Tech and Humanity//

Why National Geographic’s “Valley of The Boom” Is Actually the Best Explainer of the Internet Today

National Geographic's "Valley of the Boom" reveals how the birth of the web in 90s Silicon Valley laid the groundwork for our relationship with technology today.

(Left to right) Bradley Whitford and John Murphy as Netscape pioneers James Barksdale and Jim Clark in National Geographic's VALLEY OF THE BOOM. (National Geographic/Bettina Strauss)
(Left to right) Bradley Whitford and John Murphy as Netscape pioneers James Barksdale and Jim Clark in National Geographic's VALLEY OF THE BOOM. (National Geographic/Bettina Strauss)

In 1994, during an episode of the Today Show, Katie Couric asked one of her producers a now immortal question: “Allison, can you explain what Internet is?”

What was then a perfectly mundane question seems virtually implausible now — debates over what the internet does have been totally supplanted by how it operates. In the decades since the invention of the World Wide Web, Silicon Valley technology has vastly improved the way we work and communicate. But simultaneously, myriad studies now show the mental health effects of social media and screen time, including its negative impact on body image, anxiety, depression, and even sleep habits. The internet has fostered unprecedented, instantaneous access to information; at the same time, it’s opened up equally unprecedented debates about net neutrality, privacy, and content moderation. So how did we get from there to here?

That Today Show clip serves as both the opening scene and a kind of statement of intent for the new National Geographic series “Valley of the Boom,” which transports viewers directly back to the mid-1990s, when both “Friends” and “The X-Files” were brand new — and Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg were still in grade school. It tells the stories of three early dot-com giants: the browser Netscape, the proto-social network theglobe.com, and the streaming site Pixelon, all of which anticipated the platforms we use today, like Chrome, Facebook, and YouTube. Now, these are familiar concepts. But at the time, they were more like cryptocurrency: thrilling in principle but, honestly, a little hard to wrap your head around.

“Valley of the Boom” focuses on a specific moment in history, but that moment has had far-reaching implications for pretty much every part of our lives today, from where we work to our homes to how we reach our friends. The series arrives at a moment that Executive Producer Arianna Huffington recently described as an “inflection point” in our relationship with technology — a moment when it dominates, instead of facilitates, our interactions with the world around us. It’s no longer sustainable for us to be passive consumers of tech. And “to change our tech habits,” Huffington points out, “we need to understand how and why the tech world that drives those habits was built.” “Valley of the Boom” explores just that — and has a lot of fun doing so.

Steve Zahn (center) as conman turned dot com founder Michael Fenne pops champagne in National Geographic’s VALLEY OF THE BOOM. (National Geographic/Bettina Strauss)

You might expect a series all about the 1990s tech world to be plodding and boring, or for it to make you feel bad about the endless hours you now spend scrolling through Instagram (thank you, Silicon Valley!). But you would be very wrong. “Valley of the Boom” is self-referential and irreverent, combining interviews with the people who were really there at the time — a subtle reminder that this didn’t happen all that long ago — with scripted re-enactments starring the likes of Bradley Whitford, Lamorne Morris and Steve Zahn. A rap battle — very 1990s, we might add — explains the original “browser war” between Netscape and Microsoft; Bill Gates, as a literal puppet, delivers his famous “sleeping giant” speech.

As Huffington explains in the series’ first episode, the early pioneers of Silicon Valley were “selling something that we now take completely for granted.” Some of them came to Silicon Valley because they wanted to, as one character puts it, “change the world.” Others came because they wanted to, as another says, become “very, very wealthy men.” Fueled by both idealism and the lure of huge profits, their differing ambitions paved the way for an internet experience that today is at once amazing and empowering… and also completely consuming. Truly grasping its beginnings can help us better navigate today’s digital world — and “Valley of the Boom” is a fun (and bingeworthy) way to learn.

“Valley of The Boom” premieres Sunday January 13 at 9/8c on National Geographic or watch the first two episodes now On Demand and on the Nat Geo TV App.

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