Books - Stripping off the silicon - Kevin Kelly on a study of the virtual tribe that inhabits California's digital valley. The Nudist on the Late Shift, Po Bronson, Secker & Warburg £10.
Every generation relocates the world's cultural heart. The centre of gravity in the past three generations of culture migrated from London in the 1890s, to Paris in the 1920s, to New York in the 1950s. The ground zero of the current generation of culture has slipped into Silicon Valley. Today, more world-changing ideas emanate from this vaguely defined Californian area than from anywhere else. To head to the source, all roads lead into Silicon Valley.
Many are making the trek to this seat of power for themselves. When they arrive in the suburban streets outside San Jose, most pilgrims are disappointed. The fabled land looks like any over-developed city edge in America. There is no icon, no architectural symbol, no must-visit hangout, no visible incarnation of this new centre of wealth and ideas. In fact, no two maps even agree on the boundaries of Silicon Valley. It's a place of mind, almost a virtual place.
Yet they come. They arrive in rented cars looking for jobs. Or they come in company minivans on corporate tours to see how fortunes and world-altering innovations are created. A steady stream of corporate managers from Europe, Asia and New York visit four or five funky start-ups a day in the hope of capturing some of the Silicon Valley spirit.
Few normal people have the resources to arrange such a trip, however. This is where young Po Bronson and his remarkable and memorably titled book come in. In The Nudist on the Late Shift, Bronson gives us the world's best, smartest, funniest, and most complete tour of the Temple of Prosperity, otherwise known as Silicon Valley, or the Valley of Dollars. He takes us into the rarely seen backroom process of how flotations are really done, to the makeshift beds under desks where billionaires still sleep, to scrappy start-ups nobody has ever heard of but which can bring innovations to market in months. This is the tour of Silicon Valley that everyone wants but few will get.
Yet to call it a mere travelogue doesn't convey the elegance of this book. Bronson is one of America's most talented rising young novelists, so he brings a literary grace to his reporting that makes the book worthwhile even if one has never wished to be anywhere near Route 101. He plunges the reader into an exotic world, a strange land of VCs, coders, gurus, brokers, newbies just off the bus, and all the new slang, new hopes and old setbacks. Most importantly, he gets the soul of the new order. This book is about the life actually swirling behind all the beige computer gear lined up in showrooms, or headlined in the paper. This is not fiction. Real people, real stories - like the eponymous nudist on the late shift. Silicon Valley, friends say, is so tolerant of eccentric talent, so desperate for genius, that it pampers one programmer who works nude at night. Bronson, great reporter that he is, tracked down the urban legend and let the guy tell his own story.
As a former venture capitalist, Bronson has both the access and feel for the way ideas and money flow. In one unforgettable chapter he follows a set of young people as they arrive in the Valley, poor and full of ambitions, and then quickly become native in the ways of technology and huge investments. Or not, in some cases.
Bronson has a gift for capturing life in the new-economy fast lane. For years he has been covering the emerging digital culture for Wired magazine, which I edit and where most of these stories first appeared. Re-reading them here, woven into a longer narrative, I am struck again by how accurately Bronson has conveyed the thrill that permeates this feverish moment, a crazed time in history when the very young inherit the earth. 'Every generation that came before us,' Bronson writes, 'had to make a choice in life between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures. In Silicon Valley young people no longer have to choose. It's a two-for-one deal.'
It seems like a dream, and it is. No one has told the dream of this new territory so well.
Kevin Kelly was founding editor of Wired magazine
On the bedside table of ... Penny Hughes
'I don't read many theoretical management books as they have little credibility for me - I prefer reading about people I admire who have achieved things for themselves. I recently enjoyed Jonathan Dimbleby's book The Last Governor about Chris Patten's time in Hong Kong.'
Penny Hughes is a director at Vodafone and Mirror Group.