The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

Image Caption
Margaret O'Mara (Photo by Jim Garner)

Book Talk by margaret o'mara
Sept. 17, 6:00pm | Room NT-01

How has Silicon Valley been able to produce so many market-disrupting and world-changing companies? What explains its dominance, generation after generation? And today, why does it seem to be unable to change its ways—whether in tackling data privacy, stopping the spread of toxic content on its platforms, or balancing its sharp racial and gender imbalances? In THE CODE: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America (Penguin Press; July 9, 2019), Margaret O’Mara, one of our most consequential historians of the American-led digital revolution, proves that Silicon Valley’s surprising history can unlock the answers to all of these questions.

In the early 1990s, O’Mara began her career working in the Clinton White House during the nascent tech boom. With an office was just down the hall from Al Gore’s meetings with dot-com moguls and venture capitalists, she saw firsthand how deeply intertwined Silicon Valley was with the federal government. In the intervening years, her research as an historian of U.S. politics and the tech economy has revealed how this dynamic has been at the heart of the Valley since the 1940s, and how today that relationship has become more critical to the fate of the country than ever before.

THE CODE is the result of O’Mara’s years of research, which has given her impressive access into the halls of government, stock trading floors, offices of key tech companies, and in the inner sanctums of venture capital firms. Spanning four generations of explosive growth in the valley — from massive government investments in the 1940s, through the space race, the advent of the silicon chip, the PC revolution and dot-com boom, up through the rise of social media—this is the definitive history of big tech in America. It brims with a gloriously diverse cast: there are incisive portraits of household names like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, but there are also lesser-known, yet no less critical players like Fred Terman, the Stanford dean who opened the borders between academia and technology and became known as “the Father of Silicon Valley”; Ann Hardy, designer of early minicomputer operating systems who understood and implemented encryption and cybersecurity long before anyone else; Regis McKenna, the marketing mastermind behind key campaigns for Apple and Intel, who was so close to Steve Jobs that his colleagues called Jobs “your son;” David Morgenthaler, the first venture capitalist to realize the silicon chip might enable an economic revolution; Wall Street analyst Ben Rosen, who convinced investors that the PC could be a business machine; and Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive now known for his brash criticism of the social network.

Weaving all of their stories into one magnificent narrative, O’Mara reveals Silicon Valley as a nexus of entrepreneurship and government, new and old economies, far-thinking engineers and the many non-technical workers who made their innovation possible.

Silicon Valley is a relentlessly future-tense, forward-looking place. THE CODE shows how its collective amnesia about its own history has created some of its largest blind spots and made it unable to reckon with the disruptive effects of its products. It has never been more important to examine how we got to now—not only to understand the distinctive set of circumstances that produced the digital revolution, but to find a way to a more humane, more equitable tech future.


Margaret O’Mara is professor of history at the University of Washington. She writes and teaches about the history of U.S. politics, the growth of the high-tech economy, and the connections between the two, and is the author of Cities of Knowledge and Pivotal Tuesdays. She received her BA from Northwestern University and her MA/Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to her academic career, she worked in the Clinton White House and served as a contributing researcher at the Brookings Institution. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband, Jeff, and their two daughters.


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