The Untold History of Silicon Valley
Paris Marx is joined by Malcolm Harris to discuss the sordid history of Silicon Valley, including the long influence of eugenics at Stanford, how Silicon Valley profited from the United States’ wars throughout the 20th century, and why the libertarian narrative of tech hide a much darker reality.
Malcolm Harris is the author of Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. You can follow Malcolm on Twitter at @BigMeanInternet.
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Paris Marx: Malcolm, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us!
Malcolm Harris: Thanks so much for having me back.
PM: Absolutely. I’m very excited to chat, we previously had a great conversation about Stewart Brand and his role in the tech industry and whether that has been inflated or not. I’m sure he’ll come up again in this conversation. You have a new book out called “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World.” Let’s be real — it’s a big one. It’s a big book. It’s a chunky book, but it’s also very fascinating. It has a lot of details about the history of the tech industry, about Palo Alto, about California from colonization through to today. Also, what impacts that has had on the world that we have, the world that we live in, the tech industry that we’re familiar with, and how some of the narratives that we have about the tech industry are not as accurate as they should be.
There’s a bit more that we should know about, the impacts that it has on our world. I’m excited to dig into all this with you, we certainly won’t get to every detail of that book, because it’s huge. But I think we’re going to have a really good conversation. I wanted to start with this. As I said, this is a huge, a very comprehensive book that ties together a lot of threads through the history of the United States, California, and particularly as the title suggests, Palo Alto, and they are intimately linked to the modern power and dominance of the tech industry. Why did you feel that this was a story that needed to be told, and why did you want to take it on?
MH: Well, I definitely did not want to take it on. Insofar as there’s pressure on my generation, or cohort, of writers for the public to cannibalize your own history. What’s the most traumatic event in your past and then sell that. I’ve been doing this for 10 plus years and felt really lucky that I haven’t been forced to do that. Even though my first book, “Kids These Days,” and it’s about young people, millennials. I kept myself out of the book and I’ve been pretty lucky doing that, in general. At the same time, this wave of youth suicides that I was a kid for in Palo Alto has been national news since that time, more or less. It’s really stuck with me, obviously, as the kind of story you would tell in that situation.
At the same time, I knew I really didn’t want to do it. I was talking with a friend of mine, the writer Anne Boyer, and I was telling her that what I really didn’t want to do for the next book was do this memoir-y, history of Palo Alto, and go back through this trauma. She said: Well, that means you have to do it; if what comes to mind for your next project is not this, maybe you need to press on that a little bit more. She’s one of the greatest living writers — you take that advice seriously, and I did. That started the project, but the project moved, I think as you saw, far away from that original idea, in some ways.
PM: Totally! You can see aspects of your experience in there, but it’s not a throughline through the book. It’s not something that comes up frequently, or anything like that. It’s very much more of a history of this region and the state. This set of forces and what capitalism has done to us in the world, and all these things. One of the things that really stands out in the book, obviously, when looking at Palo Alto, but obviously California more broadly, is how California is a long standing site for capitalist expansion, financial speculation. A lot of these forces that come to shape much more of the world as they take hold in California. Do you want to talk a little bit about why that seemed important to draw out?
MH: Well, first of all, to set the scope of the history, you got to start somewhere. And Anglo-American colonization in the mid-19th century gives you a hard starting point. There’s a lot of debate among theorists and historians about when capitalism starts. There’s a lot of different versions of that story. But when capitalism becomes a global system is not really up for debate. Everyone pretty much agreed with when that happens, and it’s in the 19th century with this closing of the chain through the Pacific Ocean — the incorporation of California, Australia, Japan, and China into the capitalist system — that secures it as a full world system for the first time. California, as the last link in that chain, or one of the last links of the chain, then becomes first in terms of where capitalist society is taking root from the beginning, in terms of its colonization into the world system. It’s in California, right here. So you see technology, from the beginning, advancing very, very fast in California, but also education advancing very fast in California and development advancing very fast in California. Not in spite of being this last link of the chain, but because it’s this last link of the chain in global capitalism.
PM: Adopting the ‘move fast and break things’ motto very early.
MH: Where they’re breaking the water system very quickly by pumping it full of mercury. They fuck things up so fast that they have to create a legal system to stop themselves from destroying the land completely before they make it very valuable.
PM: Someone does have to live there at the end of the tunnel.
MH: They really want to live there at the end of the day — it’s a very desirable place to live.
PM: It’s a fascinating place to start. It does give you a good jumping off point for the other things that you explore in the book. You talk about education being developed really early there and making advances, and that being a key part of how this system is created, how California comes to be an important player in all of these things that are going on. Obviously, a through line through that is Stanford University, which is obviously established in Palo Alto. Today, it’s most well known for being a university that births so much of the tech founder class, not to mention many other tech workers. But it also has a long and, not always upstanding, history. How does Stanford get started? What does that modern narrative about the university downplay that we should probably be more aware of?
MH: There’s a long answer that question, but it starts with the death of Leland Stanford, Jr. — the unexpected death of Leland Stanford Jr. as a young teenager. His parents had really put a lot into him; they were preparing him to really lead the world. Even though Leland Stanford Sr. was an unimpressive guy, they were raising Leland Stanford Jr. to be much more impressive. He seemed to be well on his way when he dies unexpectedly. At that point, his parents shift their intentions from creating a very big museum mostly, and his father has been working on a horse track, the Stanford Stock Farm, famously. But after the death of Leland Stanford Jr., and also the death of Leland Stanford Sr., resources are redirected towards a museum and a university in his memory. Then after the death of Jane Stanford, the resources are dedicated towards the university as we come to understand it — Stanford University — under the leadership of David Starr Jordan, who’s the first president of the school.
PM: What do you think about that narrative that we have about Stanford today? How it’s not completely uncommon throughout society — but also in California and around the tech industry more generally — for histories to fade away? We don’t look back at what has happened in the past. We look toward the future, and all the great things that we’re going to achieve because of our technological developments and things like that. How is that narrative about Stanford today, about this place where all of these brilliant people are birthed and come out of, how does that reflect? How is it different from and how is it similar to the early days of Stanford and what it was seeking to achieve as this university was being established?
MH: You can see some real direct throughlines in terms of — if you think of the Stanford graduate as a character, as an archetypical character of someone who’s interested in the most advanced technologies, but also the most advanced sector of the economy, who is interested in finance and the American project, and the relation of these things. That’s from the first class at Stanford University — the very beginning. From beginning of planning, one of the ways that they’re going to make the school distinguished — you’re going to jump from some random suburban school in California, which no one cares about, to a top level university, which seemed unlikely at the time, now we realize it has accomplished. But one of the ways that they started planning to do that was to specialize in subjects that they thought were going to be more important for the nation, then were going to be important for the economy.
From the very beginning of the school, that’s mining engineering. So they’re training the best mining engineers, they really focus on promoting their mining engineering program, with the idea that they were going to produce great mining engineers, who would go into the world and become prominent people. The respect that they acquired would redound on the university. This is an incredibly successful plan, starting with a member of the first class, and a member of the first mining engineering class, which is Herbert Hoover, who then becomes President of the United States. This really sets the mold for the Stanford man into the future, and into the present. If you read this book, you’ll read a fair bit about Herbert Hoover. One of the reasons I couldn’t stop writing about him is because there are so many parallels to our current tech oligarch class, not just in terms of their role in the economy and politics, but in the real, specific narratives they tell about themselves. The real, specific stories about who they are in the world and their importance and why they’re important and stuff like that.
PM: He was certainly a character that I was surprised to see come up — I hadn’t expected to see Herbert Hoover come up in the book. Also to be such a character who comes up again, and again, as you’re explaining, how these things tend to work out and how he’s constantly entering back into the picture as these forces and things develop, through times, through the 20th century. I thought that was really interesting, and we’ll probably come back to him a bit. There’s a piece of this that I do want to return to before we move away from this early period in Stanford, is one of the original focuses is something called Bionomics. Which is fair to say is close to eugenics, if not exactly that. You talk a lot through the book about how there’s this recurring theme of wanting to pick out and try to cultivate the top performing people, the high IQ people and to ensure that they are associated with Stanford University, and that we’re further promoting that through the University’s mission, through the people that it seeks out, through the people that it brings on board. Do you want to talk to us a bit about that, and how that plays into universities history as well?
MH: David Starr Jordan comes from Indiana University, and he’s a huge believer in eugenics. He’s one of the leading national and international eugenics organizations. He’s a prominent voice in eugenics, which is a politically ambiguous position at the time. If people know or don’t know that, this was thought to be progressive. You’re going to improve humanity, so there were a lot of different political valences for this position. Jordan is famously an anti-imperialist. He’s an anti-imperialist, because he’s a racist — is a complicated position, but it’s important to go through these as they become coherent ideas. He puts forward, and with some colleagues, a number of them recruited also through the Indiana program, which is a husbandry program or very agricultural-focused which is a lot of where eugenics is coming from.
He builds this subject that they call Bionomics, which is the controlled study of life, which has all these assumptions about evolution, and evolution’s direction, that we would understand as eugenic. But they understood as, basically, the science of life. That Bionomics exceeds biology, exceeds economics, by combining these ideas that evolution encodes economics into all living things. Competition and hierarchies, specifically, are the root of existence of all things. This is not a long-lasting discipline that they develop at Stanford, but if you drill down on some of the things that people still believe there, and some of the ideologies that are still coming out of there. And you look at the premises of Bionomics, as they’re laid out by Jordan and Kellogg, and some of these early guys — they’re pretty close. I think it’s still the ideology of a bunch of Silicon Valley, fundamentally.
PM: Absolutely, because one of the things that occurred to me as I was reading through the book, and it was not only this early use of eugenics when the university was getting started, but also how there are moments in history when this thinking re-emerges again and again, at the university, and through the industry more broadly that was developing around it. I was thinking about how we seem to be in another one of those moments today, where we have ideologies like longtermism out there. We have the tech billionaires and some of the tech class promoting a pronatalism that is focused on ensuring that they’re picking their best embryos and all this stuff to create the best possible offspring. And how they want their offspring to then do the same thing, so they can keep leveling them up. These ideas seem to come back again and again, especially as you’re focused on cultivating this engineering talent, these particularly talented individuals. That is such a focus of Stanford and I would say of this industry more generally.
MH: It’s really continuous, and that’s what I wanted to lay out is that you’ve got Lewis Terman, who was recruited by Jordan out of Indiana, and who makes IQ and the study of IQ a real core subject of Stanford and, of course, speciality of the area. He’s testing Bill Shockley Jr. when he’s a child. Bill Shockley Jr.’s dad is a mining engineering lecturer at Stanford and his mom had been a mining engineer student at Stanford. Then Bill Shockley Jr. not only invents the point-contact transistor, or co-invents, but becomes one of the most hardcore racists of the post-war era in America. He is a proponent of neo-eugenics and the use of genetic racial hierarchy towards the end of the 20th century. But you can draw him directly back to the beginning — not just that you can connect him to Hoover, but Hoover’s wife and his mom were friends and discussed their pregnancies together. It’s very continuous and not on accident. They’re testing young Bill Shockley Jr.’s intelligence, because they have a plan for him — a plan that he goes on to execute. It’s not a coincidence, it’s a strategy.
PM: It’s just wild, all the connections that you draw between these people — obviously, I’m not fully versed on these histories, I haven’t dug into them to the degree that you have — but all these connections that I didn’t realize were there. They are so rich, and so fruitful, and so telling about where the industry goes, and how all of these things develop. Before we move on from this topic, I think one other thing that I want to throw at you is you mentioned Leland Stanford’s horse farm, or whatever you want to call it. One of the things that you draw out of that example is he develops what’s called the “Palo Alto System,” to breed these horses. You later link that development in that ethos through to the development of human capital at the University, and in this industry more generally. Do you want to talk a bit about how that influenced the approach to education and how they’re trying to cultivate the best possible minds that are coming from these institutions?
MH: People know the Palo Alto Stock Farm. Everyone knows the Palo Alto Stock Farm basically, whether they know it or not, because that’s where Muybridge was recording the first motion pictures. That was financed by Stanford, and we lose the forest for the tree of the Muybridge motion photographs when we’re thinking about this project, because that obviously seems the most important part. That was a little part of this much broader effort to scientifically improve the horse that Stanford is making. But the way that they went about doing this was very ‘Bionomicist’ before the concept, which is that, at the time, selling trotting horses, you sell them not based on their performance, necessarily. You’re trying to sell semen — seed — from horses that will yield great racers. To do that, to know which seed yields great racers, you have to develop two generations of horses, which is very slow. This is not a very capitalist-friendly industry, the trotting horse racing production industry.
At the same time, horses that pulled stuff were the most important commodity in America at the time. These are engines that, for all intents and purposes, meant agriculture, military, transportation — crucial. The Great Epizootic, I think is the 1870s, where all the nation’s horses got infected with flu, and it totally fucked up the whole country, really, really badly. Half of Boston burns down because you can’t do fire engines without horses, and the horses were too sick. So Stanford, like a good tech thinker, is like: If I could improve the value of every horse by $100, there are 13 million horses, that’s $1.3 billion dollars.
PM: Your typical startup pitch.
MH: Legit! But he doesn’t need investment, because he’s incredibly wealthy. So he sets up this stock farm, sets up intentionally the greatest stock farm in the world, from nothing. He hires this trainer, Charles Marvin, and tells them: We’re going to go at it alone; we’re going to do it our own way. Instead of waiting till the horses are older to start training them to race really fast, we’re going to start training them as soon as they’re born. We’re going to try to start racing colts, and the ones that show us that they’re fast, we’re going to focus more and more attention and resources on them. We’re going to build the fastest, youngest, horses in the world, And they do. They do this very quickly.
It’s funny that it becomes, very quickly, not just an inspiration for other horse breeders, who are mad that this rich asshole has totally transformed their whole sport, but have to admit that he did do it. But also for education reformers who are looking at the training of young horses and saying: We need to do this for kids! The kindergarten movement is happening at the same time in Germany, and is coming to the United States. One of the reformers cites the Stanford Stock Farm and says: These kind of resources early is what we need for children. So the Stanfords ended up supporting, not just what they called their kindergarten track, which was the first kindergarten in California that was a kindergarten track for these horses — so a shrunk down track for little horses. They also go on to support the first kindergarten for humans, as well.
So very quickly you make this jump between horse stock capital to human capital — and as horses get replaced pretty quickly in the 20th century with motor power — you see this transition from focusing on horses to focusing on people and the power of invention. How do you inculcate the youngest, fastest inventors, the youngest, fastest technicians and engineers? Again, they make this transition very quickly, so that by the time Herbert Hoover is out of school. He’s in the first class at Stanford, and by the time he graduates in his out for a couple years, they’re promoting him, he’s promoting himself, but David Starr Jordan is promoting him as well as the youngest, highest-paid worker in the world, which is a bizarre distinction. Whose to say how young you are? What’s highest paid? But it’s great marketing — it’s directly Palo Alto system marketing.
PM: This is what we achieve: if you come to Stanford, or more so if you’re able to make it into Stanford and be one of the people that we select to be part of this group. I want to move us forward a little bit now, because we’ve been talking about this early period, and one thing that often comes up when we talk about the history of Silicon Valley, of the tech industry, of Palo Alto, is the relationship to the military. How a lot of this industry does emerge in World War II or around that period, as there’s a lot of public funding going into the Bay Area, going into these various institutions, going into companies that are being set up that are going to be key to the war effort, and then later through to the Cold War and things like that. There’s a recognition that there is a relationship between the tech industry and the military. But in the book, you draw this out much further, and you make the links much more intimately, I think, than is often presented in a lot of these histories. How do you see the role of the military, and military funding, not just in Stanford, but in creating what becomes this high technology industry that is so central to the growth of this industry, the influence that this region of the world, ultimately, has?
MH: To look at that, you also have to look at the role of military spending in the United States in the 20th century, because it becomes key not just to the Palo Alto economy, but to the national and global economy. Which is then headquartered in Palo Alto, and so Palo Alto becomes this key to the global economy, through weapons and weapons contracts. It starts earlier, you can go back to the radio age, where they’re developing weapons, and they’re thinking about communication systems. In the interwar era, Varian is the one that you really think of as the first military technology company, which is making this Klystron which is supposed to be for jamming enemy radar so that you can stop German planes from bombing the United States.
This is the worry of the Varian brothers who are these hippie inventors, basically, who are not quite Stanford material in that they are a little too hippie. One of them is a pilot, and so he’s flying around, flying from South America to the United States. He’s realizing that if the United States goes to war with fascists — and they are leftists, the Varians are lefty guys, so they know that America is going to end up in war with the fascists, and they know that the war is coming — that unless they’re able to do something that Hitler is going to have free range to bomb America. That they’re going to turn the United States into Guernica. So the brothers start tinkering real fast to come up with a device that’s going to allow them to see at night and prevent the enemies from seeing at night, and this is how the Klystron gets built. They say it’s for a landing system at night, but that’s not really what it’s for. It’s for military strategy.
You have that basically going on same time as Hewlett Packard (HP), which is another big one at the time. Which again, is not directly a military contractor. A lot of these companies don’t like being contractors directly for the military, because that’s a lot of work. Instead, they can sell their stuff to the contractors, off-the-shelf. That’s how HP really excelled — they would supply the testing instruments that the contractors need to fulfill the contracts, which made them a contractor by default. When they go into World War II, David Packard is held back to operate HP, even though it’s not a military contractor, because the military industrial complex needs their parts. This sets up showdown between Packard and the government office that’s in charge of checking on the war profiteers, basically, stopping war profiteers.
And because it’s a startup tech company that has really high margins, but still needs to flip all its money or revenue back into production, they’re in this tough spot because profit regulations are going to make it so they can’t keep growing as a concern. There’s this really great scene where David Packard — who is this 6’5, former Stanford football player, selected as part of a very clear eugenic project at Stanford — shows down with a government bureaucrat who’s come to complain to HP, and he just yells at him and says: I’m going to run this company and get whatever profits I damn well, please! Fuck you! He’s a right-wing conservative, in the line of Herbert Hoover. The government backs off. I think this is a key moment in the history of Silicon Valley, which is that if the government needs you, then you can tell them what the deal is — they can’t tell you what the deal is.
PM: We certainly see a lot through this history, right up until today, with the tech companies dictating the terms and the government’s largely going along with it. The HP example is just fascinating, because as you write in the book, that company constantly re-emerges at these moments, where there are particularly important developments that are happening in the relationship between capitalism, the government, the military, all of these forces that you’re describing, within the book. I want to further talk about this military point, because as we’re moving through the 1960s and 70s, out of the war period, there’s still a lot of military work going on.
We often talk about the Cold War and how that was beneficial to the high tech industry and ensuring that a lot of funding was still coming into these companies. One of the things that often isn’t discussed there is how, even though it’s a “Cold War,” there’s still the Korean War. There’s still the Vietnam War. There’s still a lot of hot wars that are going on there that the United States is intimately involved in is funding, and sending troops toward. That results in these companies within Silicon Valley, around Palo Alto, getting a lot of contracts from the military to provide missiles or to provide other types of weapons. That influences their politics, how the industry is approaching these things, how the industry is making its money and growing. Can you talk a bit about that relationship in that period within the development of this industry?
MH: I mean, Silicon Valley, right? The first generation, making chips out of silicon was important because the chips were hardier, which means you could use them in avionics operations, which is in electronics that fly around. The reason you were using them in avionics to fly around was mostly to drop bombs on people. Then you’d also have missiles that had chips in them as well. So the first generation of silicon chips that really gets produced out of Silicon Valley, almost entirely goes into Minuteman I Missiles, and the Minuteman one missile was to threaten the entire world with its total destruction. These are nuclear missiles designed for mutually assured destruction. This is the signature product of Palo Alto in the period, this is how Silicon Valley begins.
Because none of those missiles ultimately blew up Leningrad, we think about this as a very peaceful, where we think about ARPANET, and ARPANET was built to withstand a nuclear attack. But actually, it provided the internet, and it was a defensive technology or whatever. It’s like us getting hit with things. The people who are buying all the silicon chips are the ones who are sticking them in missiles. If you think about a missile, you think it’s big, exploding, big metal object or whatever, you don’t think about it in terms of its composition by value. But if you think about the composition by value, missiles are a big dumb container for chips, and the chips that are really expensive, important part, and that’s what Silicon Valley was providing.
You start the Cold War era with Silicon Valley providing this crucial ingredient for the secret sauce for the American post-war era, which was missile Keynesianism — we will blow up the entire world. So that’s Palo Alto’s promise. These are the equations that Shockley had been doing during the war. He was like: Well, if this technology keeps increasing in the way that I imagined it will, you can imagine one person having the power to destroy the entire world. That could really work out great for us, and it does, in some ways. Less great if you live in Korea or Vietnam. So this plan of building a bunch of computer chips, what became computer chips, at that point, just chips. Build a bunch of chips, put them in explosives, drop them on Asia, was the plan. That was the plan to re-secure American domination in the wake of the anti-colonial struggle after World War II.
You have the Maoists win in China. The right wing forces throughout the now decolonized world after the defeat of Germany, but particularly Japan. Bow you have anti-colonial forces insurgent, you can’t re-colonize. The Dutch are not gonna be able to re-colonize Indonesia, after they’ve been kicked out, and the Japanese have been kicked out. So the question of how is America, but really capitalism — how is a class system going to secure control over the world post-World War II, over an unequal world post-World War II at a time when equality is on the march? Palo Alto really becomes the answer, and Palo Alto’s technology really becomes the answer to that question, which is something they’ve been thinking about since the David Starr Jordan era of: If anyone can use a gun to shoot down the general, how are we going to have elite people control the world anymore? How can elite power be maintained? It’s important to remember that these people had a conception of human hierarchy as essential, better people are better.
If you create some sort of world system where everyone’s equal, that’s unnatural and wrong, and it must be imposed by authoritarians on the world is the only way to have equality. You have to fight for natural inequality. They work through these ideas, and they incorporate new genetic science into it, to the point where they’ve got a reinvented racism, and reinvented global hierarchy of races, for the close of 20th century. Now we see the 21st century, that this is what it was for. You see the connection of someone like Peter Thiel, who’s at Stanford in the 90s, picking up on the stuff from Shockley, picking up on the Ehrlich (Paul Ehrlich), the environmental racists we call them now or whatever, and bringing that now into the 21st century.
PM: We’ll come back to Peter Thiel, but I want to reverse a bit more and stay in this period that we’re talking about. You’re describing these narratives — these people who are interested in hierarchy, who are very much wedded to the military industrial complex. This is not just where their profits come from, but they also believe in this broader project that is being pushed forward. In many of the tech histories that we’re familiar with, and the narratives around the tech industry, it has a very anti-establishment framing that comes out of this period in the late 60s, and through the 70s, where there’s a backlash to this linkage between the tech industry and the military, where there are some people who are pushing back on that. There are some people who are presenting the narrative that actually technology is going to allow us to take down these hierarchies.
Steve Jobs and the Apple Computer, for example, this is one of the ways that he promotes it — that the personal computer is going to empower you as an individual. Now, we can take down these corporate hierarchies that existed. This becomes a particularly important narrative for the tech industry, for personal computers, for digital technologies, as these things blow up through the 80s and 90s and into the 2000s. Obviously, as I said, when we started off, we had a previous conversation about Stewart Brand, and whether he deserves the position in this history that he’s often given. He doesn’t come up in your book at all, and you actually push back against this telling of this moment in history and what it actually means for the tech industry. So can you go into that a little bit and unpack it for us?
MH: I would say it’s maybe in the prevalent story of that period is that the counterculture and the tech industry emerged out of some connected yearning for individual independence out of a world that was too authoritarian and whatever. There are different versions of this. There’s the tech booster-ish one, where they’re very psyched about themselves. They’re like: We transformed America, man, things were a bummer, and not cool, and, also, we’re rich —way to go us! We are vindicated by our success. There are a lot of books like that. And then there’s the critical version, which is the the California ideology one where it’s like this was neoliberalism that the New Left — and they say the New Left, even though they shouldn’t — the New Left liked technology, and liked individualism, and they didn’t realize that they’d opened Pandora’s box and that they were creating Reaganism and the neoliberal America.
I think both of those are basically wrong. They’re conflating two things that ought not to be conflated, and the counterculture — if we think of the counterculture as people who liked the Rolling Stones, and took acid, that was not just not a left-wing group, or whatever — but one that really defied any sort of political characterization, except in a aesthetic sense. So there were plenty of conservative students who were pro-war, who also liked the stones and liked drugs, it wasn’t a counterculture. It wasn’t “Dazed and Confused,” and even “Dazed and Confused” wasn’t dazed and confused. There were still jocks in “Dazed and Confused,” and they’re mean. This conflation of the counterculture and the internet, and the beginning of tech is the predominant narrative.
But what was really going on was a global conflict over who was going to rule the world. The Cold War was the important thing that was going on at the time. They were combatants in it — they didn’t like to think of themselves as Cold War combatants, but they were and they were what I think of as the wrong side. Not just on accident, but on purpose. So someone like Stewart Brand was a pro-American, anti-communist, throughout his life and so were a lot of people in that milieu, not all of them, but a fair number of them and enough of them that it characterized it. When I think of Steve Jobs, the characteristic image of Steve Jobs for me, isn’t Steve Jobs in the 70s wearing flip flops or whatever, it is Steve Jobs in the 80s wearing a bow tie. That’s when I think of Steve Jobs, I think Steve Jobs in the 80s wearing a bow tie. He never claimed to be a leftist or something. He ran a company, and was literally a capitalist.
PM: It seems notable that a lot of these people have that aesthetic of the counterculture, and then are often using it to try to turn out a business that is using the narrative of the counterculture and pushing back against existing corporate hierarchies and stuff to then build their own. Stewart Brand was always trying to turn out a business with the various things he was doing in the hippie movement or whatever. Steve Jobs does the same thing. It’s like IBM is the old computer company, the old hierarchical corporation. Apple, we’re the new individualistic company that’s empowering you as the individual that’s taken down these hierarchies, but we’re eventually building what’s going to become the biggest company in the world by market cap.
MH: That’s partly advertising, it’s significantly advertising. You look at that and then you look at who was investing in Apple, and not just Xerox at the beginning. There’s a very, very important investment by Xerox not just of finances, but in a sharing technology. But then also you have foreign authoritarians investing in Apple in the 80s, not just now, but it was a site for capitalists to bet on the future. To bet on a very particular future, the kind that Steve Jobs wanted, which was an unregulated, what we think of as a neoliberal future. That was always what Apple was a bet on, and it was a bet that a lot of those powerful people made too. A lot of those people bought in, not just on Apple, but in Silicon Valley, generally.
You see the microchip-era after the success of Fairchild which again, Sherman Fairchild is an inheritor of one of the main positions in IBM, which is what we’re talking about. One of these big blue, the characteristically non-Silicon Valley company. Well, his dad founded that, and then he goes to Silicon Valley and founds Fairchild Semiconductor, in part, so it’s not disconnected from these other companies. Then after that, Wall Street comes in and funds a whole another generation of semiconductor companies, very quickly, after Fairchild when once they see it’s a success. So from the beginning, there’s overlap. The New Left knows this, the New Left is incredibly intellectual, very scholarly, when it comes to some of this stuff.
They’re producing their own, the Stanford Left called them red papers — not white papers, but red papers. They’re doing serious investigations into the structure of capital, and the military and the investment into capital and overlapping directorates, and hugely complex, detailed, cool, infographics, lots and lots of information. The depiction of them as clumsily, thoughtlessly, stumbling into a wrong world, is incorrect. It gets the story wrong. They lost — they lost the big war, although, we’ve got to give them a little credit for contributing in a small way to the victory of the NLF in the Vietnam War and the defeat of the United States. Sometimes we have a hard time, especially our cohort, thinking about an anti-war movement means stop the war. But for them, the anti-war movement meant win the war on the Vietnamese side. They were against America very clearly. That defeat of America was a victory for the New Left, straight up, and we should see it that way.
Ultimately, they are defeated in a struggle for control of the United States, partly in a violent struggle with security forces. I try and detail how that overlaps with Palo Alto, in the history, but there’s a lot of back and forth. There’s a lot of bombing. Bank of America gets bombed constantly. Hewlett Packard gets bombed pretty regularly. Stanford gets bombed, especially in its electronics facilities, targeting the electronics facilities, and computers across the country get bombed by the New Left. In the California ideology, that essay says the New Left was pro-technology, and at the same time, they have them just straight up bombing computer centers across the country. I think that’s bad historiography.
PM: I did think that was a fascinating example that you pulled out. Of all of these bombings of the computers, but that shows us that these opposition to various technologies is very old. It has constantly been happening. It’s just that these are not the parts of the history that an industry like Silicon Valley wants us to hear, or certainly that capital more genuinely wants us to hear. They don’t want us to know about the opposition to the forces that make them profits and expand capital and all of this sort of stuff. It’s always great to see those aspects of that history re-emerge for people to learn about it once again, because it says: Sure, we’re opposing these technologies in the present, and certainly that’s still a very marginalized part of the tech discussion. There’s still a lot of boosterism still a lot of promotion of technology, still a lot of: We need to embrace this, this is the future. But there has always been opposition to technology. In the past, it took much violent and direct forms than it takes today.
MH: We talked about people tweeting angrily at Bezos or Musk. Back in the day, they would chase people around the peninsula. Like the stories about them bombing Bill Hewlett’s house, for example. Tech leaders today have it easy, they should remember that they have it easy and maybe if they read this history, they’ll think about the historical forces they’re messing with a little more seriously.
PM: No wonder Elon Musk is scared of assassination coordinates getting out there.
MH: They publish maps, the New Left publishes this great map that says: “How to Destroy an Empire Out of Palo Alto” that has all these locations pinpointed on their campus map, or their town map. Basically, that has all these military contractors and all the political offices with a militant agenda. That was a struggle that they lost. But it was a struggle that they fought. Overlooking that I don’t think does us any favors — it might do some people some favors, but not me, not you.
PM: It’s fascinating! When is someone going to make one of those in Google Maps for the modern, their own overlay? [both laugh]. This is fascinating. I want to go back to Jobs for a minute because, obviously, as we’ve been talking about the story that we get about jobs is the 1970s, he’s the hippie guy who goes into the computer industry, and then up ends it and brings these new ideas into the industry. He creates one of these companies that that goes on to take off and shepherd these ideas and these values into the industry and what comes after it. But in the book, you write a lot about how, as you’ve been saying, Jobs is not so much a break from that history, but is very much participating in it. He is also doing something that these companies need him to do by breaking the power of labor and changing the dynamics of labor in the industry that they are dependent on and that is dragging down older guard companies, because they are dependent on traditional workforces that they’ve had for a long time. Can you talk about that aspect of it and how jobs delivers that to them, and does that work for them?
MH: The Palo Alto Research Center, founded by Xerox, is this famed computer research lab that really does hold some of the main guys who do the development of what we understand is the personal computer. They do this research for Xerox, in the 60s, develop what we think of as a computer and show it to the world, coincidentally called the Alto. The main story of how the Alto, or what happens to it is this triumphalist business story about Apple versus Xerox. Xerox is this old sclerotic company, and they can’t figure out how to do innovation — even though they hire all the best computer scientists in the world who invented a computer in the 60s, a personal computer at your desk in the 60s — they couldn’t build it, they couldn’t figure it out. They fumbled it, and they just gave it up to a new generation. That’s why they fucked up.
This is very important business history story, but it’s also very core to Silicon Valley identity — that Xerox didn’t know what they had, accidentally gave it to Apple, Apple took over because they were ready to do the future. That is absolutely not what happened. What you actually have is Xerox, making a pretty sizable investment, I think it’s 100k maybe at the time, in Apple, early. I think it’s between Apple I and Apple II, a decisive moment in the history of Apple. The question is, why is Xerox investing in Apple? They don’t need Apple’s technical expertise, Wozniak is good, but they’ve got the best scientists in computing, working at Xerox PARC, they’ve got this huge lab. They’ve got plenty of money. They’re going to hire all the people they want. They’re not going to Apple for Apple’s technology.
Nor do they need Apple’s production experience, they’re Xerox, they’re, like fortune, whatever company. They’re a huge, huge company in terms of office devices, and printing, of course. They’re also at Xerox PARC going to invent the laser printer, which sets up Xerox for a very long time. So the question is, why is Xerox investing in a company like Apple and what do they want from them? You can see it as just hedging against a future competitor, but that’s not really what was going on. What was going on at Xerox was looking at Apple as a contract producer for that production Alto, they were saying: We aren’t set up to produce consumer electronics, we’re set up to produce office electronics, which includes all these huge labor contracts. We’ve got all these deals a whole sales force. To integrate this new device, they would have to start from scratch, in terms of production, not because they don’t know how to build things, but because Apple could build things cheaper than they could because they weren’t ladened with all this overhead of running a large mid-century corporation and that labor deal. Apple was a way to shake off the New Deal era for large companies in America, not just Xerox, but other companies as well. Xerox is saying if we could get Apple, Apples production is good, not because it’s so advanced, but because it’s so cheap.
The way Apple was doing production was in sub-contracted basements throughout Silicon Valley, were underpaid, mostly immigrant workers were putting boards together in their basements or in basements where a bunch of people were working, like sweatshop production. That’s what the big companies were interested in Apple at the beginning. That’s what led to this technology trade that we think of as a mistake. It’s interesting that that history gets totally aphased when we think about who’s building the first generation of computers, we’re thinking of Wozniak and Jobs and a handful of white guys in a literal garage. Then skip over the Filipino and Vietnamese families that are in basements in the Bay Area, many of them refugees from bombing campaigns that were executed out of Silicon Valley. Who are now putting together these generation of devices, not only the devices themselves, but putting together the circuits for a new labor relation that’s going to secure American domination in the fourth quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st. That’s the key historical thing that’s going on with the production of these computers, not like John Perry Barlow, writing Grateful Dead lyrics, and also thinking: Wouldn’t it be cool if we could all talk to each other? Like, that’s not the historical engine, the historical engine is this worldwide class struggle?
PM: I think that’s an example of the really rich connections that the book draws between all of these different forces and all of these different kinds of happenings that are going on, and how they come together in this industry, around Palo Alto, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. I imagine that once this takes place, that’s basically what allows the breaking of this old way of treating labor in the industry, in these companies, that allows for a shift more toward moving production to cheaper places in the United States. Also offshoring and starting to move production away from the United States altogether, as these things are developing, as these companies are using companies like Apple to ensure that they need to produce more cheaply. That means that they need to throw off all these workers that they used to have, that they used to be able to guarantee a good living to.
MH: Well, then they are totally advanced in that if you think about first of all, where California is positioned in terms of the Pacific and the world in terms of where you’ve got offshoring of jobs going. But also this starts extremely early, especially with Silicon Valley, the jobs started leaving pretty immediately. We have this conversation now about the chip industry: Oh, we need to reassure the chip industry, we need to bring it back to American chip production, because we sent those jobs abroad in the 80s, or 90s, or something. That’s not true, that’s not what happened. The chip foundry start getting shipped overseas to Taiwan, I think it’s the first one, in 1961. Atari where Wozniak and Jobs get their start — I guess more so Jobs, Wozniak is then subcontracted famously to do breakout — are really advanced offshores. You think about Atari is a cute video game company, but they were going to be unionized very early. They were one of the first big union campaigns, I think, was the Glaziers union was going to unionize the three Atari factories. They immediately shut down to ship the jobs overseas and union campaign collapsed at the third.
This set, or helped se, the agenda for Silicon Valley labor relations into the future. We talk about gig economy now, but way before that Silicon Valley was the core of the temp economy. They had more temp workers than anywhere else in the country. You say, temp worker now in Silicon Valley, maybe an older person knows what you’re talking about, but a younger person is like: What’s a temp? Is that a gig worker? They rebrand these things, but it’s the same labor market innovation that’s going on. That has been just as important as the tech innovation itself. So you’ve got Fairchild pumping out the first generation of planar circuits or whatever their costs are 13 cents, 10 cents out of that 13 is labor, and that’s where they’re going to focus all of their energy as a company. They basically stop innovating with their first product, and just focus on hammering down those labor costs. That’s been the model for Silicon Valley in a lot of ways.
PM: I think it’s particularly illustrative and important history to remember, especially as we’re in this moment now, where the companies are cutting and slashing and laying a bunch of people off and cutting benefits and saying that: This is what we need to do in order to be more competitive in order to increase our efficiency. That we need to be more like a startup, again, because we’re losing that competitive edge. I think it’s important to go back to these histories as you’re outlining, especially in a moment like this, to be able to say: This is what they do constantly, they’re always trying to find ways to push back on workers to stop worker organizing, to limit the pay that workers receive. This is just another example of this, or just the latest example in this longer trend that this industry has carried out.
MH: A global struggle — not just a local labor market struggle — but a global struggle over the value of labor, and the power of labor in the world. So if I can get people to think Silicon Valley and think: Nuclear missiles and the Cold War and massacres in Vietnam, instead of: Silicon Valley, the Grateful Dead and early computers then I think that will be a very large success.
PM: No, absolutely. You talk about that piece of it, and we’ve talked a lot about jobs, and you talk about Gates a lot in the book, but I think we can say this about many of the individuals that we associate with Silicon Valley, and the tech industry. In that a lot of these histories, and a lot of these narratives, are focused around these particular people who are at the top of these companies, or are shaping how we think about this industry. But you say that actually, when we think about what is actually going on in this industry, or this part of the world, that has particular forces that are much more important than individuals. If there wasn’t a Jobs or Gates, specifically, then there would have been someone else who would have taken that place and forwarded this broader force of capital that was moving through in this period.
If someone like Elon Musk, for example, wasn’t around in the early 2000s, to try to push Tesla and electric cars, then someone else would have did that. This is an argument that I make very frequently. Can you describe that importance of looking at the forces over the individuals a bit to us? And especially, how this plays out in Silicon Valley, and why it’s important to understand this, rather than just looking at particular men in many cases who are held up as these great people in the Valley who have done these amazing things for us? And actually say: These are not necessarily these profits that we treat them as, but actually, there’s something much deeper that’s going on there.
MH: First of all, you don’t want to think the way that we do now about the ‘Great-Man history,’ partly because you start assigning historical forces to individual personalities. You think of Steve Jobs as the prime-mover of society, as opposed to the reflection of a whole number of historical forces that he can’t possibly begin to understand. It’s like, you’re looking at the moon and thinking it’s the sun. That’s what happens when you get ‘Great Man’ historiography, and that’s so much of what Silicon Valley stuff is even to today. If you want to publish a history of Silicon Valley, and I’m sure even reviews in my book and stuff, we’ll just have five pictures of five white guys and be like: This is the history of Silicon Valley. When, you can tell it that way, but then you miss the people who are actually wiring the boards, like we were just talking about.
You fundamentally misunderstand what’s going on throughout history. The greatest example of the phenomenon you’re talking about, and it’s exemplification in Palo Alto, is a historical phenomenon. In the past, aristocratic privileges, or royal privilege even, is passed through bloodlines, directly. Your kid who comes to embody your power through your name — it’s not an impersonal system. But with the rise of Palo Alto, concurrently, you have the rise of this impersonal global system that’s able to transition power within classes, not just within families. You have someone like Herbert Hoover. Herbert Hoover is an orphan. His parents die, and he comes to Palo Alto in the place of Leland Stanford Jr., the child who dies. We have parents without a child and a child without parents. This is an impersonal system that’s able to bring them together and transition the Stanford wealth to Herbert Hoover, he becomes Leland Stanford Jr.
Historically, couldn’t have hoped for more, he accomplishes everything that the son could have been imagined to have wanted to accomplish, and more. He’s transferred those privileges and that power through an impersonal system and you see, not just general positions being transferred, but that particular position. The position of Herbert Hoover the position, of Leland Stanford Jr., keep getting passed down the line. It’s pretty crazy how close even some of these are. If you look at the Draper family, that’s one of the biggest Silicon Valley VC families, they can trace their line back to a personal friendship with Herbert Hoover. If you look at the Bechtel Family, people outside of California might not know about Bechtel, which is one of most important privately held companies in the world, but again, can draw their history back to personal friendships with Herbert Hoover.
The way that these things can be passed down through milieu, and through institutions like the Hoover Institution, so like someone Peter Thiel, historically — by the way, also son of a mining engineer — becomes a member of the Board of Overseers of the Hoover Institution. He doesn’t have to know Herbert Hoover, or the Herbert Hoover family to be an heir to that line. Which I don’t know how well these people know their own history, and know that they are heirs to the Shockley-Hoovers. I mean, the Shockley one is just amazing how clear that connection is to Hoover. I don’t know. I’ve gotten some people think that the right-wing, if they read this book, they’re going to really hate it, they’ll be really mad at me. I think some of them might be happy to learn some stuff about themselves.
PM: Absolutely, Thiel is not someone who is separate from those things around history. He’s a bit more intellectual than some of these other folks in in Silicon Valley, who might have a bit more of an inkling of that. I got a laugh at how you pointed out how Peter Thiel never seems to talk about his grandparents. I’ve noted that before in the past.
MH: I actually cut that line in the final book —
PM: Oh really? [laughs].
MH: Because I found an account of him talking about his grandparents at some party or whatever. He says that his German grandparents were communists who fled Germany, which I think we need some more research on that. We need to hear more about how that line went down. But to be fair to Peter Thiel, I did pull that line because I have now heard rumors of him discussing his German grandparents. I tried to be as accurate as possible with the book.
PM: Of course, I do want to see additional research on those grandparents though now, because I’m not buying that either. Peter Thiel has become very important in recent years, whether it’s going back to the PayPal Mafia and the things that he was doing there and the more recent power that he has amassed through politics and personal relationships with the far-right and investing in them, of course, because he now has a lot of money to spend on campaigns and things like that. Peter Thiel has really become one of these figures who is very important to modern Silicon Valley, especially in the past 20 years. He seems like a figure who is particularly linked to this legacy, as you’re saying, who is someone who seems to emerge right out of it, who picks up a lot of the same lines that we’re hearing through the 20th century from these eugenicists and racists. He parrots them when he’s at Stanford and at the Stanford Review, and throughout his career, beyond that.
In the book, you write about how Silicon Valley really went back to the defense industry, not that this link was ever really cut off. So after 9/11, Peter Thiel is one of the people who is involved in that, starting Palantir, and getting a lot of these major contracts. I feel like when we talk about Silicon Valley in this period there is a massive desire to focus more on Google or Elon Musk, or these particular companies, but I feel like the role of Peter Thiel is underplayed. I think that’s partially because at times he has not really sought the limelight in the same way that some of these other companies and founders have done. How do you see Peter Thiel’s role in the past couple decades of Silicon Valley and what continues to become, in this moment?
MH: I see him as a real heir to that Hoover-Shockley-Packard line. If you’re him, I think he’d take it as a compliment — much more so than most of his peers — even though he’s not the tech inventor that some of them are, and I don’t think he really claims to be. The code he figured out mostly is finance, but you’re right that he’s someone who not just presents himself as more of an intellectual because lots of people in Silicon Valley present themselves lots of different ways, but someone who has a better sense that history is real, and not a function of individual people’s personalities. So he’s someone who hedges a lot. He was in Facebook really early, but he also got out pretty early. He has a habit of trying to think bigger and long-term and conservatively, while thinking bigger and long-term, in some ways. Bezos is similar — these are finance guys more than they are tech guys.
PM: Yes, Bezos is a hedge-fund guy.
MH: They’re both hedge-fund guys. That’s not coincidental that that’s where they’re focusing their attention right now, and that the guys who focus their attention there are the ones who have excelled the most. Whereas someone like Mark Zuckerberg, who has Facebook as a anchor around his leg, and he can never do anything ever again. Thiel didn’t set himself up that way and has refused, consistently, to set himself up that way, even with something like Palantir. He hasn’t strapped himself to any one particular company, or PayPal or any of these. So, the question is: What is his project if it’s not a company? That’s where you got to look towards this past, and towards this Bionomic ideology. I think he’s someone who really believes in the unnaturalness of equality, who believes in the naturalness of hierarchy, which is the this Bionomic idea. Where he’s taking that is very scary. That’s where I leave the book — he represents the future of Silicon Valley.
PM: I agree with you, and you put it really well, because he not only acts in this way by trying to pick out the people who he thinks are going to represent what this future could be. Whether it’s through his fellowships and things like that or bringing them into his organization from the Stanford Review. Building a network in a really important way, PayPal Mafia, whatever you want to call it. Also how, as we were talking about, there’s this particular narrative of the tech industry that has been dominant — that it was anti-establishment, anti-government, even at the time when it still had a very close connection to these forces of capitalism, still very close connection to the military industrial complex, still getting a lot of public subsidies. It was treated as the way the tech industry is, this more libertarian paradise. Whereas Peter Thiel, always shows the throughline of that conservative ideology that you’re outlining in the book that is always still there. If it ever really died down or faded, there’s no question that it has re-emerged in this period, and that he is a really key figure in that. If anything, the other founders and tech folks, a lot of them are now following his example and moving more toward him, because he was maybe, “right,” the whole time.
MH: I would add Larry Ellison also, who is someone who’s not held up, even though he fills many Silicon Valley stereotypes and is not someone who hides from the limelight or whatever. I think it’s because Oracle is a less consumer-oriented product, maybe that people don’t think about him in the same way. But he’s just as important and influentia — just as rich, too. Also, just as wacky conservative at this point. I talk about Thiel a fair amount, and I talk about Ellison a fair amount, who is a CIA contractor from beginning. That’s what Oracle is, and the whole history of Oracle. Whereas someone like Elon Musk gets one mention in the whole book, maybe one or two just noting that he exists, there’s some companies or whatever.
I don’t talk about cryptocurrency. I tried to stay away from things that seem epiphenomenal to me. And the main thing about the social media age, that seems really important, is this relationship with the state and surveillance and the breakdown of privacy on the internet and the incorporation of these companies into this state effort, which happens pretty cleanly after 9/11. Of course, there is this whole military background, but the whole idea of a counterculture, anti-authoritarian Silicon Valley culture or whatever, is maintained through this period, even though behind closed doors there’s, not just collaboration with the Bush administration, but they provided the technological backbone for the War on Terror that we later find out through Snowden. This collaboration with John Ashcroft who turns out to be a very technologically inclined Attorney General for George W. Bush — despite being very right-wing conservative, evangelical. We don’t associate those two things, but we should, in this case.
He, with the tech industry, and with people like Ellison, really come up with the rules for the internet. Those are the rules that Facebook plays by — those are the rules that TikTok and Snapchat play by. The rules that were set up were basically: You can do what you want, as long as you give us access. That deal between the corporate internet and the military and the surveillance intelligence services is why the internet is so fucked. That’s what’s set up the internet as a social space was this deal between the state and companies to spy on us and abuse us as customers. They shook hands — we did not.
PM: That gets left out of much of the narrativizing around it, but it’s good to see you bring it out in the book. To make sure that we’re drawing more attention to that, and ensuring that we understand all those linkages and how they link back to these much longer trends that are going on in this industry. This has been a fantastic conversation. I want to end with this question. At the end of the book, after outlining all of these relationships, how these forces of capital have worked their way through California, and the world. How that has empowered through the tech industry, through these linkages with the military, and in many cases, against the benefit of the public or parts of the public, at least. There were some who certainly benefited from all of these happenings and all of these things that happen to this history. After exploring this rich history, and the consequences of these capitalist forces in Palo Alto and the wider world, you make a provocative proposal that to begin to rectify some of these harms that Stanford should be handed back to indigenous peoples. How do you see this working? What would you hope would come of something like that?
MH: It’s a pretty modest proposal, in some ways, because Stanford has tons of land. The have 8,000 acres that they got from Leland Stanford. If you’ve ever been to Stanford University, it feels like a ghost town. It’s got a very, very low concentration of people — one of the things they find charming about it, whatever. They’ve got tons of land and the reason they’ve been able to hold onto all this lands entire time, is because the covenant with the founders was that it couldn’t be sold. Instead, you had the school turning into a landlord, where they’re leasing land to all these tech companies, leasing land to, for example, Palo Alto High School, where I went to school. Or leasing land to Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents for example, is another one. Stanford owns all that land, including a bunch that is not in active use or whatever.
At the same time, they have a land acknowledgement that acknowledges the ancestral claim to the land of the Muwekma Ohlone, who are a specific organized, political, tribal band of Ohlone people — not the general Ohlone people who are the aboriginal inhabitants of the Bay Area. They are a very specific politically organized group of Ohlone that are acknowledged. At the same time, this school has broken its covenant in the past. I talk about, in order to transfer some land to the Department of Veterans to build a Veteran’s Hospital because the federal government only builds on land that they own. It’s made an exception in the past for sovereign entities, even though the federal government doesn’t recognize them, the Muwekma Ohlone. Stanford does and has transferred remains to the Muwekma in the past.
You have the policy foundations, you have the premises or the precedents, for this land transfer. I think just the act of transferring that land would be a huge step for American history — bigger than any climate school that Stanford is going to do or any donation that they’re going to make or whatever. To transfer that land and to say: If this world is going to last right, we need to put it in the hands of people who are prepared to responsibly manage the land, and we are not able to do that. Now, we hear that colleges make crazy, unaccountable, lefty decisions all the time. They’re everywhere, they are all land acknowledging all over the place. I think at Stanford, if you go into the Land Acknowledgement Page, even has a link about land back and how acknowledging land isn’t sufficient, so they know that this is the case, they’ve got a group they can transfer it to, it doesn’t seem all that complicated to me. If people want a pragmatic reform step to answer the huge series of problems, I’ve gotten one right there, very easy.
In the book, I talked about it as like: Return all of the Stanford lands and return the $30 billion in endowment, or whatever. You could have a smaller concession, who knows, to start this conversation of transferring land back. To me, it seems really modest in terms of a reform proposal, if you want to be smaller than that in terms of the land that was stolen, in California, you want to be smaller than like some acres? Then you’re not really serious. At the same time, people treat the suggestion as a joke. They don’t understand it as an actual policy solution, because it seems impossible. It may tend to be impossible, the Board of Trustees of Stanford might feel that they cannot do this, and they might be right. If they tried to do it, maybe there would be a court challenge from some Alumni Associationthat would remove them, who knows?
The question is: Do they have the ability to give this land back? And if they do, they should, and if they don’t, then we need to deal with a system that is unable to solve its problems. If we have a system that’s unable to even begin to solve its problems, then I think we’ve got to look back to some of the what they were saying in the 60s and some of what the New Left understood about this. Which is that we’re not facing a situation where you need to convince the people who are in power to make the right decision, because that’s not really what they’re in power to do, that’s not how their power works. It’s the decisions themselves that are empowered, not the personnel. So that calls for a different struggle than one in which they have the ability to make those reparative decisions. I leave it open — I would love to see it happen — but I think we’re at that point where if this institution can’t make this choice, then we need to stop trying to convince people.
PM: Absolutely, I thought it was a great proposal to end off the book after outlining so much of this history, so much of what this University has been up to. The kinds of people who have gone through those doors and come out again, and the influence that they’ve had in a really negative direction. I thought it was fantastic, I’d love to see greater debate and challenge on this particular point, to try to push the university in that direction. With that said, I would also say, thanks so much for giving me your time to discuss the book. I would highly recommend it, obviously. Pretty much anyone who listens to this podcast would find a lot really fascinating in this book and exploring this history. Obviously, history is one of the things that we’d love to discuss on the show, to get more into the history of the tech industry to learn more about it. This book just delivers it in spades. It’s all there, everything that you want to know. Thanks so much, Malcolm! Good luck with the release of the book, and thanks for taking the time to chat.
MH: Thanks again for having me back.