A History Lesson That Shatters the Mythology of Silicon Valley

Season 4 Episode 14
A History Lesson That Shatters the Mythology of Silicon Valley

People in Silicon Valley tend to believe that innovation is driven exclusively by the free market, and that the best thing the government can do is get out of the way. But Margaret O’Mara says history tells us otherwise — the government has been supporting innovation from the start.

S4E14 / March 10, 2022

Margaret O'Mara

Episode Description

In this episode of Big Tech, host Taylor Owen speaks with Margaret O’Mara, a historian of modern America and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

Silicon Valley and the massive wealth it has generated have long symbolized the wonders of free market capitalism, viewed as proof of how innovation can thrive when it is not burdened by government oversight. Silicon Valley is infused with this libertarian ethos, centred on the idea that it was guys in their garages, setting out to create something new and make the world a better place, who built the Valley. But O’Mara looks back into history and says that’s all just a myth.

During the Cold War, the United States was looking for ways to bolster its technological advantage over the Soviets. Knowing that state-led projects would appear “Communist” to the American people, the government funnelled federal funding for research and development through universities, research institutions and defence companies. This influx of funds enabled private companies to expand and innovate and universities to subsidize tuition. The Apollo space program offers one such example, where federal funds supported tech companies working in electronic miniaturization and semiconductors. The upshot is that the entire Silicon Valley tech sector was built on government intervention and support, and even the guys in their garages benefited from the access to affordable university education. “To pull yourself up by your bootstraps is an American myth that’s very corrosive — there are very, very few truly self-made people,” explains O’Mara. By demystifying Silicon Valley’s origins we can better approach regulation and oversight of the tech industry.

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