Before California was a place, it was an idea. A rocky island, inhabited by Black women, filled with gold—this was the first California, as imagined in Las Sergas de Esplandián, a popular Spanish novel published in 1510. Some years later, Spanish settlers gave the same name to a section of the Pacific coast. For centuries they thought it, too, was an island.
We don’t know for sure whether the first California inspired the second, but it would be fitting. If there were ever a spot on earth that deserved to be named for somewhere imaginary, California is it. The region has always served as a powerful stimulant for the imagination, which in turn has helped propel its development. The dream of Gold Rush riches spurred large-scale white settlement starting in 1848. The dream of middle-class stability drew hundreds of thousands of Black people to the state’s defense plants nearly a century later, during World War II. Neither dream found much fulfillment, but dreams don’t have to come true to have an effect. In California, fantasy is a factor of production.
Today the wealthiest part of California is Santa Clara County, which makes up most of Silicon Valley. Geographically the valley is unremarkable, a corridor of boring towns at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet within this suburban wasteland, Californians have constructed the most efficient capital-accumulation machine in history.
Its roots lie in radio. In the first decades of the twentieth century the area became an early electronics hub. Then, in the postwar period, the insatiable computing demands of the Pentagon, along with the invention of the transistor and the integrated circuit, enabled a semiconductor industry to sprout in the orchards around Stanford. In the 1980s and 1990s investment migrated from chips to personal computers and the Internet. Modern start-up culture was born, supercharged by Silicon Valley’s venture capital firms. Serious fortunes were made, and the valley overtook its rivals to become the global epicenter of high technology. Today it is home to four of the ten biggest companies in the world by market capitalization: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Nvidia, and Meta (Facebook).
In the valley, money begets money with an ease that would make Andrew Carnegie weep. Its secret to success, the scholar AnnaLee Saxenian has argued, is not the dominance of any single firm but the density of the area’s social and professional networks. These networks link founders, engineers, lawyers, venture capitalists, and Stanford kids in an insular ecology characterized by what Saxenian calls a “complex mix of social solidarity and individualistic competition.” In Silicon Valley you get the sense that, while everyone wants to win, at some level they’re all playing for the same team.
What unites them is a commitment to disruption. Disruption is not merely a business strategy but a worldview that celebrates the creative destruction of existing institutions. It also contains a particular theory of history: that technology makes the past, along with the forms of expertise that arise from studying it, irrelevant.
It might seem odd that some of the richest people in the country see themselves as revolutionaries. The credit card executive in Delaware and the oil magnate in Houston presumably don’t. But there is a rational kernel to the rebellious self-image shared by Silicon Valley’s flock of undifferentiated men in Patagonia vests, which is that a measure of contrarianism is an integral component of their success. It is common knowledge that some 90 percent of start-ups fail. The founder has to believe his business will become the next big thing; so must the investor who backs the founder. Even if the personal costs of failure are not particularly high for either, facing such odds requires a gambler’s faith, an act of defiance against the available evidence.
Occasionally the faith is rewarded. In 2010 a group of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists invested $1.6 million in a start-up called UberCab. By the time of Uber’s initial public offering nine years later, the value of their stake had multiplied nearly five thousand times. Uber still wasn’t profitable, but the prospect of future profits was enough to sustain a rising share price on the open market, which in turn enabled a number of early investors to cash in. During the Gold Rush, belief in imminent riches was what kept you shivering in cold streams waiting for a nugget to land in your pan. In today’s California, belief alone can make you rich, so long as enough people believe along with you.
This accounts for the distinctive hybrid of heretic and evangelist that Silicon Valley produces. On the one hand, the disruptor is an enemy of conventional wisdom. Yet to get rich he needs to make his views as conventional as the wisdom he aspires to displace. Sometimes the culture of the valley is described as idealistic, and one can certainly find utopian notes in the language of prominent figures and in the mission statements of prominent companies. But it would be more accurate to say that the valley is a community of believers. They think they know the future, because they are the ones who are building it.
Mark Weiser was a disruptor, and a particularly interesting one. Born in 1952, Weiser spent the late 1980s and most of the 1990s working at Xerox PARC, the storied Palo Alto research lab credited with pioneering many aspects of contemporary computing. Its most famous creation is the Alto, a personal computer system introduced in 1973 that featured a mouse and a graphical user interface with icons, windows, and folders. Xerox famously never managed to monetize it, but the Alto’s influence was immense; within a decade Apple was selling machines that looked a lot like it. Weiser belonged to the second generation of PARC researchers, and he wasn’t interested in honoring his elders. He wanted to disrupt them by abolishing personal computing entirely.
The story of Weiser’s undertaking is told by John Tinnell, a professor of English at the University of Colorado at Denver, in his new biography The Philosopher of Palo Alto, and it’s refreshingly strange. By night, Weiser played drums in a punk band; by day, he worked to eradicate the pernicious influence of René Descartes. He saw the personal computer as perpetuating a Cartesian partition between mind and body and between person and world. Stationary, alone, transfixed by our screens, we grow more estranged from ourselves and from one another, Weiser believed. (Heidegger was a major inspiration.)
The Alto broke from the pattern of computing dominant in the 1970s, which involved using a terminal to interact with a mainframe that served multiple users. In personal computing, by contrast, everyone would have their own computer. This brought about a more intimate and more absorbing relationship with the machine, which, in Weiser’s view, risked deepening the isolation of users from the world around them.
His solution was to make computing a feature of the environment. He called it ubiquitous computing, or “ubicomp.” Ubicomp, Weiser announced in a 1989 talk at the MIT Club of Northern California, would “strive for a maximal mixing of humans and computation.” He and his colleagues at Xerox PARC created prototypes to achieve this mixing. There was an ID badge that automatically adjusted the thermostat of a room to the wearer’s preferred temperature, a tablet that could automatically sync its calendar with other tablets in the vicinity, and an interactive digital whiteboard that took up one wall of a meeting room. These prototypes fell short of Weiser’s vision—they were more like miniature PCs, he worried, concentrating rather than dispersing computation—so he kept pushing for new prototypes. Eventually he ran out of time. He died of cancer at forty-six, in 1999.
It’s hard to know how to evaluate Weiser’s legacy. In 2023 we are besieged by smartphones, tablets, and network-enabled refrigerators, vacuums, and objects of various kinds, collectively known as the Internet of Things. Computation swirls around us wherever we go. Tinnell presents Weiser both as a progenitor of this state of affairs—his PARC was where “the seeds for the Internet of Things had been sown”—and as the prophet of an alternative paradigm that might “hold some conceptual tenets for building a better Internet of Things today,” one that rejects “total surveillance and zero privacy, runaway automation, and diminished agency.”
The book doesn’t make a complete case for either claim. Weiser was influential, but as Tinnell’s account makes clear, the work being done around the same time at the MIT Media Lab—where researchers were putting networked devices in clothing, cars, and coffee machines—was probably more significant. As for the possibility that Weiser’s work can inspire a better Internet of Things, there are reasons to be skeptical. Weiser seemed largely untroubled by the potential for rampant surveillance in a world where everyone wears little computers that interact with a lot of other computers.
To his credit, Tinnell is sympathetic to this concern, and gives ample space to the criticisms of Weiser made by the anthropologist Lucy Suchman, who worked at PARC during his time there. In addition to worrying about violations of privacy, Suchman argued that ubicomp reflected a troubling desire for “a world which is always familiar.” One PARC researcher suggested that ubicomp might one day enable instantaneous translation: imagine a street sign in Japan turning into English as an American tourist approaches. For Suchman, this convenience would come at a cost. Feeling at home everywhere would, as Tinnell writes, “furnish a life of easy, illusory connections at the expense of more transformative encounters.”
Disruption has a constraint: the point is to make money, and this means it can’t be nearly as revolutionary as advertised. When Weiser left PARC to start a business, he struggled to find investors. At PARC, he had been able to tinker with concepts at some distance from commercialization, because Xerox had a lock on the global photocopier market. When that changed, toward the end of the 1990s, the budget dried up. Xerox spun off PARC in 2002, three years after Weiser’s death.
Ideas are the products of people who need to eat, and the economic forces that dictate how they do so have considerable importance for their ideas. Those forces are the focus of Malcolm Harris’s Palo Alto, a history of California from the Gold Rush to today, with an emphasis on the Bay Area in general and Palo Alto in particular. Lest that scope seem insufficiently ambitious, it is also a global history of the interactions between California and the rest of the world.
Harris, a journalist and critic, stresses that the main characters in this story are not individuals but structures. “What interests me,” he writes, “is not so much the personal qualities of the men and women in this history but how capitalism has made use of them.” By “capitalism” he means an impersonal social system controlled not by any specific people but rather by the imperative for capital to obtain a return and thus make more of itself. In his account, capital takes possession of particular historical actors and compels them to advance its development. Sometimes capital needs railroads, so it makes use of a Leland Stanford—the robber baron who connected the coasts by rail in 1869. Sometimes capital needs smartphones, so it sets in motion a Steve Jobs.
The depersonalization on display here is a welcome corrective to the overpersonalized way that history is typically written for a general audience, especially histories of Silicon Valley. Popular writers like Walter Isaacson tend to portray the tech industry as an efflorescence of exceptional individuals. At times, however, Harris overcorrects. Capitalism does make demands, but there are multiple ways to satisfy them. In one passage, Harris describes how Jobs secured a tax credit for donating Apple II computers to California classrooms. This stratagem was part of a broader trend in corporate America in the 1970s and early 1980s, as companies turned to wage suppression, outsourcing, subcontracting, and tax manipulation to cut costs. “The socioeconomic forces of the ’70s produced the classroom Apple II like a diamond,” Harris writes, “pressure accumulating until it took objective form.” This is bending the stick a bit too far. Social forces, unlike natural ones, must act through human beings, a notoriously messy medium to which the personalities of individuals—not to mention the complexities of culture, ideology, and politics—add their distinct contributions.
Harris’s own book offers a thorough illustration of this point. While his theoretical pronouncements can be mechanistic, the story itself is layered and nuanced. At its best, Palo Alto reads like a big social novel in the tradition of John Dos Passos. The character portraits are particularly well drawn. We get revisionist sketches of foundational figures like the pioneer John Sutter, who founded an important early settlement in present-day Sacramento in the 1830s, and the physicist William Shockley Jr., who brought the semiconductor industry to Santa Clara County in the 1950s, as well as fascinating introductions to lesser-known figures like Har Dayal, a Delhi-born revolutionary who set up an anarchist monastery in Oakland; Karl Yoneda, a Japanese American labor organizer who helped lead the San Francisco longshoremen’s strike in 1934 and later was sent off to an internment camp during World War II; Bob Kaufman, a Black poet who had a part in the creation of the Beat movement; and H. Bruce Franklin, a Maoist Melville scholar whose involvement with a Chicano armed-struggle group led to his expulsion from the Stanford English department.
The book is populated by many more dissidents in this vein. Together they form a kind of countercurrent against the flow of capital, whose agents materialize in each historical period. Though Harris never says so directly, one suspects the author, who grew up in Palo Alto, is looking for a past to feel proud of.
Palo Alto isn’t about a place so much as an idea: a theory of selective breeding called the Palo Alto System, which, in Harris’s view, has long guided the region’s ruling class.1 He locates the origins of the Palo Alto System in a lovely stretch of the South Bay now occupied by Stanford University. On one end of Stanford’s campus sits a big red barn that looks like it fell out of a children’s book—one of only two buildings remaining of the dozens that were once distributed across Leland Stanford’s horse farm. In 1876 the industrialist started buying up acres in the area, creating a ranch. By the end of the following decade the ranch had become the Palo Alto Stock Farm, an operation with a staff of 150 devoted to the scientific perfection of horse breeding.
Stanford wanted to breed stronger horses, faster. There was a clear business rationale: at the time, horses were essential for transportation, agriculture, and war. He proposed transforming horse production in the same way that the production of so many other commodities was being transformed during the second industrial revolution: with modern techniques and technologies. This modernizing mentality, as Harris demonstrates, was visible everywhere in California, which has been “a high-technology zone from the beginning of Anglo colonization.” Because there were never enough wage workers, the state relied particularly heavily on “labor-saving machinery” in agriculture, which by the 1860s had overtaken mining as its main economic driver.
The Palo Alto Stock Farm turned out to be a big success. The principal innovation was the Palo Alto System, which involved teaching horses to trot when they were young. That way, Stanford and his operatives could identify the promising ones early, train them intensively, and then use them as studs to produce more promising colts, thereby transmitting talent via superior genes. “Instead of optimizing for adult speed, they optimized for visible potential,” Harris writes.
The Palo Alto System didn’t stop with horses. It became the guiding philosophy of the university that Stanford carved out of his estate in 1885. Harris focuses in particular on David Starr Jordan, the university’s first president, whom Harris credits with bringing the Palo Alto System “out of the barn and into the classroom.” Like many self-styled modernizers of the period, Jordan loved eugenics. Under his direction, Harris argues, “the small, young university became a national center for controlled evolution.”2 Young white people with potential would be identified and intensively trained, in the hope of staving off racial decay.
One of the features of the Palo Alto System as it applied to horses was an obsession with quantification. As the system migrated to humans, this quantifying impulse turned toward intelligence testing. Lewis Terman, a psychologist who joined Stanford University in 1910, helped popularize the notion that intelligence could be expressed in a single number, such as an IQ score. He was especially interested in high-IQ children. “Budding geniuses needed to be identified and elevated,” Harris writes, “while young degenerates needed to be corralled where they couldn’t dilute the national race or turn their underachievement into social problems.”
Conveniently, Terman found one budding genius at home, training his son Frederick as intensively as a promising colt. William Shockley Sr., a Stanford engineering professor, took a similar approach with his son. In both cases, helicopter parenting plus nepotism paid off: Frederick Terman and William Shockley Jr. helped create the field of operations research during World War II, using mathematical techniques to optimize military decision-making. As the war came to an end the younger Terman began an illustrious career as a Stanford administrator, first as the dean of its engineering school and then as the provost. He turned Stanford into a cold war university flush with Pentagon contracts and the surrounding valley into a major node in the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, in 1955, Shockley started a semiconductor company that, while short-lived, inaugurated the area’s silicon industry.
Nobody liked Shockley—he was, by all accounts, an awful man—but he is the closest thing the modern Silicon Valley has to a father. Two years after Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory was founded, eight employees resigned. These “traitorous eight,” as Shockley angrily called them, established Fairchild Semiconductor, which came to dominate the industry in the 1960s. Fairchild also became famous for the many businesses started by its alumni. According to research by Don Hoefler, the journalist who popularized the term Silicon Valley, 126 semiconductor companies came out of Fairchild, including Intel and AMD. The venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia were also founded by former employees. The Oedipal overthrow of Shockley had made it all possible.
Shockley was a vicious racist, with a lifelong passion for eugenics. His views are typically treated in histories of Silicon Valley as mysterious quirks—Harris quotes a biographer who called their origin “unknown and unknowable”—but Harris demonstrates that they were far from aberrations. Shockley was simply articulating the principles of the Palo Alto System that had formed him, as transmitted by his father. Those principles weren’t exceptional by the standards of their time, but they found especially fertile ground in California, where whiteness, Harris argues, had always served as the state’s “core organizing principle.”
The Gold Rush brought people from all over the world; subsequent booms in agriculture and manufacturing did the same. California’s cosmopolitanism made it “a laboratory of racial classification,” where distinctions were developed and enforced through both legal and extralegal means. Whiteness meant access to land and higher wages; exclusion from whiteness meant dispossession and lower pay. Indigenous people were stripped of their homes, Chinese miners of their claims, Japanese farmers of their land. Mexicans and Filipinos were put to work in the fields for poverty wages.
In Harris’s view, the industry that Shockley launched extended this tradition. In the early 1960s Fairchild Semiconductor opened its first overseas factory, in Hong Kong. In subsequent decades the sector deepened its reliance on low-wage workers of color at home and abroad. “Firms offshored the vast majority of fabrication work to Mexico, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand while filling local manufacturing roles with Vietnamese and Filipina women,” Harris writes. “Domestically, employers relied on the pseudoscience of racial difference: They believed Asian women were less likely to organize for higher wages than Chicanas.” A bifurcated labor regime emerged, with a relatively small number of (mostly white) engineers given good salaries and stock options, and a much larger number of (mostly nonwhite) workers in the United States and around the world relegated to poorly paid industrial jobs.
This arrangement persists. According to a report published in 2016 by the advocacy organization Silicon Valley Rising, only 10 percent of the valley’s tech employees were Black or Latino, while most of the subcontracted service workforce—the people who clean offices, cook cafeteria food, and drive company shuttles—were Black or Latino. As before, a large share of the outsourced labor on which the industry depends is overseas. In China they are making iPhones; in Kenya they are labeling datasets; in the Philippines they are cleansing social media feeds of genitalia and beheadings.
On the other side of the wage scale is the fast-trotting colt of the Palo Alto System: the Stanford grad (or dropout) with a pitch deck. In the Palo Alto System, Harris writes, “potential counts for everything.” Venture capital is about picking winners early, and those winners have to win big to offset all the losers in the portfolio. Harris sees the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes as embodying the Palo Alto System. To investors she was “a bundle of pure potential.” Her “inexperience added to her value; her upside was unlimited by prior performance, because she didn’t have any.” Holmes raised $700 million. If she were a Latina janitor, she would have been called unskilled.
Harris has given us nothing less than a new way of looking at Silicon Valley and its lineages. Through the prism of the Palo Alto System we see a region that has long served as the advance guard of both modernization and uniquely modern forms of misery—a region where extreme inequality, organized through entanglements of race and class, has always enabled high technology.
The picture Harris presents of the valley is more complete than any attempted thus far. But completeness can also be a curse, and Palo Alto would be a better book if it aspired to be less comprehensive. Harris has a talent for taking the reader on satisfying digressions that flow back into the core storyline, but in the last couple hundred pages or so, it becomes harder to tell where the detours end and the main road begins.
This is in large part because the guiding concept of the Palo Alto System disappears for long stretches. When it does appear, it often feels gestural, unearned. Perhaps its least persuasive invocation comes toward the end of the book, when Harris describes a meeting in December 2016 at Trump Tower between the president-elect and a number of top tech executives. He calls this event “a culmination of the Palo Alto System,” though it’s not exactly clear why. There are certainly connections to be drawn between the eugenicist fervor at Stanford in the early twentieth century and the reactionary politics of the Stanford graduate Peter Thiel, who organized the gathering at Trump Tower. But Thiel’s politics are not those of Sheryl Sandberg, Jeff Bezos, or Tim Cook, all of whom were also present.
The flattening of these sorts of distinctions is the book’s biggest weakness. Throughout Palo Alto, Harris emphasizes Silicon Valley’s long-running links to the political right. The Republican politician Herbert Hoover—one of Stanford’s first graduates—figures prominently, as does the influential right-wing think tank that bears his name, with a tower that looms Sauron-like over Stanford’s campus. This is a central thread in the region’s history, and it helps make sense of contemporary industry conservatives like Thiel, whom Harris persuasively positions within the Hooverite line.
But Thiel is not representative of the industry’s politics. The executives, investors, and entrepreneurs who make up Silicon Valley’s ownership class are, for the most part, liberals. They are major Democratic donors whose ideological preferences—free markets, gun control, gay marriage—place them comfortably within the party’s centrist mainstream. Yet liberalism is curiously absent from Palo Alto. The “Atari Democrats” who helped pioneer the close relationship between the tech industry and the Democratic Party in the 1980s receive a passing mention, but the all-important Clinton years, when the Internet economy took off, are not discussed in any depth. Neither is the Obama era, which brought the Democratic alliance with the industry to new heights: over the course of his administration, almost 250 people cycled through the revolving door between Google and the government. (More recently, the swiftness with which Biden rescued the depositors of Silicon Valley Bank is a testament to the clout that valley elites continue to hold at the highest levels of the Democratic Party.)
To say that most of Silicon Valley’s bosses are liberals is not to refute Harris’s argument that their wealth derives from a profoundly unequal social structure. But it does give their political life a neurotic character. When I was a teenager in San Francisco, my local city supervisor, a wine merchant named Gavin Newsom, sponsored a ballot measure called Care Not Cash. It promised to take a more compassionate approach to homelessness by providing a shelter bed or a hotel room to unhoused people, instead of direct cash payments. The measure passed. Public assistance was cut by 85 percent; no new housing was built. This pairing of humanitarian rhetoric with social ruthlessness is a characteristic feature of upscale California liberalism. It involves contortions of the kind that would seem ridiculous to Thiel and his cohort, for whom inequality requires no apology.
Wallace Stegner once described California as being like the rest of America, only more so. Harris goes one step further. “If California is America’s America,” he writes, “then Palo Alto is America’s America’s America.” It’s a place where the country’s contradictions are sharpened to their finest points, above all the defining and enduring contradiction between democratic principle and antidemocratic practice. There is nothing as American as celebrating equality while subverting it. Or as Californian.
This emphasis on the Palo Alto System sits somewhat uncomfortably with Harris’s theory of history. If individuals are the personifications of impersonal social forces, then why do their ideas matter? This has long been a live question within the Marxist tradition in which Harris is working, and navigating its intricacies is clearly outside the scope of his book. But some further qualification of his model of historical change to account for the centrality of ideas to his story might have helped make the book feel a little less at war with itself. ↩
For more on the early history of Stanford University, see Jessica Riskin, “A Poisonous Legacy,” The New York Review, June 22, 2023. ↩