The best books on the origins of the tech industry

Joanne McNeil Author Of Lurking: How a Person Became a User
By Joanne McNeil

Who am I?

Joanne McNeil has written about internet culture for over fifteen years. Her book considers the development of the internet from a user's perspective since the launch of the World Wide Web. Her interest in digital technology spans from the culture that enabled the founding of major companies in Silicon Valley to their reception in broader culture.

I wrote...

Lurking: How a Person Became a User

By Joanne McNeil,

Book cover of Lurking: How a Person Became a User

What is my book about?

A concise but wide-ranging personal history of the internet from the point of view of the user. 

In a shockingly short amount of time, the internet has bound people around the world together and torn us apart and changed not just the way we communicate but who we are and who we can be. It has created a new, unprecedented cultural space that we are all a part of—even if we don’t participate, that is how we participate—but by which we’re continually surprised, betrayed, enriched, befuddled. We have churned through platforms and technologies and in turn been churned by them. And yet, the internet is us and always has been. In Lurking, Joanne McNeil digs deep and identifies the primary (if sometimes contradictory) concerns of people online: searching, safety, privacy, identity, community, anonymity, and visibility. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128

Why did I love this book?

Until the 1980s, it seemed like Route 128 in Massachusetts was set to be the dominant location for the tech industry. What could have been a dry look at comparative corporate organizational structures is instead a compelling analysis of the contrasting cultures, business climates, and other forces resulting in the ultimate victory of Silicon Valley. The book is full of fascinating details that I haven’t read anywhere else like the role that California community colleges played in ensuring companies could swiftly train new employees.

By AnnaLee Saxenian,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Regional Advantage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why is it that in the '90s, business in California's Silicon Valley flourished, while along Route 128 in Massachusetts it declined? The answer, Annalee Saxenian suggests, has to do with the fact that despite similar histories and technologies, Silicon Valley developed a decentralized but cooperative industrial system while Route 128 came to be dominated by independent, self-sufficient corporations. The result of more than one hundred interviews, this compelling analysis highlights the importance of local sources of competitive advantage in a volatile world economy.

Book cover of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the Afronet to Black Lives Matter

Why did I love this book?

Black software, McIlwain writes, “refers to the programs we desire and design computers to run. It refers to who designs the program, for what purposes, and what or who becomes its object and data.” The book is a much needed examination of the role that Black entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and users contributed in building the internet.

By Charlton D. McIlwain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Software as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Activists, pundits, politicians, and the press frequently proclaim today's digitally mediated racial justice activism the new civil rights movement. As Charlton D. McIlwain shows in this book, the story of racial justice movement organizing online is much longer and varied than most people know. In fact, it spans nearly five decades and involves a varied group of engineers, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, journalists, and activists. But this is a history that is virtually
unknown even in our current age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Black Lives Matter.

Beginning with the simultaneous rise of civil rights and computer revolutions in the 1960s, McIlwain,…

Book cover of The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network

Why did I love this book?

A memoir that covers Losse’s experience working at Facebook from 2005 when she was the company’s 51st hire. Losse weaves her own experience—at first as a low-level employee in customer support and later as Mark Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter—with sharp analysis of Silicon Valley’s changing role in politics and culture. A powerful reckoning with her own complicity working for a company that exhibited dangerous “totalitarian” ambition from its very beginning.

By Katherine Losse,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Boy Kings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kate Losse was a grad school refugee when she joined Facebook as employee #51 in 2005. Hired to answer user questions such as "What is a poke?" and "Why can't I access my ex-girlfriend's profile?" her early days at the company were characterized by a sense of camaraderie, promise, and ambition: Here was a group of scrappy young upstarts on a mission to rock Silicon Valley and change the world.

Over time, this sense of mission became so intense that working for Facebook felt like more than just a job; it implied a wholehearted dedication to "the cause." Employees were…

Book cover of A People's History of Computing in the United States

Why did I love this book?

A thorough look at the origins of personal computing and connections between computer users beginning in the 1960s that highlights the BASIC programming language and The Oregon Trail game. Shines a light on the role that universities and the education system played in fostering networks between users.

By Joy Lisi Rankin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A People's History of Computing in the United States as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Silicon Valley gets all the credit for digital creativity, but this account of the pre-PC world, when computing meant more than using mature consumer technology, challenges that triumphalism.

The invention of the personal computer liberated users from corporate mainframes and brought computing into homes. But throughout the 1960s and 1970s a diverse group of teachers and students working together on academic computing systems conducted many of the activities we now recognize as personal and social computing. Their networks were centered in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Illinois, but they connected far-flung users. Joy Rankin draws on detailed records to explore how…

Book cover of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Why did I love this book?

Beginning with Stewart Brand’s influence through his projects like The Whole Earth Catalog, the WELL, and Wired magazine, this book examines the unique culture of Silicon Valley. An essential history and one that clarifies the tech industry’s seemingly contradictory values of revolution and corporate power.

By Fred Turner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Counterculture to Cyberculture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In "From Counterculture to Cyberculture", Fred Turner details the previously untold story of a highly influential group of San Francisco Bay Area entrepreneurs: Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth network. Between 1968 and 1998, via such familiar venues as the National Book Award - winning "Whole Earth Catalog", the computer-conferencing system known as WELL, and, ultimately, the launch of the wildly successful Wired magazine, Brand and his colleagues brokered a long-running collaboration between San Francisco flower power and the emerging technological hub of Silicon Valley. Thanks to their vision, counterculturalists and technologists alike joined together to reimagine computers as tools…

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