At first glance, it might seem contradictory that Palo Alto, a cursed Bay Area enclave riddled with arms-akimbo tech founders, unassuming office parks, and meh Stanford grads, is, despite its flaws, fairly consistently understood as a “promised land” for ~*innovation*~ and techie brilliance. Redmond isn’t exactly worshiped on blue-chip altars in the same way; so why does Palo Alto have such stay? Does it matter?
Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris, who lived in Palo Alto as a child, offers an expansive retelling of the town through a range of incarnations and actors. From the birth of the California engineer as an archetype during the Gold Rush, to the successful machinations of anticommunist technocrats, to the clear-sighted work of anti-colonial agitators, to the shit show that was Theranos, Harris demonstrates how Palo Alto, through its two-tiered ecosystem of winners and losers, has consistently exported its vision of progress onto the world, “pivoting” to new things (like ChatGPT) when its farces (like crypto) come to light. Palo Alto is revered because it’s cursed.
We don’t love civilizational collapse brought on by tech chodes like Elon and Zuck and Jeff and Bill, but Valentine’s Day has to do with love (and capitalism), and Palo Alto comes out on February 14, so it all works out. We’re both swooning and pulling out our wallets. In an interview with The Stranger ahead of his book’s release, Harris explains why a long view of Palo Alto matters, discusses the implications of recent mass layoffs like those at Microsoft, and sternly refuses to talk about the Grateful Dead.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It might be interesting to start with horses: namely, the equine genesis for what you call the “Palo Alto system.”
The Palo Alto we know starts as this stock farm for producing horses. And horses at the close of the 19th century are really like the engine of America: They’re the most important agricultural machinery, military machinery, and transportation machinery.
[Railroad industrialist] Leland Stanford starts a stock farm to raise his horses, and he goes about it in a new way; he and his trainer, Charles Marvin, as well as the whole staff of this huge stock farm change the way they’re raising horses by racing them a lot younger, and basing everything on speculative promise.
And so with that, they're able to raise the fastest, youngest horses in the world. And because of their understanding of genetics, they were able to sell on those genes faster and easier than other horse raisers were able to do. And the Stanford stock farm becomes Stanford University, which becomes Palo Alto, CA. In a lot of ways that’s the genesis of this story.
Stanford is one of them, but throughout the book you discuss key historical figures (Richard Nixon and Bill Gates being others) that are perceived as decisive actors—but you argue that others could have taken their place within a capitalist system where, you write, “capital meets as men.” At the same time, so much of Palo Alto’s history rhymes with Seattle’s, with a gold rush, a booming rail industry, the influx of defense cash, unrecognized Indigenous sovereignty, and so forth. So, just like people within a capitalist system, can places, too, be somewhat interchangeable in history’s unfolding?
That's a great question. I think to a certain degree, when you're dealing with a world system with a totality, you can find the whole in every part. So if you looked at any town—like not just Palo Alto or Seattle or Los Angeles, whatever, we could pick a small town—you could dig down and you could find the shape of the whole system. Walter Johnson's book on St. Louis does this really well; my friend David Banks has a book about upstate New York and how it's changed in the past decades. So you can take a lot of places and find the same story in terms of the story of the 20th century.
And at the same time, I do think that Palo Alto has certain aspects or attributes that make it deserving of exceptional study. And part of that is it being the last link in this chain of the capitalist system as it closes around the world.
A sort of biblical “the last will be the first” ethos or logic.
That's just a dialectical structure, where things transform into their opposites. California—Palo Alto specifically—is a great example of that.
You bring up the notion of bifurcation a lot in the book—this widening rift and entrenchment between winners and losers, which seems to tie back to the Palo Alto system in its original form. Winners in the current Palo Alto system (tech founders, venture capitalists) can be rewarded for their hubris (like “failing upwards”). That’s something humans can get away with but horses can’t.
In the original Palo Alto system, an expert in horse racing, Leslie MacLeod, goes and reviews the system and is pretty impressed. One thing he says as a drawback is that you’re gonna accidentally screw up some pretty good horses. And that's the cost of doing business and it all washes out. But there are costs to the system.
Some of those costs continue today: for example, a really unhealthy, and often lethal, high school culture in Palo Alto. It seems like that fact is part of what convinced you as someone who grew up there to do such an expansive history of this place in particular.
If you're going to do a psychoanalytic read you can also go back to my first book and see the same thing. And yeah, I lost friends and classmates at a rate that was unusual, and it was noticeable, and it freaked us out. So did my brother and my sister and so did everyone who lived there, so there is a collective trauma there. I think through this project I was able to contextualize that historically. I think I have a very different perspective on it now, which is a positive experience, I guess. So that was definitely part of it.
And part of it is I think it's a significant topic, and I wanted to understand that history better because it bears on today in a lot of important ways. I'm working for money, but it's nice if I can figure out some stuff while doing it.
You mention in the book how people are sort of rewarded for “convenient amnesia” in Palo Alto. Are powerful people intentionally avoiding looking into the past, or are they looking in the past and then pretending that they aren't?
I don't think that when you think of Silicon Valley people these days they have a strong sense of Silicon Valley history at all. One of the most indicative examples is that Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos really consciously modeled herself after Steve Jobs, who was the most recent example or icon. But she was running a testing company, and the obvious comparison was with Hewlett and Packard!
To a certain degree, there's a self-historicization within Silicon Valley where they tell some stories, but the scope of that is usually very short. I don't know if the people working on crypto today have much sense of the browser wars or whatever, but I don't think they are like looking to that for models.
On Twitter, you mentioned that you intentionally didn't discuss crypto. I’d love to hear more about the triaging that went into the book, and what steered those choices.
I mean, I constantly had to cut things; there’s tons of stuff that I wish I could have included. One that I know I’m going to get tons of shit for is that there’s no mention of the Grateful Dead anywhere in the book. And there are a lot of people who are obsessed with the Grateful Dead, who come from Palo Alto, so to have a history of Palo Alto with a psychedelic-looking cover without even mentioning the Grateful Dead is an insult to many, many people.
I had to sacrifice tons of great material because I really maxed out; this was about as much as I was going to be allowed to publish. But crypto wasn't that kind of decision. I wouldn’t have included it even if I could have, because I don't think it's a significant phenomenon historically. And I think one of the things that Silicon Valley history has suffered from is a perceived presentist bias. A whole sub-chapter on crypto definitely dates the book.
Discussion of scams ties to something you discuss in Palo Alto: this ongoing process where people in Silicon Valley should fail. There should be a conclusion to the rise with a fall, but that doesn't happen. And it seems like it's the result of impersonal forces in the form of capitalism, where you can fuck up, and then there's still more money out there, and you'll just do something until it makes a ton of money.
I talk about the emperor's new clothes, but if you don't have the political power to overthrow a naked emperor, it doesn't really matter whether he’s wearing clothes or not: You can point at him and call him naked all you want. I hope people learned that during the Trump years a little. But people have been “realizing the truth” about the Valley’s tech clusters for a hundred years, and they do it every brief cycle, and then they forget again and get excited about the new thing, which just happened very quickly in this last round. You saw what the crypto coverage looked like, and now you can look at what the AI coverage looks like.
Returning to the intention of what made it into the book: you included such a textured and in-depth history of the Black liberation struggle both locally and globally.
The story of the 20th century is the story of the color line. And the history bears that out, especially looking at California politically. The emergence of Black Power in the ways that it does in California rocks a whole world. You have everyone looking at California. And if you look at the history of Black people in California, of this cohort that triggered this global eruption, it’s relatively recent, right? So it's a synthesis of this cohort of Black immigrants from the American South, who had already bent the 19th century around them as historical movers, who then encounter these historical circumstances when moving out to California. And it's that mixture that’s explosive: globally explosive. I spend time on that because it’s the most important thing in the world.
And it's a global story that I wanted to put California in very clearly. And it's not always how California or American history and certainly not the history of that period is understood: as part of the global anti-colonial struggle. I quote Malcolm X on that and Richard Nixon on that; both sides understood what was going on as a global struggle for the future of the world.
And it’s just the tip of the iceberg, but there are so many clear instantiations of Silicon Valley continuing to operate along the color line today. Palantir may be one of the more symptomatic, though secretive, examples.
Yeah, or you can look at the way Tesla has operated at the Fremont plant, and look at racial segregation in workplaces, and go all the way back to [former President and Stanford University linchpin] Herbert Hoover, who's inventing this as a management strategy in South Africa.
There's this really interesting single sentence—I mean, obviously, the whole book is interesting—but there’s a sentence where you talk about how the historical appeal of tech companies to investors is that there weren’t many employees to lay off. The news of the past few months is very much not that—
I mean, they've definitely grown their headcount: Look at Google, Microsoft, whatever, they’ve got a significant workforce. But we're not talking about the layoffs at fucking Lockheed in the '70s after the moon landings, which was a much bigger wave. Right now you're seeing pretty big numbers at some of these firms—10,000 people at Microsoft—but those people are going to get jobs and that’s not going to affect the national unemployment rate.
It’s a non-employee-intensive business, which is one of the reasons that capital likes it. Insofar as they succeed also, it’s in their ability to reduce their promises to their employees. So to do these layoffs, they didn’t have to negotiate with their unions. Microsoft didn't have to negotiate with its programmers and other people. They said “Bye!” and they’re gone because they don’t have a union.
And the coverage has been so historically small. “Oh, the great years of tech employment are over after 10 years.” These things have been so totally cyclical for close to 100 years.
And the cycles will just continue, it seems, like the emperor will keep getting naked and then move on to a new outfit.
“I’ve got new clothes! And these clothes are different from the other clothes!” It’s pretty funny to go through the history and see a cycle over and over again, but I think it is useful to understand that knowing that doesn't change it, necessarily.