Documentary: PBS American Experience Silicon Valley Synopsis

The documentary, titled, ‘PBS American Experience Silicon Valley’ narrates the events which led to the creation of Silicon Valley- as one of the world’s most innovative technological hub, the way we know it today. The documentary starts with how the founding fathers of Silicon Valley had gathered under the leadership of Robert Noyce, and the documentary then goes on to explain how they went on to achieve something bigger than themselves.

The narrative is voiced by a narrator, who is then joined [albeit for a quick remark or comments] by a team of other people comprising of a historian, a venture capitalist, a writer, an Alto resident, a physicist, a marketing consultant, an electrical engineer, a Shockley semiconductor, a Fairchild semiconductor, an Intel employee and archival member from CBS news. The inclusion of so many voices (each depicting a distinct perspective) was something that shocked me. The inclusion of these voices made it look as if the story is being relived from the eyes of all these people, whose interventions go on to explore the significance of the discoveries made by the team, or to explain the background or to provide a context to the narrative. The story explains the development of major devices such as a transistor and microprocessor in a chronological sequence. On the whole, the narrative seemed to present a history of technology in the United States, and offers a compelling account of human genius in transforming the world.

Although the narrative celebrates and highlights the technological breakthrough in the mid to late twentieth century, I found, the narrative was overtly focused on Bob Noyce. The narrative made it look as if the invention of something so grand was inevitable. For instance, the documentary romanticizes the topographical features of Santa Clara county and hints at how its lush wilderness and untamed, exotic appeal was germane and like a perfect heaven for the pioneers of technological industry, who then settled there and went on to do their work. The documentary, I felt is highly one sided. The focus is on showing how the geniuses improved the transistors already made by their ex-boss. The emphasis here is on the successes achieved, while the mention of difficulties, hardships and other hurdles is hardly there in the narrative.

The documentary is from the series called, “American Experience” but it fails to explain proper historical details as lived by the average Americans. The broader context of technology in the world is missing. The documentary is mistitled as Silicon Valley, since its main subject is Robert Noyce. One of the main voices that complement that of the main narrator’s’ belongs to Leslie Berlin. Berlin was the writer of Robert Noyce’s biography. Berlin in her interventions is highly sympathetic of Noyce, and leaves no occasion to remind viewers how hard it all was for Noyce. For instance, she remarks, “Noyce had a young family. And to leave sort of a known paycheck for something that there was no model for, this notion of breaking away and doing something different.” Elsewhere, further in the video she mentions, “Those dollars bills they signed are Silicon Valley’s declaration of independence”. To an average reader, such remarks and celebration would feel like as if the pioneers themselves were so celebratory of their decision and so joyous, confident, sure and conscious of achieving something in future.

The problem with this documentary is that it skips out what happened at each step: it doesn’t focus on what the pioneers themselves felt, whether they had disagreements among themselves, high hopes for future, and after achieving success, what were their own perspectives on their journey. Thus, on the whole documentary does a poor job of recounting history as it should be done. The documentary doesn’t let the human element of the whole experience and journey come through. The pioneer’s own voice and impressions were missing from the story. It clearly appeared that the team of narrators and the main narrator were projecting their own views and experiences in hindsight as they were trying to reflect on what the pioneers might have gone through.

On the whole, the documentary is entertaining and informative to those unrelated to the world of technology, but it does little to excite the IT people who already know of this story in a more detailed and nuanced way. As any success story, the documentary is inspiring. However, since the documentary is based on an unrealistic and overtly pessimistic view of scientific progress, it does indeed disappoint me. Nonetheless, the documentary will definitely motivate me to work harder to make my career in IT as I get the message here that nothing’s impossible in the face of hard work.