book together. There are disjointed comments and descriptions at times, but for anybody who wants to gain a genuine understanding of the people who have made Silicon Valley what it is today (that includes the downside), this book is well worth the time.
Similarly, if you want to appreciate the people who are shaping the next generation of computer hardware, software and interfaces, then Rheingold's "Tools for Thought" is a solid read. Crudely put, this book is a collection of "Soul of a New Machine" stories -- except here, all the characters are really characters. Not that these conceptual computer designers are nerds, it's simply that their thoughtwaves oscillate to the beat of drums that have barely been imagined, let alone invented.
For example, who has heard of Doug Engelbart -- a quasi-reclusive genius (a real genius, not a media-made genius) who invented the mouse interface and inspired a generation of young computer scientists to design computer systems that were accessible to people -- not just computerniks? Here is the guy who laid the conceptual groundwork for the personal computer decades before the invention of the microprocessor and virtually nobody outside the computer fraternity (yes, fraternity -- not may women here) knows who he is.
There's also a profile of Ted Nelson, the author of Computer Lib (perhaps the best book yet written about computers) and frustrated entrepreneur whom Rheingold describes thus: As a forecaster, in a notoriously unpredictable field, Ted Nelson has done better than most -- at forecasting. His business and scholarly ventures have yet to meet with success in either the academic establishment or the computer marketplace. He has a history of disenchanting and antagonizing the people who have enough respect for his wild talents to take the risk of hiring him. He's currently on his "third career crash" and still has a while to wait before he knows whether the stock he holds in the company that is going to market his dream will make him a millionaire, thereby vindicating his long struggle, or leave him penniless, thereby branding him as a bonafide crank instead of a late blooming visionary."
In sum, for a deftly done scan of the most brilliant of computerdom's crackpots and visionaries, Rheingold's book is a nifty piece of work. The two books -- read in parallel -- provide a good left-brain/right-brain consciousness of what the people and technology from the Left Coast mean today and should mean tomorrow.