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The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest

By Po Bronson

Po Bronson: The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest, Vintage
London 1998, ISBN 0-09-926828-0

12.02.1999 · Reviewed by Douglas Merrill

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Like Michael Wolff, Po Bronson offers a morality tale of Silicon Valley. The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest follows a group of young computer engineers from the sheltered life of a research lab into the rough and tumble of startup companies and the hard school of turbocapitalism in the computer industry. Along the way, Bronson captures the ethos of high technology, not only the ins and outs of the computer world but also what kind of people think they are changing the world with their inventions. The novel aims at the zeitgeist of the early internet years, but it hits the spirit of the industry as a whole.

The story opens with two wicked satires of media and fashion, episodes that allow Bronson to show people who simply don't get what matters about high technology and give his characters a chance to show why they are willing to make such sacrifices for ones and zeroes flowing through bits of silicon. In the first, one of the industry's leading chip designers is being interviewed by a reporter:

"He knew what she wanted. She wanted Francis to say something familiar, something tangible - something like 'Imagine the motherboard is like a fruit tree' - to rescue her brain back into this time and place. But he wasn't going to say it for her. Forget it. He hated having to translate his work into dumbed-down metaphors for the shiny-shoe set - the meddlesome lawyers, media scribblers, and potential corporate sponsors who cane through wanting to understand without doing the hard work of paying attention."

The gauntlet is already down. Can you understand computers? Can you grasp the implications of minor differences? Do you get it? In this exchange is also the clear division between the engineers and the rest of the world as well as the latent sexism in much of the field.

In the second, a team of fashion photographers comes to shoot the decidedly unfashionable computer researchers. "Some Italian conglomerate had built up sufficient internal consensus to approve their ad agency's recommendation: put unassuming clothes on semifamous titans of the American computer industry, take pictures, and print the pictures alongside the slogan, 'High-tech insiders wear Lo-Tech [Workware] on the outside.' Their problem was that these supposed titans might be downright physically grotesque." The photography crew might be clever in their own way, but they fall into one of the research institute's favorite ways of annoying outsiders, the infinite loop. Clueless visitors ask to see a certain person, they are directed from one incorrect person to another, eventually ending up where they started. If the visitors are particularly slow, they may repeat the loop several times.

Francis explains the attraction of the infinite loop. "This particular kind of prank stored a message, it taught a lesson - a lesson that would have to be learned by anyone wanted to understand the way these computer engineers looked on the rest of society. ... People can be caught in their own infinite loops and have no idea they're caught in a loop." The engineers see such loops throughout society, from commuters who complain about traffic, to politics, to the education system. "And if you got enough clues ... you would finally understand the very big picture of the La Honda Research Center. Their goal was larger than any of them ever cared to state outright, for fear of coming across as unrealistic. ... They all knew why they worked around the clock, week in and week out: they wanted to jolt society out of its infinite loop. Nothing less."

The fashion photographers never get so far. While they break out of their own small loop quickly, they end up taking pictures of a junior assistant instead of the director. Bronson's novel is full of small jokes like that one, bits that reveal the subculture of Silicon Valley. For example, two powerful executives are shadowboxing over the work of a particular group. One makes a donation to the other's favorite charity, but does it in the form of a thousand individual checks in odd denominations; it will cost more than the amount of the donation to do the paperwork. "Writing out a thousand checks was the kind of stunt only an engineer would think of and only another engineer could appreciate. ... Llyod Acheson was poking fun at engineers, but he was also reminding Francis that he had once been an engineer, too."

The irony is that for all of their stubborn independence, the engineers of Bronson's novel desparately need the rest of the world; the whole point of breaking society out of its destructive infinite loops is lost if no one but engineers is paying attention; none of the brilliant ideas can become businesses without the rest of the apparatus the engineers pretend to look down on.

The combination of zeitgeist and vivid characters makes the novel addictive reading. Twists and turns of the plot to change the world join with satire of the business and the computer industry to produce a story that captures Silicon Valley in the early internet years, a time of frenzy and silliness, but also a time of great hope.
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