This is the story about how the internet worked before Google, Facebook, and YouTube

2019-01-18 13:46
Lamorne Morris in a scene from Valley of the Boom

Cape Town - Silicon Valley spawned some of the world’s most influential people and recognisable brands during the 1990s and attracted geniuses and charlatans alike. It is also where the new phenomenon of the overnight tech millionaire was born.

Using a blend of narrative devices and interviews with the real subjects and experts woven into scripted drama, showrunner, creator, director and executive producer Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies) charts the meteoric rise of the dot-com bubble in Valley of the Boom.

The new six-part limited series which airs Sunday, 20 January at 20:00 on National Geographic (DStv 182) features an unconventional hybrid of scripted storytelling and documentary interviews with the key players whose stories are dramatised in the show.

In the series, Carnahan follows the turbulent ride of three different companies whose founders were trying to change the world using the new technology of the internet. Before Google, Netscape pioneered the first commercial web browser and launched the “browser wars” with Microsoft. 

Before Facebook, was a rapidly expanding social networking site built by dreamers on a university campus. And before YouTube, a con artist on the run from the FBI reinvented himself in Silicon Valley to start a streaming video company called Pixelon, resulting in an entrepreneurial rise and fall almost too insane to be believed.

Valley of the Boom stars an ensemble cast led by two-time Emmy award-winning actor Bradley Whitford (Get OutThe Post, The West Wing), Steve Zahn (War of the Planet of the Apes,) and Lamorne Morris (New Girl).

Below a Q&A with director Matthew Carnahan on the show:

The rise and fall of Silicon Valley was full of remarkable success stories and larger-than-life failures. How did you decide which ones were worth telling?

I didn’t want to necessarily look for stories that were archetypal or somehow symbolic, but stories that felt messy and real and somehow relevant both then and now.

It would be hard to tell a dot-com boom story without including the Netscape story and the story of Marc Andreessen, James Barksdale and Jim Clark. These guys were all monster talents, Andreessen especially. He was a genuine visionary whose invention (the browser, or the first one any of us mortals could use) affects every one of us every day of our lives, even people who do not have access to the internet. Many people don’t think about how much of our daily lives are connected to the internet, from doctors’ records to traffic lights, but that all started with these guys’ ideas. Not only did they conceive the browser, but — maybe more radically — the whole idea of open source code that has shaped and changed the world in so many ways, including having a profound effect on the dialogue around net neutrality.

The two young students who started, Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman, were the very next wave of internet visionaries. These were college kids who started a web-based social network in their dorm room that presaged Facebook and other social networking sites by nearly a decade. Todd and Steph were and are exploding with intelligence, the desire to disrupt for good and for change, with a genuine passion for this strange and brave new world called cyberspace.

Hucksters, hustlers, con men — every gold rush brings its share, and the dot-com boom of the ’90s was no exception. Michael Fenne, although in some ways the furthest character from the beating heart of the boom, was in a way the most prescient. Fenne, with his white-blond hair, tent revivalist patter and “unique ability to defy reality,” was the founder of Pixelon, an early video streaming site that raised 30 million dollars based on little more than Fenne’s ability to read people and manipulate their greed. This story was the most shocking and fun for me to explore, and I still have to remind myself that he is a real guy, who actually exists and really did the things that Steve Zahn remarkably portrays.

A scene in the series Valley of the Boom.

We have heard the storytelling format is different from what we’re used to seeing on Nat Geo. Can you describe your approach to the subject matter and what you’re most excited about?

When I pitched the story, I said, “I want to blow up your network, I want to ruin the entire genre, I want to make a story as crazy and disruptive as the characters and the technologies they introduced.”

So, yeah, because the story is so complex and can be tough to comprehend, we used dream ballets, rap battles, direct address, imposters, flash mobs and puppets, as well as doc-style interviews to help convey and contextualise what was happening during this crazy time period. Also, while the methodology veers toward the ridiculous, our aim is true: To make a show that honours these visionaries and also finds humour and pathos in the stories of the folks whose intentions were maybe not so honourable.

Valley of the Boom examines the battle for the soul of the internet that happened in the ’90s. How did the winners do it — or has anyone even won yet?

We are in a terribly important moment in terms of the soul of the internet. Net neutrality is being discarded for greed and the chance to create a new cyber class system. Artificial intelligence and mega-algorithms are influencing the outcome of elections and further dividing us. This story is very much about the importance of free and unfettered internet access, and not giving in to huge companies and their antitrust activities. One of the things I hope this series does is to show people that these are not simply the issues of coders and businessmen, but that they affect each of us profoundly. The creation of the internet unearthed a lot of these problems, and as long as we continue using it they will continue to be issues we face. I hope this show helps to better shape our answers, how we approach the world in which we live and how the disruptors of today can find ways to not just make more money but effect positive change.

A scene in the series Valley of the Boom.

(Photos supplied: National Geographic)

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