Silicon Valley in San Jose, California, was once filled with peach orchards. But unprecedented advances in technology in the nineties ensured its fame would be forever linked with the birth of the web.
The opening words of episode 1 of Valley of the Boom list the people who came to Silicon Valley then: visionaries, hustlers, geeks and college kids. The black computer screen of old then lights up with this text in green: ‘They didn’t just make the internet. They made history.’
Creator Matthew Carnahan’s series, which combines drama and documentary elements, begins in 1994. We’re introduced to the who’s who of the boom that hit the Valley when words including browser, cyber and even internet were largely unknown.
The series combines talking heads with actors bringing to life the Valley’s high drama. It works to great effect, matching the wild intensity of the time when so many challenges were afoot: how to explain what the internet is, how to make the web saleable, how to further grow traffic to a website on the smell of an oily rag, how to drum up investment in a free product.
The presentation is consciously blunt and honest about the whole mad world. It also invites the audience right into the room, bringing a bubbling excitement to the viewing experience.
Now that the world wide web isn’t just a confusing concept, it’s easy to forget how these people had to grapple with articulating just what this internet business was all about. The cast shine in their roles, relishing the enactment of a heady time of conflict and urgency, in particular, conflict between business systems experts reluctant to make drastic change in favour of ensuring long-term company stability, and those keen to move forward and ride the tidal wave of growth no one had seen the likes of before.
We start by following the history of Netscape, whose co-founder Marc Andreesen invented the browser, and the company's journey toward being publicly listed. Actors Emmy Award-winning Bradley Whitford, John Murphy and John Karna portray the dynamic trio at the helm of the company at the time, playing president and CEO James Barksdale, co-founder Jim Clark and Andreesen respectively.
We also hear from Barksdale and Clark themselves; Karna tells us directly to camera that Andreesen himself would rather ‘munch on a tasty snack of goat balls and broken glass than reminisce about the good old days’.
The personalities shine as the action unfolds. The insights of the people involved are perfectly tied in with the actors’ bringing to life of the palpable energy of boom time in the Valley.
While the exponential rise of Netscape is the main starting point, we also meet the co-founders of TheGlobe.com, two students from Cornell University who ‘invented Facebook before Facebook’ and were all about building social networking, while Steve Zahn shows up in an enthusiastic turn as the eccentric entrepreneur of Pixelon, Michael Fenne, a ‘golden-tongued’ salesman who envisioned and pioneered streaming video. Fans of Zahn will adore him as the larger-than-life Fenne.
As the six-part series unfolds and moves towards the bust of 2001, it's hard to believe all of this actually happened. The figures make your head spin, the facts just couldn’t be made up. Carnahan delivers a history lesson about start-ups and ‘browser wars’ that even the luddites among us will enjoy.
Valley of the Boom is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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