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⚡️ Palo Alto ft. Malcolm Harris
THURSDAY 3/2: An epic journey through Silicon Valley's stained past
Our guest for next Thursday, March 2 at 4-5 pm PT is Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials and editor at The New Inquiry.
His new book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, embarks on the ambitious journey of uncovering Silicon Valley’s complex past—colonization, internment, counterculture, the tech industry—and the deeply rooted capitalist system that drives it all.
Palo Alto was one of my most anticipated reads for 2023, so I’m incredibly excited to get to host Malcolm Harris for the Reboot Q&A next week. Please join us!
RSVP at this link, or keep reading for Jake’s review.
📖 What All Roads Lead Back To
Late in Frank Norris’ 1901 novel The Octopus, the poet protagonist confronts the villain, an old Californian railroad baron. Lambasting the capitalist for his culpability in the destruction and death caused by the Southern Pacific railroad, our writer finds himself backed into a corner by the baron’s response, “The Wheat is one force, the Railroad, another, and there is a law that governs them—supply and demand. Men have only little to do with the whole business. Complications may arise, conditions that bear hard on the individual—crush him maybe—BUT THE WHEAT WILL BE CARRIED TO FEED THE PEOPLE as inevitably it will grow…Blame conditions, not men,”
In Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World (2023), through the story of the namesake town, Malcolm Harris details the development of the Palo Alto System: a model of optimized development responsible for much of our modern world. Stanford University lies at the heart of this structure, the Farm is described as a factory of human capital development, treating pupils more as investments than students. Harris’ tome is a labor of love, his biting commentary is balanced by the care that he clearly has for his hometown. Tracing individuals, stories, and forces across centuries and continents, Harris highlights how the history of Santa Clara County has led us to our modern moment.
Harris begins the story of Palo Alto by describing the exploitation, expulsion, and murder of the indigenous Ohlone people by the first Americans who moved into the region. What follows is a familiar story of settlement: capital seeks growth on the frontier, it accumulates into banks and conglomerates, municipalities and education follows, minorities are marginalized or expelled, history is forgotten.
Nevertheless, Palo Alto’s story stands out for the outsized impact its actors and ideas have had on global history. The Bank of Italy was established to lend to Italian immigrants in the Gold Rush and is now known as Bank of America. Leland Stanford used his railroad profits to establish Stanford University—hoping to optimize students just as he optimized his racehorses. Herbert Hoover was one of those first students in Stanford’s initial “Pioneer Class” before becoming a presidential failure and pre-eminent conservative power broker. Ultimately, through the Cold War, a concerted academic mission, and military spending, Palo Alto became the heart of Silicon Valley. In between these major events, Harris fills in the story of Palo Alto with sobering examples—big and small—of the violence, racism, and exploitation which has built our world into what it is today.
At the same time, Harris has been able to meticulously craft a narrative which somehow remains hopeful. He notes that at every step in the construction of the Palo Alto System, there have been those who have thrown their bodies on the gears of the machine, sabotaging the forces at work. For every Herbert Hoover, Lewis Terman, or Bill Shockley, there is an opposite, an Ernesto Galarza, Caroline Decker, or Rosemary Cambra. None of these efforts of resistance were without fault and all ultimately failed to stop the Palo Alto System. Yet there is optimism in these stories of how collective struggles and advocacy moved the needle—if ever so slightly—against the hegemony of Palo Alto. Harris’ overtly political perspective provides a lifeline away from a defeatist acceptance of the horrors that much of the book details.
Though narrow modern connotations of ‘the Bay’ may suggest otherwise, Palo Alto should not be understood as a project centered on the technology industry. By the time familiar names like Thiel, Brin, and Musk appear in the book, they are simply the newest cogs in the established Palo Alto System. The discourses of both tech boosterism and criticism often misunderstand ‘Silicon Valley’ as novel, as if the use of computer chips nullifies the forces of profit. At the same time, by understanding the computing industry solely as a symptom of the broader Palo Alto System, Harris may actually miss the ways in which some social disruptions of the underlying technology lie outside of his historical narrative. Yet as Ben Beitler wrote in his review for the LA Review of Books, professional historians will need to comb through the weeds of Harris’ work to evaluate the merits of its story, the rest of us get to understand Palo Alto through its “explanatory power.” In this regard, the book excels.
Of course, while certainly exemplary in its scale and impact, the story of Stanford University and the Palo Alto is hardly singular. Imitations and emulations of the Palo Alto System can be found across many institutions of higher education around the world. To ensure that the pupil remains an asset to these structures, moments of student resistance to these educational systems are often met with the harsh enforcement of the status quo; sometimes violently. Reimaginings of the ivory—or poured concrete—towers are repelled by extra-educational power. The intractable relationships between education, money, and domination that Harris describes throughout Palo Alto are both terrifying and familiar. While Harris makes a point to highlight how the marketing of meritocracy was used to justify the forms that the Palo Alto System created, Stanford is not the only school to claim that its students are the brightest in the world or that its alums are the most powerful. If it could help their spot in the rankings, a handful of universities around the world would undoubtedly argue that Palo Alto should have been written about them instead.
Harris’ analysis should prompt a reconsideration of what it means to pass through any institution which could lay such a claim and what responsibility one has in reinforcing or rejecting them. Readers should not conflate the enormity of the Palo Alto System and its offshoots with an inevitability of its continuation. In fact, Harris suggests alternative futures: the Palo Alto System is just an amalgamation of forces, forces which can be opposed. In the face of an accelerating climate crisis, Harris finishes the book by making a convincing case that the dismantling of Stanford and the system that it reproduces is necessary for the continuation of humanity. This goal is daunting but Harris argues that it’s hardly unpragmatic.
Throughout this narrative, Harris notes the tension between understanding history through forces or through individuals: while the Palo Alto System places the utmost importance on the individual, Harris’ own materialist analysis deals mainly with forces. It is hard for the reader to find themselves in Palo Alto’s grand story, but maybe such a search is flawed in its premise. Norris’ railroad baron misunderstands his role in history and its forces; Palo Alto suggests a different way of understanding one’s own.
Jake Gaughan (he/him) is a software developer based in Seattle.
Reboot publishes essays and interviews reimagining tech’s future every week. If you liked this and want to keep up, subscribe below ⚡️
Is there ethical consumption under capitalism? Perhaps there is. In “Just Beans,” Malcolm Harris reflects on Starbucks smashing, Zizek, and why our individual actions might matter after all.
For more Palo Alto history, check out “A Tale of Two Cities,” a Reboot essay by Stanford student Victoria Gorum on how racist redlining created East Palo Alto.
An mid-90s WIRED editor reflects on how the Californian ideology led from cyberlibertarian hippies to the fascist populism of Peter Thiel.
💝 closing note
One more thing: I’m working on a short essay and talk about what makes “good tech criticism.” I’d love to hear in an email reply or the comments about a piece of tech writing that has dramatically shifted your perspective, or even better, your work. Thanks!
Jasmine & Reboot team