Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

San Francisco's Incredible History Of Media Innovation

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 23, 2014

 

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The tower of the copper-clad de Young museum in Golden Gate park.

San Francisco has been at the epicenter of more than just earthquakes, it has a long tradition of being at the forefront of the media industry stretching back to the gold rush.

It’s where massive newspaper fortunes were started by newspaper magnates such as M.H. de Young, and more famously, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst got his start in the newspaper business in 1887 at the San Francisco Examiner, which competed against de Young’s San Francisco Chronicle. 

San Francisco had some of the first movie studios before they moved to Hollywood and the more consistent daylight and varied scenery of southern California.

Radio Valley…

The San Francisco Bay Area became the center of radio technology, and the word radio was adopted by popular culture to mean anything high-tech and was widely used in branding products — such as the Radio Flyer — a children’s cart with wheels.  

Senior business reporter Tom Abate at SF Chronicle, wrote about the region’s long association with high-tech decades prior to Silicon Valley, which was named 1971. 

Not long after the great quake of 1906, the Bay Area - and particularly the Peninsula - began innovating with the then-hot technology of radio.

"The San Francisco Bay Area was a natural place for interest in radio because it was a seagoing region," said Timothy Sturgeon, an industrial researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who described this radio period in a paper, "How Silicon Valley Came to Be."

High-tech culture of Silicon Valley originally formed around radio - SFGate

“Howl” of the beatniks…

In the mid-1950s the city attracted the leading lights of the Beat Generation, local newspaper columnist dubbed them “Beatniks.” A public reading of a poem called “Howl” by its author Allen Ginsberg, at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street, ignited a media storm. The publication of the poem by City Lights Books in North Beach, was an incredibly important event because it eventually led to the legalization of homosexuality, and the ending of censorship in all publications.

Alternative newspapers…

In the 1960s the city was the home to some of the first alternative weekly newspapers which birthed the Hippy movement. It culminated in the “Summer of Love” in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in the late 1960s.

The Hippy movement sparked a wave of alternative media that took on the establishment in cities all over the country, challenging supporters of the Vietnam war and confronting the morality and ethics of big business.

It was in the 1960s that computer pioneer Ted Nelson realized that the computer was essentially a media machine and he developed the architecture of the hyperlink. He wrote, “As fish swim in water, we live in media.” 

Musicians and Dolby technologies…

- In music too, San Francisco jazz artists and rock groups have influenced many others. And audio technologies, such as those from Dolby, made it possible to render high fidelity music on inexpensive systems.

Desktop publishing…

- In the early 1980s the desktop printing revolution started here  because we had the perfect storm of technologies: the WYSIWYG Macintosh, cheap ($5,000) laser printers, and Adobe’s Pagemaker software.  

From multi-media to many-media…

- In the late 1980s, pioneers such as Marc Canter at Macromind, helped create a new form of “multi-media” on CD-ROM disks. “Multimedia Gulch” was the name of the south of Market Street area that now houses the tech companies that help create what is now a many-media world. 

Web publishing…

- In the early 1990s the web browser was commercialized by Marc Andreessen’s team at Netscape Communications,  in San Francisco’s business park known as Silicon Valley.  The web browser set-off a massive series of disruptions in nearly all industries, except healthcare, that is still continuing.

The world wide web transformed the nascent Internet into a publishing medium. It allowed companies to publish text, photos, and video to any connected computer screen with a browser, no matter the operating system or hardware.

Blogging the ‘next big thing’…

- At the start of the twenty-first century, San Francisco birthed the blogging movement with local pioneers such as Dave Winer. Blogging’s popularity accelerated when San Francisco startup Six Apart created Movable Type — an application that allowed anyone to easily publish anything. 

But don’t be confused by “blogging” as the daily journal of someone’s lunch choices. It’s the two-way infrastructure on which it sits that’s the “big thing.”

This framework of trackbacks,  comments, and RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds created a two-way medium for the first time.

Blogging allowed publishers to publish to any connected digital screen. But that screen could now publish back — through clicks, comments, “likes,” photo and video uploads, cursor movements. Blogging technologies made possible Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and thousands of other startups.

Broadcast and listen…

The paper of this modern media age is now also the printing press: the digital screen with its ink of glowing phosphors is alive and dynamic, responding to the user in real-time.

It’s also the publishing interface that lets the user produce and publish high quality media content that would have required multi-million dollar studios and teams of highly trained professionals.

From movable type to reprogrammable type…

We’ve never had a two-way medium of such great power and dynamic flexibility in our history. Gutenberg’s movable type has been transformed by Silicon Valley’s media technologies into dynamic type — reprogrammable in real-time.

It’s a Media Valley…

Silicon Valley is now a Media Valley. Its fastest growing companies are media companies. Google publishes pages of content with advertising, so does Facebook, Twitter , etc. These are technology-enabled media companies and not tech companies. 

And many of Silicon Valley technologies can be best described as media technologies because they enable the publishing of data and information. 

Shaking out the future…

Gutenberg’s invention shook apart societies that had changed little in hundreds of years, and made it possible for important ideas to reach wide audiences and transform the world.

We now have more forms of media, in more formats, at any time of the day,  than ever in our history. And now it’s a two-way medium! It’s the most inventive, creative, and innovative space bar none.

How will it change us? Because we know it will.

San Francisco is a small city with a population of about 826,000 and it has always been a small city. Yet it has consistently been at the forefront of some of the most important developments in media over the past 150 years. It’s a very impressive achievement.

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Part 2 in this series: San Francisco's Culture War With Corporate Silicon Valley

Part 3: San Francisco: An Epicenter Of Creativity -SVW

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