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The true, unvarnished history of the town at the heart of Silicon Valley.
Palo Alto is nice. The weather is temperate, the people are educated, rich, healthy, enterprising. Remnants of a hippie counterculture have synthesized with high technology and big finance to produce the spiritually and materially ambitious heart of Silicon Valley, whose products are changing how we do everything from driving around to eating food. It is also a haunted toxic waste dump built on stolen Indian burial grounds, and an integral part of the capitalist world system.
In Palo Alto, the first comprehensive, global history of Silicon Valley, Malcolm Harris examines how and why Northern California evolved in the particular, consequential way it did, tracing the ideologies, technologies, and policies that have been engineered there over the course of 150 years of Anglo settler colonialism, from IQ tests to the "tragedy of the commons," racial genetics, and "broken windows" theory. The Internet and computers, too. It's a story about how a small American suburb became a powerful engine for economic growth and war, and how it came to lead the world into a surprisingly disastrous 21st century.
Palo Alto is an urgent and visionary history of the way we live now, one that ends with a clear-eyed, radical proposition for how we might begin to change course.
Silicon Valley's epicenter has nurtured an unholy symbiosis of capitalism and racism, according to this sweeping yet jaundiced study. The New Inquiry contributing editor Harris (Kids These Days), a Palo Alto native, surveys the city's history from the Gold Rush onward, paying particular attention to its dominant institution, Stanford University. He indicts the school for pioneering the "military-academic-industrial complex," brainstorming conservative ideology at its Hoover Institution, and incubating Silicon Valley's computer industry—an especially pernicious variant of globalism, he contends. Harris puts Palo Alto at the core of a California capitalism that combined labor exploitation with racism by recruiting low-wage, nonwhite workers, then condoning white-supremacist backlashes to intimidate them. Vivid sketches of Stanford-linked capitalists (railroad baron Leland Stanford; venture capitalist Peter Thiel) dwell on their sins more than their achievements and celebrate the Indigenous rebels, union organizers, Black Panthers, and campus militants who challenged them. The result is a somewhat discordant mix of jibes and Marxist theorizing: "Bill Gates and Steve Jobs... had poor personal hygiene, didn't play sports, and were both noted jerks.... These repellent young men were the tools that got capital from the crisis of the 1960s to the ‘greed is good' '80s." Harris's frequently gripping history gets lost in the shuffle of his doctrinaire politics. Photos.