Why it’s hard to write a good book about the tech world

From The Economist:

When people ask Michael Moritz, a former journalist and prominent tech investor, what book they should read to understand Silicon Valley, he always recommends two. “They are not about Silicon Valley, but they have everything to do with Silicon Valley,” he says.

One is “The Studio” (1969) by John Gregory Dunne, an American writer who spent a year inside 20th Century Fox watching films get made and executives try to balance creativity with profit-seeking. The other, “Swimming Across” (2001) by Andy Grove, the former boss of Intel, a chipmaker, is a memoir about surviving the Holocaust. It shows how adversity can engender grit, which every entrepreneur needs.

That Sir Michael does not suggest a book squarely about the tech business says a lot. Silicon Valley has produced some of the world’s most gargantuan companies, but it has not inspired many written accounts with a long shelf life. Wall Street, on the other hand, claims a small canon that has stood the test of time, from chronicles of meltdowns (“Too Big to Fail”), to corporate greed (“Barbarians at the Gate”) to a fictionalised account (“The Bonfire of the Vanities”) that popularised the term “masters of the universe”.

Why not the masters of Silicon Valley? Part of the problem is access, as is often the case when writing about the powerful. Tech executives may let their guards down at Burning Man, but they have been painstakingly trained by public-relations staff to not get burned by writers. This has been the case for a while. When John Battelle was writing “The Search” (2005), about online quests for information, he spent over a year asking to interview Google’s co-founder, Larry Page. The firm tried to impose conditions, such as the right to read the manuscript in advance and add a footnote and possible rebuttal to every mention of Google. He declined. Google ended up granting the interview anyway.

Journalists who manage to finagle access can feel they owe a company and its executives and, in turn, write meek and sympathetic accounts rather than penetrating prose. Or they cannot break in—or do not even try—and write their book from a distance, without an insider’s insights.

Two new books demonstrate how hard it is to write well about Silicon Valley. “Filterworld” is an outsider’s account of the Valley’s impact, which reads as if it was entirely reported and written in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. The book laments how “culture is stuck and plagued by sameness” and blames Silicon Valley’s algorithms, “the technological spectre haunting our own era of the early 21st century”.

This is the sort of tirade against tech that has spread as widely as Silicon Valley’s apps. It is not wrong, but nor is it insightful. The author, Kyle Chayka, who is a journalist for the New Yorker, never reconciles the tension between the cultural “sameness” he decries and the personalisation everyone experiences, with online users possessing individual feeds and living in separate informational bubbles. Nor is this a wholly new phenomenon. People have been complaining about globalisation eroding local culture since “recorded civilisation” began, the author concedes. In 1890 Gabriel Tarde, a French sociologist, lamented the “persistent sameness in hotel fare and service, in household furniture, in clothes and jewellery, in theatrical notices and in the volumes in shop windows” that spread with the passenger train.

Burn Book” is a better, though imperfect, read. Kara Swisher, a veteran chronicler of Silicon Valley, is both an insider and an outsider. She has attended baby showers for tech billionaires’ offspring, and even hosted Google’s top brass for a sleepover at her mother’s apartment. But she has a distaste for the Valley’s “look-at-me narcissists, who never met an idea that they did not try to take credit for”.

In delicious detail, she offers her verdict on the techies who have become household names, such as Facebook’s founder: “As sweat poured down Mark Zuckerberg’s pasty and rounded face, I wondered if he was going to keel over right there at my feet.” (That was in 2010,before he had gone through media-training galore.) Much as Truman Capote, an American writer, was willing to skewer the socialite swans of New York, Ms Swisher delights in prodding some of her subjects to make readers smile and squirm, such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch (“Uncle Satan”) and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (“a frenetic mongoose” with “a genuinely infectious maniacal laugh”).

Link to the rest at The Economist

2 thoughts on “Why it’s hard to write a good book about the tech world”

  1. It shouldn’t be at all hard to write a good book about silivalley. You just have to be a good old school reporter. Say, like Tracy Kidder.

    THE SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE is a pretty good book about silivalley. Pulitzer prize winner and best seller, still readable 40 years later. And a classic that says pretty much anybody needs to know about the culture that made silivalley silivalley. And as such a good baseline to judge the culture that is now destroying it:


    “Tracy Kidder’s “riveting” (Washington Post) story of one company’s efforts to bring a new microcomputer to market won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has become essential reading for understanding the history of the American tech industry.
    Computers have changed since 1981, when The Soul of a New Machine first examined the culture of the computer revolution. What has not changed is the feverish pace of the high-tech industry, the go-for-broke approach to business that has caused so many computer companies to win big (or go belly up), and the cult of pursuing mind-bending technological innovations.
    The Soul of a New Machine is an essential chapter in the history of the machine that revolutionized the world in the twentieth century.”


    “The computer revolution brought with it new methods of getting work done–just look at today’s news for reports of hard-driven, highly-motivated young software and online commerce developers who sacrifice evenings and weekends to meet impossible deadlines. Tracy Kidder got a preview of this world in the late 1970s when he observed the engineers of Data General design and build a new 32-bit minicomputer in just one year. His thoughtful, prescient book, The Soul of a New Machine, tells stories of 35-year-old “veteran” engineers hiring recent college graduates and encouraging them to work harder and faster on complex and difficult projects, exploiting the youngsters’ ignorance of normal scheduling processes while engendering a new kind of work ethic.
    These days, we are used to the “total commitment” philosophy of managing technical creation, but Kidder was surprised and even a little alarmed at the obsessions and compulsions he found. From in-house political struggles to workers being permitted to tease management to marathon 24-hour work sessions, The Soul of a New Machine explores concepts that already seem familiar, even old-hat, less than 20 years later. Kidder plainly admires his subjects; while he admits to hopeless confusion about their work, he finds their dedication heroic. The reader wonders, though, what will become of it all, now and in the future. –Rob Lightner”

    • The Economist needs to read something other than financial books.

      A more recent examination of what silivalley is supposed to be is:


      On April 19, 1965, an article with a title only an engineer could love — “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits” — appeared in Electronics magazine, a trade journal about the radio industry.

      The earnest meditation on component-cramming by Gordon E. Moore, an electronics engineer who went on to run Intel, should have been a niche exercise. Instead, it may be the most influential trade magazine article ever published. By extrapolating from his observations in the nascent semiconductor industry near San Francisco, Moore managed to foretell the entire future of computing.

      Most notably, he predicted that the number of transistors that an engineer could cram on a chip of silicon would double about every two years. This projection has been borne out so impressively over the decades that it is now known as Moore’s Law. Sixty years ago, four transistors could fit on a chip. Today some 11.8 billion can.

      The extraordinary excitement of Moore’s Law, and the precarity of its ever-upward promise, are central to the pulse-quickening pace of Chris Miller’s new book, “Chip War,” which chronicles the development, proliferation and strategic deployment of the semiconductor chips that now animate everything from cars to toys to nukes. Miller, who teaches international affairs at Tufts University, brings his expertise in Russian and Chinese history to the global oligopoly that manufactures both the chips and the precise-nearly-to-the-atom tools and foundries that produce them. In the end, “Chip War” makes a whale of a case: that the chip industry now determines both the structure of the global economy and the balance of geopolitical power.”

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