Archivist Leslie Berlin Tackles Silicon Valley’s Past in ‘Troublemakers’

Archivist Leslie Berlin Tackles Silicon Valley’s Past in ‘Troublemakers’

Silicon Valley job perks are mythic. Self-replenishing snacks. Unlimited vacation. A pile of stock options. But as much as these professional entrapments might seem like dotcom-era phenomena, the practice of sweetening the deal for tech employees dates back to the ’70s as a way to ward off labor unions. Happy workers, explains Stanford historian Leslie Berlin, are less likely to agitate for better conditions.

Who:

Leslie Berlin, project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University

Last Book:

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley (2005)

New Book:

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age, told through profiles of seven key pioneers

That insight is just one of many in Berlin’s new book, Troublemakers. While piecing together a timeline of the Valley’s early history—picture end-to-end sheets of paper covered in black dots—Berlin was amazed to discover a period of rapid-fire innovation between 1969 and 1976 that included the first Arpanet transmission; the birth of videogames; and the launch of Apple, Atari, Genentech, and major venture firms such as Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital. “I just thought, ‘What the heck was going on in those years?’ ” she says.

Another surprising reveal? The (relative) lack of sexism. Contrary to assumptions that Silicon Valley has always been hostile to women, Berlin points to a highly publicized push in the late ’60s to make tech more inclusive. “If even the tiniest fraction of the terrible stories we’re hearing about today are true,” she says, then the industry is moving backward. “Sexism is not inherent in the Valley’s DNA.” Maybe not, but it’s now as synonymous with modern-day company culture as free snacks.


FROM THE VALLEY’S VAULT:

Illustration by Leander Assmann

Lunch Goals: Eating off-campus once promoted “cross-industry pollination,” Berlin says. Today’s in-house kitchens have their benefits, “but I do wonder what is lost.”

Illustration by Leander Assmann

Mixed Feelings: Now, tech is a big critic of big government. But after facing competition from Japanese manufacturers in the ’80s, the semiconductor industry was saved only by tariffs and legislation.

Illustration by Leander Assmann

The Startup Myth: “The Valley has always had huge companies, not just scrappy startups. They bring in all the engineers and then they all leave. That’s where startups come from.”


This article appears in the November issue. Subscribe now.

Hair and makeup by Sara Chestnutt-Fry; Illustrations by Leander Assmann

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/archivist-leslie-berlin-tackles-silicon-valleys-past-in-troublemakers/

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