Above all, O’Mara highlights the profound role that the US government played in Silicon Valley’s rise. At the end of World War II, the region was still the sleepy, sun-drenched Santa Clara Valley, home to farms and orchards, an upstart Stanford University, and a scattering of small electronics and aerospace firms. Then came the space and arms races, given new urgency in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik, which suggested a serious Soviet advantage. Millions of dollars in government funding flooded technology companies and universities around the country. An outsize portion went to Northern California’s burgeoning tech industry, thanks in large part to Stanford’s far-sighted provost Frederick Terman, who reshaped the university into a hub for engineering and the applied sciences.
But the role of public funding in the creation of Silicon Valley is not the big government success story a good liberal might be tempted to consider it. As O’Mara points out, during the Cold War American leaders deliberately pushed public funds to private industry rather than government programs because they thought the market was the best way to spur technological progress while avoiding the specter of centralized planning, which had come to smack of communist tyranny. In the years that followed, this belief in the market as the means to achieve the goals of liberal democracy spread to nearly every aspect of life and society, from public education and health care to social justice, solidifying into the creed we now call neoliberalism. As the role of the state was eclipsed by the market, Silicon Valley—full of brilliant entrepreneurs devising technologies that promised to revolutionize everything they touched—was well positioned to step into the void.