DVD Review: In Search of the Valley

In Search of the Valley is an independent documentary that is “A digital pilgrimage to discover the secrets of the valley.” The Valley being, of course, Silicon Valley.

An independent filming collective from Britain set out to meet “the pioneers who put computers into the hands of the people,” and “meet the minds who have changed” their world. They discovered the true feelings of many of the icons of the dotcom revolution, and ended up both pleased and jaded by the results of their quest. With interviews of such luminaries as Andy Hertzfeld, Tim O’Reilly, Steve Wozniak, John Warnock, Jef Raskin, Guy Kawasaki, and Craig Newmark, they got to the heart of the recent history of the technology that has changed the world.Starting at the location where Silicon Valley was born–the Hewlett-Packard garage–they fanned out to visit the sites along the pilgrimage route to the various places and to meet the various people who took this formerly rural area and turned it into the nexus of computer technology.

Why Silicon Valley in the first place? Some people suggest that part of the reason is the relation with the hippie and contestatory movement of the 1960s that began around the San Francisco area. The Homebrew Computer Club, where the first steps toward the personal computer were made (notably by Steve Wozniak), people would meet and share information and ideas without worrying about the financial aspect of computers that would soon follow.

And the money came. In the 1990s, as venture capitalists sniffed out possibilities to make money, the con began. Ideas alone were enough to generate interest and funding, most of which went to companies that just burned cash and never released products. Many of the people interviewed discussed how ridiculous this was, but it makes you wonder exactly how much these people benefited themselves before the bubble inevitably burst.

The filmmakers avoid the hagiography that is often so common in these histories; instead of showing these people as the gods of computers, they are seen as a bunch of committed people who really did want to change the world. Examining the major players in the world of computing by looking at the personalities that stand behind them, they manage to show the humanity that exists in this industry. Yet the stories from many of the founders show the dark side of some of the leaders. Steve Jobs, in particular, is the subject of a slew of negative comments, anecdotes and stories.

Yet the story doesn’t limit itself only to Silicon Valley’s technology; it also looks at the many artists who create in the area, and looks at Burning Man, the annual desert gathering of the weird and peculiar who present art in all its forms. While the crew didn’t make it to the event, they talked with many people who were there about why they present art at this event.

In the end, the crew heads back to England, hoping to take part of the Valley back with them, but realize that the ideas that sprouted there have since spread around the world, through the Internet, but also from the many people who worked in the Valley and then went on to other areas. So finally, while searching for the Valley, they discovered that it is everywhere: that these disruptive technologies that allow so many new forms of communication have taken root around the world, and that, in spite of what the investors who lost their shirt say, truly have changed things.

You can tell that it’s a seat-of-the-pants documentary, but with today’s technology, nearly anyone can make a film of this quality with some simple digital cameras and sound equipment. While extremely interesting, well edited and filmed, and with a lot of insightful interviews, one of the only negatives about this documentary is its length; at only about 55 minutes, it seems too short, but there are 30 mins of additional interviews and some other extras. It’s an entertaining ride through the history of Silicon Valley, and geeks around the world will find this informative and full of interesting details.