8 Documentaries about the modern history of technology worth watching
I was never into movies that fictionalize historical events. Recently quite a few of them had enjoyed commercial success, like Social Network or the latest Steve Jobs biopic. However, I always feel that these films are useless for anyone who wants to learn about historical events without seeing them trivialized. Even if the movie is true to the chronology of events, the rules of non-documentary filmmaking demand that it be enhanced by editing effects, dramatic acting and various plot side lines, for instance, romantic subplots.
I don’t think I’m right to snub historical feature films: some of them can be enlightening and on point, inspired by history, and not the writers’ and directors’ imaginations: a great example being Milk. However, I am yet to find successful non-documentary films on technology. Maybe that’s because the subject is still relatively new, and the guidelines of storytelling on tech issues are still being worked out? So, hopefully, things will improve.
The history of computers and technology is abundant with the familiar trope: a few dozen people, who had no idea what they’re doing, built empires that later conquered markets and the minds of many followers. Even though at the time of technological advent product development wasn’t as advance as it is right now, much less was needed to start something and to enjoy a break through. You didn’t have to be proficient in software, possess public speaking skills or the ability to persuade an investor to give every penny, to create business models and predict future sales. It was easier — but also much harder. And just like the inventors throughout history, pioneers of technology opened the doors to many others, and created things that we’re still using right now.
I have spent a lot of time watching technology documentaries that I was able to find. Here is the result: a list of movies that I can recommend if you want to learn something while also being entertained. The majority of them are available for free on YouTube, and others are on Netflix/Amazon/Hulu. So, as long as you have a few free hours, there’s nothing standing between you and my favorite tech flicks.
PBS American Experience: Silicon Valley (2013)
This one is about the short period in history when computer hardware was rapidly developing: from the invention of transistor and the Fairchild semiconductor in the 1950s to the launch of Intel and production of the first microprocessors in early 1970s. The battle of behemoths, the trailblazers of modern technology, which most of contemporary consumers aren’t even aware existed.
Something Ventured (2011)
Even though it was made earlier than the Silicon Valley documentary, it catches up where the previous movie left off, and details the early days of what came to be known as the Silicon Valley. These were the days when technology followed money, not vice versa. See how the first “startups” came to be, how hard it was to receive “venture” financing when no one really trusted the “new technologies” or young specialists with no experience running companies. I’m using quotes, because none of these terms even existed at the time.
WIRED Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware (2016)
A short Wired feature telling the story of hardware today. The most illuminating part of it is on the culture “sharing” as we know it, and the way it had been shaped in various parts of the world. In the US, where 1980–90s were replete with fights over early patents and code, the culture is virtually non-existent, defined, and defeated, by individualism. Meanwhile, the contemporary “hardware capital” city of Shenzhen, China, is where sharing is indeed collaborative, aimed at faster production and faster ways for innovative products to reach the market.
2013 was a great year for tech documentaries: the following two work together really well to tell the story of how the battle for free internet was lost, and how internet copyright laws that are now perceived as a given, came to be.
The rise and the fall of Napster were both unexpected and brief. A project much hated and considered illegal by Hollywood, Napster raised the most important questions regarding internet copyright law. Now the laws that rose from anti-Napster battles govern the industry and dictate the rules for media content publishers. Essentially, the story at the core of this movie is how Napster made way for Spotify, and the others that followed.
TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away from Keyboard (2013)
This one is, probably, the closest on this list to a feature film. It’s based on true events, but the plot is larger than life and seems too absurd to be real. A bunch of guys launch the world’s biggest torrent website, and police chase them across the globe. Filmed in the style of mockumentaries with characters acting according to the guidelines of the genre: great fun for anyone who enjoys the best of the mockumentary genre and for history buffs alike.
Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Another documentary with high stakes: the history of development and market launch of three indie video games. The poignant truth behind the cult classics: their developers were often acting alone, without a budget or support from family and friends, backed only by their trusty online supporters—people they hadn’t seen and, likely, never got to know in real life.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected (2016)
As the creepy soundtrack whines in the background, the narrator talks about the past, the present and the future of the internet. People who have influenced the development of the net with their experience and achievements make appearances. So does the machine which sent the first e-mail from UCLA to Stanford in 1969, along with people who have to live outside of the mobile networks’ reach due to various conditions, and, last but not least, Elon Musk.
Silicon Cowboys (2016)
The story of a group of friends who came together to brainstorm ideas for a business. Their initial idea was to open a Mexican restaurant, but because they were not Mexican and had no experience running a food joint, they chose to start making computers. Their CEOs were the first in the industry to give free coffees to their employees, paving the way for the famous culture of freebies on IT company campuses. They were also the company to beat many financial records in the US. Who were they? See the film and find out.