A new book by American historian Margaret O’Mara chronicles the rise and subsequent dominance of the tech industry in the modern United States. The Code – Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America traces Silicon Valley’s growth story since the 1940s.
Having worked in the White House during Bill Clinton’s presidency, which was also the time when the IT industry grew phenomenally, O’Mara shares an insider’s view of the US government’s close involvement in nurturing Big Tech. In its review, The New York Times hails O’Mara as “an academic historian blessed with a journalist’s prose, [who] focuses less on the actual technology than on the people and policies that ensured its success”.
O’Mara explains how decades of investments by the military establishment in science and research during the Cold War spurred growth and innovation. At the same time, it recounts the pivotal role played by Stanford University, which bolstered its engineering and science departments after World War II, thus making the San Francisco Bay area a preferred destination for such investments. A decentralised and competitive system of distributing funds through contractors also helped foster entrepreneurship.
Legislation and regulatory policy also played their part. In 1958, The Small Business Investment Act gave tax breaks to start-ups. As a result, small enterprises opening shop around Stanford benefitted immensely. California’s policy of prohibiting non-compete contracts also brought about a proliferation of knowledge sharing between companies. Finally, the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965 opened the floodgates for talent across the world to enter the US and the tech industry.
Having given her account of Silicon Valley, which is today the engine room of the US economy, O’Mara points out that the industry is still male-dominated, with few women leaders reaching the top.