Abolish Palo Alto

28 Mar 2023

Today, Kristen Sheets interviews Malcolm Harris about “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and The World.” The book reveals labor struggles and entrenched militarism at the heart of software.

A sepia-tone photo of Stanford University campus, showing the conservative Hoover Institution tower and the radar dish built by the United States Air Force

War starts here

The Historian’s Perspective

Kristin Sheets interviews Malcolm Harris about “Palo Alto” in a recent book talk.

This is a particularly long feature today, but it’s relatively short given the book length (708 pages) and the history (over a century). To start, Kristin introduces Missile Suburbanism, a way of life that is strangely familiar today. The interview discusses Stanford’s legacy, the legacy of The Octopus, anti-colonial movements, and labor actions in the face of snipers guarding weapons manufacturers on indegenous land. Perhaps most importantly, Malcolm urges us stop reminiscing about the 1967 theatrics of levitating the Pentagon and to start retelling the bombing the Pentagon and other direct action to dismantle the war machine built by software company leadership.

Kristen Sheets:

Thanks again for joining us, Malcolm. The first question I have is around orienting to the history that you lay out in “Palo Alto.” This book is about the history of Silicon Valley, but it’s not really the same history we’re used to hearing from the people that we generally associate with Silicon Valley today. One thread that runs throughout your book is the dark side of any technological innovation. When you tell the story of what you call Missile Suburbanism: The Role of the Defense Industry in Creating a Middle Class in Silicon Valley Post World War II, you are not celebrating it, you’re casting a moral judgment on the specific technology developed and the way the wealth is distributed as a result. It’s pretty clear when reading your book that this is not a win-win rising-tide-lifts-all-boats situation. There are winners and there are losers. There are people who live in beautiful houses in Silicon Valley and there are people whose houses get bombed. I was wondering if you would say a bit more into what Missile Suburbanism was and how this framing can help us understand the wealth generated by Silicon Valley today.

Malcolm Harris:

That’s a great question to start with because it goes to the heart of the book, and I think starting there is even better than starting chronologically or whatever. We can start by thinking about how, 100 years ago, the question of the equality of the world was newly at stake. The inequalities in a globalized system seemed harder and harder to maintain, even to capitalists, someone like Keynes would say, “100 years hence, by like the 2020s, economic problems would be solved. All people would live with the resources that they need.” This was commonly understood, both among progressive capitalists, as well as all communists.

At the same time, the anti-colonial movements were starting to kick off around the world, and this question of, How could the inequalities of the past be maintained into the future in a world that was rapidly equalizing? This was the question that Silicon Valley and Palo Alto was really built to answer, and I say Silicon Valley very specifically. The first generation of silicon chips that come out of Fairchild Semiconductor all go into Minuteman I nuclear missiles. The point of the Minuteman I nuclear missile was to point a gun at the world’s head and say, “If anything happens to America’s position in the world, everyone dies.”

We maintained a policy in which we would use a first strike nuke to maintain security within what was called the nuclear umbrella. That meant that U.S. corporations could operate abroad in places that would be otherwise politically insecure, they could operate under this U.S. nuclear umbrella that was provided by the tech of Silicon Valley. When I started working on this project, and I think most people when they think of 20th century Silicon Valley and they think of what is the archetypical product of that era and that region and that industry, maybe they think of the transistor, maybe they think of the personal computer, maybe they think of the internet, depending on how old they are, I guess, probably.

When I was going through this history, it is very clear that the tool and the object that Silicon Valley produces in this time is the nuclear missile. If you look at the composition by value of these nuclear missiles, so much of it was the electronics and the testing instruments needed to test everything in the production, and that was really coming out of Silicon Valley. Lockheed was at a big headquarters in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara. Mike Malone, who’s someone I quote in the book about missile suburbanism, he’s a great commentator on Silicon Valley. People should definitely read his stuff.

He talks about growing up in this place where everyone was making all this money, everyone was doing great, they were buying gadgets all the time, they’d come home with home movie cameras, and you can go on the Prelinger Archives now and watch the home movies that this generation of entrepreneurs and electronics engineers and the guys who went and made this stuff at these companies took about their homes, and it was a very exciting time for them. At the same time, they went to work every day and built this giant gun that was aimed at the world’s head.

We get to think of the internet as like a peaceful military technology because none of those nuclear missiles ever got launched, but we were very close a number of times. Insofar as that missile suburbanism is the basis for Palo Alto, and it really was, right? You take the money that you get from your job making missiles and it provides the basis for Palo Alto and suburbia of the ’60s and ’70s. Insofar as that was based on nuclear proliferation, like, yeah, that’s a bummer. That’s not a win-win. That was used for something, to keep people down and to maintain those inequalities that seemed to be unmaintainable into the 21st century. We can look now and see the inequalities that structured the world 100 years ago are very much still in place.

Kristen Sheets:

You mentioned the computer, which I think is an invention that Palo Alto is very much associated with. I think in common histories about the origins of the modern computer, there’s often this techno-utopian bent, despite its origins in World War II and the Cold War. Over the course of the 20th century, it’s almost been cast as this tool for collaborative and personal liberation, and I think this history is something that’s very much contested in your book. I was wondering if you could walk us through that.

Malcolm Harris:

I like to describe the history as it’s commonly told, and it has two versions, because there’s a positive and negative valence. The positive valence is the hippies invented the computer and the internet, and that’s good, which is the version where you’ve got the techno-utopians who act on their techno-utopian impulses in this place of California. They take acid, they write lyrics for the Grateful Dead, and then they also invent computers and the internet.

There’s the version which is that the hippies invented the computers and the internet and that’s bad, where their thoughtless individualism leads to the neoliberal age in the form of the computers and the internet that we know. They treated artificial aesthetic gains as concrete gains and misunderstood their historical position and ended up screwing us all with their individualism. When I went through the history, I just don’t think either of those are right, and I end up not including the techno-utopians in the story at all.

The Grateful Dead only come up once, and it’s them deciding not to play at Altamont after they watched people get fucked up in front of the Rolling Stones by the Hell’s Angels. Instead of that history, I put the global struggle for the system of production at the center of the history, and that’s an intentional choice. I’m saying the most important thing in the world at the time was not the Grateful Dead. Sorry, I don’t think this crowd is a Grateful Dead crowd, but when I talked about this in Palo Alto, some people are offended by that stuff.

The Grateful Dead is not the most important thing in the world. The most important thing in the world was the Cold War, was U.S. imperialism, was the war in South Asia, was the struggle over the system of production, and so that’s where I was talking about computers. The personalization of the computer and the suburbanization of the computer is very much a reaction to the struggles over data processing infrastructure in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in which the new left, which is often conflated with this counterculture. We see that all the time in both versions of the story, the conflation of the new left and the counterculture, but the new left was trying to blow up every computer in the country, like very, very intentionally trying to blow up every computer in the country because they saw them, correctly, as war tools, and they were intervening on the side of North Vietnam in the war. That’s why they were attacking computers.

I think it’s interesting that when we talk about that era, a lot of people know the story about the Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon. This is like an archetypical story about the foolish New Left and how goofy they were that the hippies wanted to levitate the Pentagon. We tell the story much less about when SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, bombed a bathroom in the Pentagon, taking out the computers that were doing air targeting over Vietnam for two weeks because they blew up a bathroom in the Pentagon and the water destroyed a computer. Who’s interested in telling the story of the Grateful Dead inventing the computer and being the same as the New Left or whatever, and who’s interested in not hearing these stories?

Why do we tell the one about levitating the Pentagon, that didn’t happen, and not the one about bombing the Pentagon that did happen, that did matter? It strikes me as still as the most profound ethical act that any Americans took during the war. Yeah, I don’t tell that story. That story’s been told a lot of times, I’m definitely telling a very different story and a much less flattering one for the area.

Kristen Sheets:

One thing that I found really striking about your book is which stories you choose to tell, and the importance of understanding one’s historical position, which is how you just framed it. I found this a recurring theme in your book, especially early on when you discuss forces. You include an excerpt from a 1901 novel called “The Octopus” by a journalist named Frank Norris, in which a railroad baron, a Leland Stanford-esque character, claims he’s unable to control the railroad that he is in charge of because the railroad is controlled by a force greater than himself. These forces seem to surround everyone throughout this history that you tell. You tell the stories of so-called great men who submit to these forces, people like Herbert Hoover and Leland Stanford, as well as the stories of people who are committed to fighting these forces. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that decision to frame the book in this way.

Malcolm Harris:

The history of Palo Alto is the history of this era of impersonal forces. It’s not a universal history of man, it’s a particular history, and there’s a reason that it gets embodied or represented in the railroad. The role that the railroad plays in the history of Palo Alto is very interesting. Obviously, Leland Stanford is the head of the railroad, and Frank Norris uses the railroad to represent these impersonal forces that seem unstoppable, that will crush anything and that transform the landscape. That really is how capitalism hits California, which, to that point, everyone else has had a very hard time colonizing.

If you look at California before 1849, before the gold strike, Alta, California, was very poorly colonized. The Spanish had coastal missions, but ultimately, their presence there was very thin, as was Mexico’s after independence. The Russians looked at colonizing it, the British looked at colonizing it through the Northwest Territory, lots of people were looking at it, but this was the very edge of the world at that point. Very quickly, it gets transformed into the center of this new world, this world of impersonal forces in which the whole world is united under a single system of production and circulation for the first time. That’s planetary capitalism.

The emergence of these unified impersonal forces that are structuring life around the world, and Mike Davis talks about how a market corner in Chicago could starve people in India now for the first time. That these impersonal forces that were structuring lives around the world really step up and become present in this way at the same time as California, and so they really fit and define Anglo-American Alta, California, at least. It’s great that we have stories like Frank Norris’s where he has these awesome sentences about the railroad representing these impersonal forces in that scene.

I love that scene. I read that scene last night in New York with the audiobook narrator playing the railroad baron, Shel Grimm, and me, myself playing the naïve socialist journalist, Presley. The scene has this socialist journalist confront, it’s this very surreal scene where he makes his way back to the office of the head of the railroad, the head capitalist, and knocks on his door and says, “Can I come in?” The railroad baron lets him in and says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah – hey, didn’t you write that poem about the socialist poem, the toilers in the last issue of that magazine? I like the painting better.”

He finds that this railroad baron is familiar with the socialist poem and he’s totally thrown off guard and doesn’t know how to respond to this guy, and he wants him to stop what the railroad’s doing. He’s like, “Look, I can’t stop what the railroad’s doing. I can go broke if you want. Someone else can do it. The guy who harvests his wheat, he could burn his wheat if he wants, he could sell it at a loss, but you can’t change what happens, not personally, not just through this market system.” It’s this awareness of impersonal forces that really arises at this time, and that’s because they really are arising globally at the time, and we still live in that same world. That’s the beginning of this epoch that we still live in now.

Kristen Sheets:

One final question to wrap up before we open up to a more broad discussion. In Palo Alto, you talk about the people committed to fighting these forces as well. I’m curious which histories you think in particular workers in today’s Palo Alto should be looking to for inspiration.

Malcolm Harris:

There’s a lot. When I started this history, I knew I would be talking about the ’60s a little bit. I probably knew I was going to be talking about the ’30s and farm worker struggles in the orchards, because people will tell you, “Palo Alto used to be apricot orchards. All this area used to be really bucolic.” They don’t tell you that they were cartels financed by the incipient financial industry controlled by what was going to become Bank of America. They were high-tech orchards based on the same mode of production. It’s important to remember what the actual history is there, but I didn’t know that it goes back even further from the beginning of the instantiation of this place that you have anti-colonial rebels in particular who make a home in Palo Alto, just like when you start this university, there’s no way to keep the tensions out of it.

That’s because capital is always going to be reliant on labor, and there’s going to be struggle. Palo Alto (and Silicon Valley) is a center of capital, but that also has meant it’s been a center of labor struggle. I’ve tracked that whole history all the way through, and I think the ’60s are particularly useful, as well as the ’70s and the early microchip industry, because it was really tough for people at the time. I think there’s a lot to learn from the rough history of trying to do labor organizing in Silicon Valley.

We have a bad tendency of assuming that people in the past didn’t know what they were doing too often. It really is these larger historical forces, these impersonal forces that are structuring their choices. When you look at workers trying to unionize the early Atari lines, the production lines at early Atari as a company, when the pre-Apple Silicon Valley starts, and they just shut down the factory and moved it abroad. They did it twice, and then the third one stopped their election because they realized that they were stuck. It wasn’t because they were stupid, it wasn’t because they were cowardly, it’s because they were up against a really tough historical situation. The same thing happened with Fairchild Semiconductor workers. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a best-selling American historian, she wrote “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of America” (full PDF here), but I didn’t know that she was a line worker at Fairchild Semiconductor in Silicon Valley, organizing on the line, until I was reading through this history.

She tells these amazing stories of Indigenous workers in the Bay Area organizing in solidarity with Fairchild workers at their plant in Shiprock, Arizona, at the Navajo reservation, and doing a sympathy demonstration at the Fairchild headquarters in Silicon Valley. They get met with rows of snipers on the roof. They were planning on walking in, going inside, and trying to get line workers, many of whom were Indigenous in the Bay Area, to walk out, and they’re met instead with lines of police snipers. That’s what people would face down, and they faced down that at the waterfront in San Francisco in the ’40s. You look through these histories of the people who’ve risked their lives, pushed very clearly to points where they’re forced to risk their lives just to try to organize, and still lost. The idea that we can improve on what they did without similar risks or similar levels of organizing and similar struggle is hard to square with the history.