The first Internet commerce boom has paved the way for much of today's world. IPOs and insane valuations, technology companies with no obvious business model, vague aroma of scams, all centered on Silicon Valley. Two crashes later, most of the big players are dead, merged or dismembered. However, some of the ideas (massive online social networks, web browsers as a software platform) have materialized. So, how did we go from the first boom to here?
The next series of six episodes from National Geographic, Boom Valley, do not retrace the entire history of the 90s to the present. Instead, it follows three very distinct societies from the first boom to the end, using a combination of interviews with key actors, documentary footage, and extremely well-interpreted scenes to complete the details. It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but there are certainly some lessons to be learned from the valley and tech companies here in an incredibly entertaining package.
Order of chaos
Many documentaries contain scenes played – early human hunters silently making spears or obscure actors playing historic scenes in costume. With his series MarchNational Geographic tried to do something a little different, using daily interviews and documentary footage on the chances of traveling to Mars, but mixing them with long dramatic scenes in which a fictional team attended to the process of creating a house on Mars.
Boom Valley go a little further. Yes, there are many real historical sequences of boom years available, and they are lightly sprinkled throughout the series. Attendees also held phenomenal interviews, including Jim Clark and Jim Barksdale of Netscape, founders of the smaller company TheGlobe.com, and Netscape and Microsoft engineers. Ars, Dan Goodin, who wrote the final story of one of the featured companies, also makes long appearances through a long interview that recapitulates this story, which we managed to get a clip.
But Dan's interview is not his only appearance in the program: an alternative version of Dan, played by actor Jacob Richter, also appears. That's because Boom Valley involves many scenes played, representing here events of the past – it is not literal attempts to reproduce them, but scenes that help to advance the story and give viewers an idea of what it could have been a fly on the wall events (as you can also see in this clip).
The real Dan Goodin and Steve Zahn, Zahn playing the fake version of the CEO described by Dan.
But to call them played scenes seriously underestimates what is proposed here. There is also a rap battle and a number that would not be moved in a broadway musical. The version of Jim Barksdale's series dies metaphorically as Microsoft literally cuts off its air supply. A grammar age math specialist is invited to explain who earns what pile of money on the day of his IPO – and how some people can become millionaires while still immersed in the grand scheme of things.
It probably looks like chaos, and there are parts (like the rap battle) where it's probably a little ridiculous. But it's remarkably good, and in many ways it makes the stories more compelling and easier to digest. Lamorne Morris must be particularly rewarded for his role as a banker who never existed and who plays the role of narrator, stage designer and general MC. Bradley Whitford, known for his work on The west wing, did a good job of being Jim Barksdale, but the show is stolen by Steve Zahn, who has come together to represent a fugitive crook suffering messianic delusions who has somehow been at the helm of a multi-company millions of dollars based on a vaporware.
Learn by example
The film structures its history around three societies. One of them is obviously Netscape, who was the grandfather of the boom and a follower of Valley, until he undergoes a mix of questionable business decisions and that Microsoft considers him a threat. The film is resolutely pro-Netscape, but the arrogance that emerges from the interviews with a member of the Internet Explorer team makes the pro-Netscape bias quite understandable.
TheGlobe.com is also present, one of the first social networks that was not really in the valley (based in New York), but still led the technological boom to a scandalous IPO. His two founders are incredibly personal in the interviews, so much so that the actors do not seem to fully capture their charm. It captures well the mentality that needs a business plan, a growth at any price, that fueled the boom.
And then there is Pixelon, the company that was supposed to have a revolutionary video streaming technology, but that actually used a standard mpeg compression (and, in the course of a demonstration, used a version well disguised from a Windows Media Player codec). While his founder is now out of jail, he reportedly refused to be interviewed as part of this project, which prompted Dan Goodin to fill historical gaps. Dan is awesome, but nothing in the program can match Steve Zahn's portrayal of the delusional scribbler who took Pixelon's funding and almost ruined it at a giant party in Vegas.
The three examples – real success, near-miss and complete fraud – illustrate the specter of what was happening in Silicon Valley during the boom years. I lived in the nearby town of Berkeley at the beginning of the boom and I went back there for frequent visits. There was a certain amount of surrealism in the total madness of the millionaires of paper and the fact that a subgroup of paper millionaires really wanted what they were doing and hoped to really change the world.
If it takes a rap battle to burst into a conference room to convey that surreality, I agree with that. If you are also ready to suspend this disbelief, Boom Valley makes a fascinating watch and a glimpse of the chaos that helped create the world we live in (and, indirectly, allowed me to have a job writing that).
The first episode airs Sunday night on National Geographic, and some of the content is available in streaming on the program's website.