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Book Review

Silicon Valley as a High-Tech Dodge City

THE NUDIST ON THE LATE SHIFT and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley; by Po Bronson;

Random House, $25, 253 pages

July 27, 1999|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine a place with the ferocity and energy of the Old West but none of the noise--no gunshots and war whoops, no bawling cattle, no tinkling saloon pianos, just the click of computer keys in quiet business parks and the hum of the brains that created and programmed the computers--and you have Silicon Valley, as Po Bronson describes it in his first nonfiction book.

Bronson, whose novels "Bombardiers" and "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" also dealt with high tech and big money, makes up for the quietness--and the elusiveness, to lay readers--of his subject by rendering the energy and ferocity in prose that doubtless will be compared to Tom Wolfe's.

"Let me tell you what Silicon Valley is like," Bronson says. "The mountain edges of the valley rise up like the lip of a great big copper-bottomed frying pan of overpriced Revere Ware, and on the high heat of burning money everything and everyone in there melts into a boiling, spattering, frenetic stew . . . spiced up with high achievers from every nook in the world."

These high achievers are changing the world, Bronson confirms. Some of the changes we can see and appreciate--Internet shopping, for instance. Others are more insidious and, possibly, sinister. Work and nonwork merge. The nudist of the title is simply a guy who exercised a lifestyle option in the cubicle where, after all, he spent most of his time. Art merges with entertainment, which is just another form of business.

"A writer's job, in the romantic notion, is to document chaos and to remind us that chaos exists . . . that life is crazy and a struggle and haunted," Bronson says of his choice of topic. "But it's also just so obvious that the phenomenon of business has taken over the world, imposing its own form of order. . . . To ignore the . . . ways business has elected itself the new culture would be to turn a blind eye at what most needs to be seen clearly."

Implicit in Bronson's portraits of entrepreneurs (such as Sabeer Bhatia, who came from India 10 years ago with nothing but a dream, co-founded Hotmail and sold it to Microsoft for $400 million), engineers, programmers and CEOs of little companies "going public" in search of instant riches, all flocking to San Francisco Bay as if to a second, more lucrative, less violent Gold Rush, is the idea that the 1960s were an aberration.

Simplicity? Going back to the land? Reviving traditional crafts? Preferring genuine to synthetic experience? These once seemed waves of the future, but in "The Nudist on the Late Shift," they appear more like a momentary regression, an undertow between two real waves: World War II-era industrial technology and the new, digital kind.

Bronson not only displays a grasp of the latter but can also explain why, to many people, it's so exciting:

"Every generation that came before us had to make a choice in life between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures," he says. "In Silicon Valley, that trade-off has been recircuited. By injecting mind-boggling emounts of risk into the once stodgy domain of gray-suited business, young people no longer have to choose. . . . In six months you might get a job, be laid off, start a company, sell it, become a consultant, and then, who knows?"

It's not a life for everyone--only for the bright, brave and unencumbered, mavericks like those who came to the Old West to hit pay dirt or die.

Bronson has a reporter's cool eye, a science writer's gift for clarifying difficult concepts through analogies, and a novelist's ability to characterize (whether the character is Danny Hillis, inventor of the world's fastest computer in 1986, now employed by Disney and working on a "Millennium Clock" designed to keep ticking for 12,000 years; or futurist George Gilder, trying to distance himself from his Reagan-era sociological pronouncements). Bronson also has a rare knack for explaining how brilliant people are brilliant.

In his view, they aren't all that sinister, though some of them are undeniably odd. "Nudist" leaves us ambivalent about Silicon Valley--proud of it as a uniquely American phenomenon, proud that our state can produce and attract such brainpower, proud of the place's hustle, its meritocratic spirit, even as we feel a flutter of anxiety that the people Bronson writes about are speeding the rest of us who knows where.

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