The passing of Steve Jobs has sparked an immense amount of reflection and appreciation—just as his retirement did months ago, and the publication of Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs will do later this month. But for all the talk of Steve Jobs and the world that he created, attention must be paid to the world that created him: Silicon Valley.
Born in San Francisco, Jobs came of age in Silicon Valley, where he and Apple's co-founder, Steve Wozniak, were members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a band of scruffy techies who experimented with computers in the industry's prehistoric era, the 1970s. As "Woz" reflected in 1984, "without computer clubs, there probably would have been no Apple computers. Our club in the Silicon Valley, the Homebrew Computer Club, was among the first of its kind." Homebrew was an incubator, where, as Woz put it:
The theme of the club was "Give to help others." Each session began with a "mapping period," when people would get up one by one and speak about some item of interest, a rumor, and have a discussion. Somebody would say, "I've got a new part," or somebody else would say he had some new data or ask if anybody had a certain kind of teletype.
Apple emerged from these origins, but it never left them. Apple relied upon the Valley's tech community—the people, the money, the intellectual capital—as it grew. Its engineers and designers interacted, as in any small town, with those of its competitors. Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Oracle, Google, Facebook, and others, they all were born (or, in the case of Facebook, raised) in the Valley—Cupertino, Santa Clara, Mountain View, or Palo Alto. At the time of Jobs's passing, one of his primary projects was (as James Gardner recently wrote in THE WEEKLY STANDARD) the creation of a new Apple headquarters in Cupertino—retrenching Apple's commitment to its hometown.
Of course, Silicon Valley did not have to happen. When Tom Perkins, the now-legendary "godfather" of venture capitalism, arrived from the East Coast to begin work at Hewlett-Packard, "Silicon Valley wasn't even called Silicon Valley." But from the Valley's "gritty and quite physical origins" (to borrow Roger Lowenstein's description) grew the community that changed the world.
Nor did Silicon Valley go unchanged in the process. In a remarkable essay published just days before Jobs's retirement, Jaron Lanier described the Valley's evolution from a land of hackers and hippies to, today, a destination for "perfect specimens [that] seem to have grown up in manicured childhoods, nothing scrappy about them."
It’s symbolic of the nation’s greatest advances (for better or worse), which tend to grow out of communities, from Wall Street's finance to Detroit's automobiles to Hollywood's cinema to Washington's big government. As with Silicon Valley's tech revolution, great achievement requires the concentration of practical expertise, intellectual capital, and finance all in one small place, concentrating the forces of collaboration and competition on a personal level. Steve Jobs and Google's Eric Schmidt could compete on the world stage, and then go meet for coffee.
This trend cuts in two directions: We rely on community to foster greatness, such as in Silicon Valley or Wall Street. But the success of those communities undermines the cohesiveness of so many others, as young people from across the country leave their own families and hometowns behind to pursue success in high tech or finance.
Adam J. White is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.