Menlo Park-based Kikim Media’s new series dives deep into the tech ecosystem of the Peninsula’s century-old innovation industry
“If I hadn’t been here in Silicon Valley, it just wouldn’t have happened.”
That’s the simple and candid assessment of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the new documentary series, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story, by Menlo Park production outfit Kikim Media. Rather than merely cite the intellect and vision of celebrated trailblazing figures, Woz — like many of the other key industry players featured in the film — sketches out the crucial role that the unique tech “ecosystem” of the region played in fostering innovation.
Although it is fairly well-mapped territory these days, local husband and wife documentarians Michael Schwarz and Kiki Kapany have compiled a very longview chronicle of how that large-scale incubator environment within the region first germinated and then very spectacularly bloomed over time.
After many years of making documentaries on a variety of topics around the world, the duo turned their attention to the tech legacy within their own backyard and background. Kapany is the daughter of Narinder Singh Kapany, the Indian-born physicist who is often referred to as the “father of fiber optics” (and is Exhibit A in the integral role of immigrant innovators within the culture’s legacy).
Compiled over the course of a five year period and including interviews with more than 80 inside sources, the resulting documentary offers an abundance of insight from formative figures such as Heidi Roizen (pioneering female tech entrepreneur and CEO), Al Alcorn (early programming innovator known for inventing PONG) and Eric Schmidt (former Executive Chairman of Google).
Premiering this week amid a flurry of negative Silicon Valley-related stories in the news — including security breaches, housing issues and even dead pedestrians — the documentary series arrives at an opportune moment for considering the longterm development, purpose and intention of the juggernaut global tech industry that has resided on the Penninusla.
We caught up with Kikim Media’s Michael Schwarz to discuss the new series, and how he waded through the many myths and misconceptions of Silicon Valley.
What was your initial impulse to chronicle Silicon Valley’s history?
Kiki was born and raised in Woodside. I moved to the area in the late 80s. We got married in 1990 and have been producing programs on all different parts of the world. And we developed a very close relationship with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York which has funded a lot of the work that we’ve done on the history of science and technology. And it just occurred to us that we were living in the middle of a really fascinating area and that nobody had done a comprehensive look at how and why it had become so successful. Bits and pieces of the story had been told but we felt that there had never been a really thorough history on television. Sloan was interested in doing that, so that was really the impetus.
One of the first things that stood out to me about this series is how far back it goes in documenting the history of the region…
Yes, because we’re telling the story of the place that became known as Silicon Valley … and that goes back at least to the 19th Century (and probably earlier). For our story we start with the Gold Rush. It really changed the DNA of California in a lot of ways, because the kind of people it attracted were willing to leave everything behind and take a huge risk. And that willingness to take risks became embedded in the fabric of this place. And I think that laid the foundation for the culture that eventually developed into Silicon Valley. I don’t think we can trace it directly, because so much happened between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, but certainly there is an early history in Silicon Valley that is not well-known or well understood that involves radio and radar and microwaves, and that helped to establish the ecosystem and the work force that eventually made it possible for Silicon Valley to emerge here.
One of the early examples you cite is Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse photos, which is actually such a relevant connection to Silicon Valley innovation, yet one that I had just never equated prior to seeing your documentary.
We love that story, and I think a lot of people have seen those black and white photos of the galloping horse but don’t know the context in which they were taken. Or that they were made possible by this relationship between a wealthy industrialist [Leland Stanford] and a very clever photographer/inventor [Muybridge]and that together they invented the technology which became stop motion photography. And that happened here, right at Stanford.
We consider that to be the kind of prototypical relationship which you see develop over and over again in the history of the Valley where investors and entrepreneurs get together and create new technologies that become world changing.
Were there particular misconceptions about the history of Silicon Valley that really rose to the surface while making the documentary?
Yeah, I think Silicon Valley has become shrouded in a couple of myths, and as the research evolved we wanted to dismantle those myths and try to put the story in a new light. Because when people think of the Valley, they tend to think of it as the story of lone entrepreneurs who through the sheer force of their own brilliance invent these new technologies and build companies that change the world. When in fact, most of the people could not have done what they wind up doing if they hadn’t been here in the Valley and had the access to the ecosystem in the Valley.
We also felt that the story of Silicon Valley is often understood as the kind of quintessential example of the power of unfettered capitalism and an example of what can happen when risk-taking venture capitalists place their bets on young unproven companies. And to some degree that’s true, but what many people don’t understand is that the government has had a really significant role in everything that has happened in the Valley, both through its funding of basic research and development, and also because it has long been one of the early adopters of new technologies that have been developed here. (Not to mention the fact that the government was responsible for building the internet in the first place.) So there is a lot to tap into that would never have happened had the government not been willing to take major risks that most private investors would never have been willing to take because they were such long shots.
And finally, there is the idea that people here have an almost magical ability to see the future, when the truth is they arrive at their destination through a series of fits and starts, and the road is sort of littered with stumbles and lucky accidents. So we really wanted to put those myths into a new perspective.
Were there surprises that emerged along the way while making the documentary?
In terms of surprises, I guess we were pleasantly surprised by how willing many people were to be interviewed for the series, and we were also somewhat disappointed (laughs) by the unwillingness of others to be interviewed.
Another surprise, I suppose (though it’s not totally surprising), is that Silicon Valley is so focused on “inventing the future” that many people have a reluctance to embrace the importance of the past. And, frankly, a lot of people who come to Silicon Valley don’t really have a good understanding of how it came to be and why that history matters. Which is a shame, because the history is so interesting and it’s so crucial to what makes Silicon Valley the place it is today.
There has been a lot of news out of Silicon Valley this week that has a dystopian quality to it, like the Facebook breach and the pedestrian who was killed by a driverless car. How does that all square up with the idea of Silicon Valley as a place that innovates for the common good?
Along with the myths, I think there is a certain amount of hype, and people in Silicon Valley drink the Kool Aid a bit much and become believers in the fairy tales that are sometimes spun here. It is always difficult to predict the future.
One of the fascinating things that you learn from the history is that a game like PONG — which today is credited with launching the entire video game industry — was never intended to be a product for the public. It was developed simply as a way to test the abilities of a young engineer named Al Alcorn. And because he and Nolan Bushnell thought, “Well this is kind of cool,” they decided to release it at a bar in Sunnyvale and it became a big hit and the video game industry is launched on its back almost (more or less), and Atari became a very successful company for awhile. But nobody anticipated that at first.
I think what you see now is that technologies that initially have a lot of promise often have unintended consequences that no one fully thinks through at the time they developed. And, frankly, it can be difficult to fully anticipate the ways these technologies are going to be used once they are released into the world.
So I think you see that with Facebook today, and really the internet as a whole, where it’s supposed to be a force for democratizing information, giving more people more access and to level the playing field — all this promise — but now we see that it has been hijacked by people who promote lies, bigotry and racial hatred, and foment division. This was never supposed to be what the internet was going to be used for. But here we are. And so not only is it not enhancing democracy, it’s actively threatening it. So it’s a bit of caveat emptor—we need to be careful of what we invent because we sometimes lose control of it and we don’t know what it’s going to lead to.
Silicon Valley: The Untold Story can be viewed on the Science Channel on Saturday, March 24, from 9 a.m. to noon, and Monday, March 26, from midnight to 3 a.m.
On the Discovery Channel, it is scheduled from 6 to 9 a.m. Sunday, April 1.
The series is also available for streaming on SciGo and iTunes.
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