By Joanne McNeil
Joanne McNeil is the author of Lurking: How a Person Became a User.
The way people talk about it now, it might seem as though computers had flourished naturally in Northern California like cherries and apricot orchards; that all it took to imagine the potential of terminals and chips was nice weather, garage space for tinkering, and clusters of nerdy white guys. In fact, Silicon Valley was only one of many American tech innovation hubs in the latter half of the twentieth century.
But as a topic, the geography of the tech industry is not so straight-forward. For one thing, “tech” is an insufficient catchall term with boundaries that appear more arbitrary as the companies grow (Netflix but not Disney? Tesla but not Ford?) “Silicon Valley” as a metonym captures the shared culture of “tech companies” but that term gets confusing when it is applied to business outside Northern California. These other regions and their histories might bring us closer to understanding what “tech” has meant over time and where the sector is headed.
Greater Boston was one of those alternate hubs and until the 1990s, it appeared almost as crucial to the growth of the sector as Northern California. Like Silicon Valley, tech companies blossomed in the region due to military contracts, usually secured through neighboring universities, and other federal research grants after World War II. It was in Cambridge where contractors at BBN developed the internet precursor ARPANET with backing from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the US defense agency now known as DARPA. BBN is now a subsidiary of Raytheon, also headquartered outside Boston. Early experiments in packet-switching by ARPA chief scientist Larry Roberts happened while he was at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Even the first publicly traded venture capital firm in America, American Research and Development Corporation, launched in Boston. By 1984, there were just under a thousand tech companies outside the city along Route 128.
Route 128, a highway that had been cobbled from surface streets that ran in a half-moon around Boston without ever crossing through it, had, at various points, been dubbed both a “road to nowhere” and “America’s Technology Highway,” foreshadowing the fate of the tech companies situated near its cloverleaf interchanges. Wang Laboratories, founded in Tewksbury, once a popular PC company in the 1980s, is gone. Data General, the minicomputer company founded by ex-DEC employees and profiled in Tracy Kidder’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Soul of a New Machine, is gone. Apollo Computer and Prime Computer are gone. These companies became ancient tech history after they were acquired by other companies — usually corporations out west, and often as the first enclosure in a matryoshka nesting doll of acquisitions.
The star of Route 128, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) — founded by former Lincoln Lab staff — once seemed invincible, like its rival IBM. The second-largest computer company in its time, DEC launched the PDP-8, the first stably operable minicomputer, in 1964. Headquartered in an enormous converted textile mill complex, by 1989 it was the largest private-sector employer in the state of Massachusetts. DEC left the mill in 1994, and after years of layoffs and plant closings, Compaq bought the struggling company in 1998 (Hewlett-Packard later acquired Compaq). The search engine AltaVista, created at DEC’s Palo Alto laboratory, spun out independently, and eventually failed after a scuttled IPO amid the 2000 dot-com crash and Google’s swift dominance over web indexing.
A location’s culture inevitably wears off on the businesses that call it home, and the influence also happens in reverse. In Regional Advantage, Annalee Saxenian’s 1994 book on the decline of the Route 128 tech industry, she writes that “practices of secrecy and corporate loyalty” around Boston governed “relations between firms and their customers, suppliers, and competitors, reinforcing a regional culture that encourages stability and stable alliance.” Hierarchies, the author found, were less rigid in Silicon Valley, and workers switched jobs constantly. They kept in touch with coworkers from their former offices and hung out in the same bars and restaurants, creating a loose community of congenial extended colleagues unlike the factions of rivals that kept to themselves and their own companies in Massachusetts. East Coast values in elite university degrees didn’t translate to Silicon Valley in its early years either. The tech sector harnessed California’s more robust community college system to train new workers quickly as their businesses expanded. But the chance for social mobility for some isn’t the same as a realignment of power. The Silicon Valley workforce was more vulnerable to exploitation: the expectation was that work is life, tech workers love their jobs, and therefore their personal lives wouldn’t be compartmentalized, let alone prioritized.
Tom Wolfe laid stark these differences in a stunning anecdote from his 1983 profile of Robert Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, for Esquire magazine. An executive from the East Coast had come to visit the Fairchild Semiconductor headquarters. As the executive explored the Mountain View office and talked to various people inside, Wolfe reported, the driver of his black Cadillac limousine waited outside for almost eight hours. Workers stared out the window at the driver, horrified by the humiliation and boredom he endured. “It wasn’t merely that this little peek at the New York-style corporate high life was unusual out here in the brown hills of the Santa Clara Valley,” Wolfe wrote. “It was that it seemed terribly wrong.”
Those who felt at home neither on the East Coast or the West might have retreated to the “Silicon Prairie” of North Texas, where the history of computers is entwined with oil and cattle. Dallas-based Texas Instruments, manufacturer of calculators and semiconductors, began in 1930 as Geophysical Service, developing seismic equipment and other tools for petroleum exploration. Tandy, the family-owned Fort Worth-based computer company, started as a leathercrafts supplier, selling shoe parts, wallets, and belts. In 1963, Charles Tandy acquired Radio Shack. Over a decade later, he’d launch his own line of computers including the iconic TRS-80. “Dallas is a long way from Armonk, New York, son. That’s no accident,” a character says to a former IBM executive in Halt and Catch Fire, a TV series inspired by Compaq’s history: it was founded by TI alums who reverse engineered an IBM PC.
Similar stories about regional influence and tech can be told about Seattle and the Dulles Tech Corridor and beyond. By 2004, a report in Industry Week counted almost a hundred locations marketing themselves as the next Silicon Valley, including “Automation Alley in Oakland County, Mich.; Billy Can Valley in Arnhem Land, Australia; Silicon Bayou in Lake Charles, La.; Silicon Bog in the Irish midlands and Silicon Fen in Cambridge, England; and Silicon Orchard in the Wenatchee Valley, Washington.”
To list New York City among these hubs might seem both obvious and unlikely — just about every industry has a foothold there, after all. But the New York tech scene’s two waves, starting with the “Silicon Alley” 1990s and a return in the late aughts following a lost decade, share a distinct character.
The exuberance of Silicon Alley was captured in Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge. At a party, NASDAQ stock quotes crawl along the perimeter, Razorfish alumni mill about, and partygoers gossip about Josh Harris’s antics at Pseudo.com. There’s no open bar, but this isn’t a pink slip party. The novel is set in 2001, months after the bubble burst. The event is, as the author writes, what “passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder.”
New York had the right talent pool for the moment: not just technologists, but artists and writers who could develop content for the nascent World Wide Web. Before the dot-com crash, New York was the de facto hub for web publishing ventures and design studios. New York was where the internet met culture and where internet culture began to take shape, with participants coming out of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and meeting each other on early online communities like Cafe Los Negroes, Echo, and The Thing.
Silicon Alley adopted some of the Valley’s confusingly capitalist but ostensibly anti-hierarchical values. In this New York, the driver Tom Wolfe wrote about might have been offered a job inside. Silicon Alley, in its prime, was always hiring. The internet in the 1990s was an unknown quantity that created opportunities for people without alumni networks or high-placed family friends who could make a few calls and get their feet in the door.
In her 2012 book about the Silicon Alley workforce, Venture Labor, Gina Neff reports that by 2000, there were more people employed in digital media in New York than in television, magazine, and book publishing combined. She writes of administrative assistants who worked their way up to more prestigious positions: something that rarely, if ever, happens in legacy media. But those who found careers in digital media usually made less than magazine staff or book editors, and their jobs tended to be contract-based rather than salaried. These risks are easier to evaluate in retrospect: like Route 128, Silicon Alley was decimated. “We thought the risk was that our company wouldn’t go IPO, or maybe fail. We never thought all the companies would fail,” a laid off project manager (who started as an administrative assistant) told Neff.
Though the dot-com bubble burst, by the end of it, there were more internet users in the world than ever before. By 2000, half of all adults in America were using the internet. Post-crash companies, known as Web 2.0, focused on user communication through social networks and blogs. Friendster was founded in 2002, Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, and Tumblr in 2007. Amid the Great Recession, before targeted ads grew more sophisticated (and pernicious), it was unclear how Web 2.0 would monetize, and attention shifted to startups that keep your credit card number on file. With Airbnb, founded in 2008, Kickstarter, Square, and Uber in 2009, and GoFundMe in 2010, startups offered fundraising tools, payment services, and piecework for users that other users could request.
The resurgence of the New York tech scene in 2008 played a large part in this reorientation. Money was flowing in for the first time in a decade. Amid the Great Recession, the tech sector no longer seemed to be a risky investment compared to banking or real estate. Entrepreneurs in New York had access to the worlds of finance, media, health care, and fashion; startups headquartered in the city, like Rent-the-Runway, Artsy, WeWork, and Zocdoc, emphasized cross-sector connections.
“The dot-com boom created a vicious cycle — taking risks seemed to be the only way to get ahead — encouraging entrepreneurial behavior from people in the industry, which in turn signaled to others that taking risks was a good idea,” Neff writes. Similarly, in the second wave of New York tech, startups introduced new risks and instability to the legacy sectors that their founders, as they invariably put it, intended to “disrupt.”
Google and Facebook opened New York offices in 2010 and 2012, respectively, but among local startups, there had been a sense of community because the sector was still small. Events like NY Tech Meetup, and parties at various start-up headquarters like the former Kickstarter headquarters on Rivington, meant that people were likely to run into the same faces around town — including those who regularly passed through, like Jack Dorsey.
He was one of the entrepreneurs you might have seen at the Standard Hotel or the speakeasy Milk & Honey. The former Twitter CEO, ousted by the board in 2008, welcomed comparisons with Steve Jobs’s dismissal from Apple in 1985. Like Jobs, Dorsey hoped to return to the company he co-founded, but first he had to launch his own NeXT. Manhattan seemed like the right place to brainstorm new ideas. Dorsey had always been ambitious and fickle. At ten-years-old, Dorsey would hand out business cards that read, “Jack P. Dorsey, consultant.” Eight years ago, he spoke of his ambition to run for mayor of the city but hasn’t mentioned it since. Before he founded Square in 2010 (and returned to Twitter in 2011), the ideas he cycled through for his follow-up venture were as incidental as the kind of businesses he thought he could advise as a child: a multiplayer game, a journaling app, or something that would integrate his obsession with minimalism and craftsmanship? Had he explored these alternative paths, it is likely those startups would be staffed with people considered outsiders in their fields. “Of the six hundred people [working at Square], only ten ever worked in finance,” he told The New Yorker in 2013.
Another key figure in post-Great Recession New York was David Karp. He was young — only 20 when he co-founded Tumblr with Marco Arment. In its early years, Tumblr was goofier than Twitter, a social network where grown-ups could act like teenagers, posting collages and mash notes, and this sense of community had a physical world counterpart in New York. Some of its high-profile users were on the fringes of traditional media, including the bloggers and internet personalities who would convene at The Magician bar. Scooting about town on his Vespa, Karp was both a founder and a mascot, projecting the company image as equal parts innocent and insouciant. The son of a composer, Karp grew up in an Upper West Side prewar building. He dropped out of high school and moved to Japan at the age of seventeen, where he used to collect military surplus equipment. In New York, Thomas Pynchon had been his neighbor and is a family friend. (Learning this, I reread Bleeding Edge, hoping to uncover a Karp reference or Karp-like character, but if the Tumblr founder had any influence on the book, I couldn’t see it).
In 2013, Yahoo — notorious for running its social network acquisitions into the ground — acquired Tumblr. That year, Edward Snowden’s government surveillance disclosures inspired increasing media coverage of the tech sector. Tech companies, which had been infrequently covered in the press for reasons other than earning reports, were newly under scrutiny for their exploitative labor and surveillance practices. Also in 2013, “unicorn” was coined to describe companies with billion dollar valuations. Tech, which was never exactly small, was now “Big Tech” — but community does not scale. Users don’t mingle in person with startup founders and executives anymore. Tech’s novelty in New York was gone, as was any sense of internet startups as a niche or a “scene.” The tech sector had successfully grafted its culture onto other sectors of the city, while maintaining a distinct identity.
By 2014, the number of tech jobs in New York surpassed its previous dot-com peak; but there are few signs now of that interregnum as the sector continues to grow. The shared culture of Silicon Valley — as a metonym — is a hyper-fixation on the present and the future: lessons that could be learned from Silicon Alley’s decline won’t be, because then it would have to be remembered first.
Could there be another Silicon Alley or even another Route 128? Amid the coronavirus crisis, entrepreneurs and executives have loudly set their sights on other locations, like Miami. Oracle is relocating its headquarters from Silicon Valley to Austin, and Hewlett-Packard is moving to Houston, as Tesla also expands operations in Texas. This is less an exodus or a definitive end to Northern California, as it is sometimes portrayed, and more an expansion of Silicon Valley outward. Tourism boards trying to hype their local “Silicon Bayou” and “Silicon Bog” aren’t wrong, exactly. Today, it’s Silicon Everywhere — the industry and its culture seek purchase on any possible surface from here to the moon. Now, as it unfolds all around, the formula is the same: the plunder of location resources set in motion a full transformation, until no one can remember what things were like before.
By Joanne McNeil
Joanne McNeil is the author of Lurking: How a Person Became a User.