Put down that pocket calculator! Don’t go near the softwear! Oh, my God! The PC! It’s .. it’s … it’s got Melissa!
Silicon chips, it turns out, aren’t our little electronic friends after all. They’re ominous. Behind them lurk greed, exploitation, water pollution, and middle-age stress syndrome. These chips are eeeevil.
So say two related new books, The Big Score by Michael S. Malone and The High Cost of High Tech by Lenny Siegel and John Markoff* Malone, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, the newspaper of Silicon Valley, lays out the Valley’s business history with the heavy implication—although not much proof—that computer-making is a dismal art, producing little more than alienated blue-collar workers and money-crazed millionaires who can’t handle their success. Siegel, editor of Global Electronics Newsletter, and Markoff, a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, take a gloves-off approach, declaring from the first page that the new computer age is almost too horrible for words.
Big Score is the better of the two and might have been a fine book were it not for an introduction that is among the most maladroit lumpings of prose one is ever likely to encounter. In it we meet a procession of composite characters. There’s an unnamed “red-haired boy,” whose work on the floor of an unnamed chip manufacturer supposedly left him addicted to angel dust at age 20. “Everybody [on the assembly line] did it,’ says the red-haired boy.” You could really tell after lunch: assembly line workers chattering hysterically and working triple speed with a nose full of amphetamine crank, office workers buzzed on beer and joints.” This Malone recites unquestioningly, as if a company where labor and management were flying high could actually turn out marketable products.
Then there’s “The Martini Man,” an alcoholic executive who has summoned Malone to a bar to reveal the shocking truth that “the reality of Silicon Valley business has almost nothing to do with the reams of press releases about new products and financial results.” According to the Martini Man, the electronics industry is rife with theft and espionage, and he is about to blow the whistle on its shame. This character, however, vanishes on the following page, after not producing one specific example. He is replaced by “four men in business suits sit[ting] around an upstairs table in a Menlo Park restaurant,” whose “mood is one of careful secrecy and almost breathtaking exhilaration. The meeting has been convened to plot the creation of a new company.”
Do any of these people actually exist? Was Malone present in the restaurant? We never get the slightest clue. We do learn, however, that “after two hours of sober conversation about technology, capital formation, and suggested personnel, one of the men leans forward and whispers very seriously,
I don’t know about the rest of you, but what I want to get out of this is a shitload of money? The others burst into laughter. The unspoken has finally been voiced. Now the men know they can trust each other’s greed to build a company”
Well! Lucky thing for Malone he got out of there alive. After the introduction, The Big Score improves markedly, switching to a useful and fact-packed history of the Valley’s major players, though there remain regular digs about how anything connected with moneymaking is vile and horrifying. Lee De Forest, inventor of the vacuum tube, was a “greedy capitalist,” nice guys lose in “the real world of clashing egos, naked ambition, greed, and lust,” and so on. Malone’s desire to find a dark side to every Silicon Valley event becomes apparent in his chapter on Hewlett-Packard, which is universally admired as the ideal of a forward thinking company. Malone almost stands on his head trying to find something wrong with HP’s policy of lifelong job protection for workers, with its profit sharing, and with David Packard’s unpretentious cubicle office with a door open to any worker. Finally he puts forth that the collegial atmosphere at HP renders the company too slow to react to shifts in consumer demand; though elsewhere he says that too much attention to shifts in consumer demand ruins other designers’ mental health.
What’s at work here is that Malone is practicing Phony Objectivity. Apparently he hates rich technologists and the values they represent but won’t come out and say so, preferring to hide behind the cloak of merely quoting sources. In Phony Objective journalism, unnamed sources tend to pop up whenever the reporter wants to air an opinion without formally admitting he is doing so or exposing himself to criticism should his opinion later be shown in error. So the Martini Man or someone similar plays the shill, just like a character in fiction who voices the author’s views. The front page of a newspaper should be objective, but a lengthy book—in the course of which a writer immerses himself in a topic— should offer thoughts and ideas that are too speculative for daily journalism. That’s what books (and magazines) are for. The Big Score might have been a great volume of straight reporting or a great volume of analysis. Instead it’s stuck in between, hyping where it ought to be pondering.
Meet ‘the colonel’
The High Cost of High Tech also kicks off with a composite character and a splash of unusually bad writing. The beginning is worth quoting in full:
Several years ago, at a military trade show held in a glittering Las Vegas hotel, an earnest Air Force colonel tried to describe what electronic warfare meant to him. Searching for an appropriately upbeat note on which to end the interview, the colonel, who earlier in the day had led a press tour of a military electronics exhibition, exuded the confidence of a true believer.
“Electronics warfare is more than just a science,” he argued. “It’s an art.”
“More than that,” he implored, groping for precisely the right word, “it’s… it’s a religion.”
The image of this colonel, a colorless figure in uniform, is haunting. Here is a man who is destined to fight the next war from a sterile, air-conditioned command bunker hundreds or even thousands of miles from the actual battle, and yet he speaks with the zeal of a Roman gladiator. He bitterly hates an abstract enemy he will never see, except perhaps as a ghostly signature on a video display screen. Yet he is clearly ready for battle.
The conclusions Siegel and Markoff draw from the “colonel” are specious.
How do they know he “bitterly hates an abstract enemy”? He hasn’t said anything about that. What indicates that he’s “ready for battle”? What makes him destined to fight in a sterile bunker? Maybe he’s a pilot. Doesn’t “destined” mean that war is inevitable? And so on. I comment here at length because it amazes me that such shoddy word-craft in the very first paragraphs could get past a major publisher like Harper & Row.
Though The High Cost of High Tech improves after its comic-book prelude, it’s a disappointment. Siegel and Markoff tell everything bad about computer production—the proportion of dead-end jobs, the potential for computerized Big Brothers, the illusion that light manufacturing never harms the environment—while skipping over everything good, particularly the increased standard of living computers have offered to many millions of Americans, mostly in the middle class.
They have a special fear of military electronics that seems out of touch with reality. Siegel and Markoff write, “Microelectronics technology is the cornerstone of a new generation of weapons that endangers the entire human species. The most advanced U. S. weapons, whether intended for nuclear war or for conventional battlefields, contain smaller warheads and explosive charges than before, but they are much more deadly because they can speed to their targets with incredible accuracy.” This isn’t close. Nuclear warheads existed long before silicon chips. Increasing accuracy of the delivery systems has enabled the yield of nuclear warheads to be substantially reduced—typical U. S. warheads were one to ten megatons in 1960; today the warhead for the MX is 540 kilotons—and led to targeting based on direct hits of military installations rather than general bombardment of cities. Nuclear bombs remain unspeakably bad, but the threat of slaughter each one represents has declined somewhat as a result of microelectronics.
The decline in destructive power of conventional forces, meanwhile, is spectacular. Nearly all the cost of precision-guided weapons goes into computers, rocket motors, sensors, and exotic materials, not explosives. Several new weapons carry no explosives, relying on impact to destroy their targets. The $3 million Tomahawk cruise missile, when equipped for conventional attack, carries only a 200-pound bomb—one-tenth the capacity of a World War II B17. If the cruise missile misses, it will do only one-tenth the damage of a B17 miss. If its electronics work properly and the cruise missile scores a bull’s eye, there will be no unintentional devastation of nearby civilian areas.
In turn, because precision weapons are so expensive, very few are being built. During World War II, the U.S. fielded 33,000 heavy bombers. Today we have about 350 B52s with 100 Bls under construction. If you adjusted for different load capacities, you would discover that today the Air Force could deliver about 3 percent of the bomb tonnage it was able to deliver against Germany and Japan. This “endangers the entire human species”? When Israeli warplanes obliterated PLO headquarters in the center of Timis without hitting the buildings next door, they may have been committing an immoral act, but they were certainly holding casualties down to a fraction of what they would have been had the raid been carried out mass-fire style.
In the end, by being so overeager to cry disaster (at one point in High Cost we’re told that it’s terrible that chip manufacturers are cutting back on the numbers of those terrible jobs), both books fail to make a persuasive case for the downside of the computer revolution. After all, doesn’t every new industry suffer growth pains? Isn’t every technological development a mixed blessing? Neither The Big Score nor The High Cost of High Tech does much to distinguish between the sorts of problems that t’were ever thus and those that computers create for the first time.