The Plain View
I meet Malcolm Harris, voice of millennials and anti-capitalist crusader, at a Brooklyn coffee shop, suggested by his publicist for this book-tour interview. He goes for a guava croissant along with his $3.75 drip. He hints this is not an endorsement of a bourgeoisie micro-luxury, but an ironic jab at the media tycoons of Condé Nast who are picking up the tab.
Harris, a spry 34, is generating considerable buzz with his book, Palo Alto. He knows the town and the tech industry it sits at the heart of well. He grew up there, was schooled there, and even learned journalism at Palo Alto High School under Esther Wojcicki, mother of the (recently retired) YouTube CEO Susan and former mother-in-law of Sergey Brin. His antitrust lawyer father took on Microsoft in a major trademark case in the mid-aughts. But as an author, Harris is less into forging a first draft of history than using research to promote his preexisting point of view. “It’s not a work of journalism,” he says of his book. “It’s a Marxist history.”
Whatever you call it, Palo Alto is epic—an unrelenting 700-page indictment of capitalism, California, and the town that railroad baron Leland Stanford named in 1876 to honor a tall tree that still stands, and soon after made the home of his new university, which still dominates the region. Some might view Harris’ book as a companion piece to another doorstop-sized chunk of tech rejection, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. But Harris thinks Zuboff’s book overemphasized the surveillance part and went too easy on the capitalism. “It doesn’t really get to the global political economy,” he says.
Harris’s book gets there, in spades. In his sprawling, colloquial narrative, history isn’t a sloppy progression but a nefarious plot serving capitalism’s theft of people’s labor and dignity. His touchstone is the system by which Leland Stanford bred racehorses, which combined genetics with a novel emphasis on pushing horses to run faster at an earlier age than was the custom. (Kind of like Move Fast and Take Things.) Harris applies this “Palo Alto System” as a metaphor throughout, branding everything from venture capital to Tiger Woods’ training methods as inhumane descendents of Stanford’s original sin. Of course, one might argue that, having been nurtured in the town’s famed school system and its tech community, Harris—a deft wordsmith and an effective marketer—is himself a product of the Palo Alto System.
Harris has no problems digging up more villains than a thousand Marvel-verses. There’s Stanford, of course, and the first president of the university he founded, David Starr Jordan, who allegedly murdered Stanford’s widow. (At least that’s what Harris thinks.) The university’s early psychology pioneer Lewis Terman not only promoted eugenics-based IQ tests, we learn, but also slept with his students. Harris even attacks well-meaning leftists like congressman/activist Allard Lowenstein for working too deeply inside the system. (Harris heaps scorn on the Grateful Dead wing of the protest movement; he’s the guy at the SDS meeting who screams at the stoners in the back of the room.) More recent scoundrels include Silicon Valley’s vaunted founders. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are smelly “jerks,” he says, but “more meaningful as personifications of impersonal social forces.”
Harris has a genuine supervillain, though, in William Shockley, the Nobel-winning physicist. Shockley, father of the transistor, Stanford professor, and founder of a Silicon Valley semiconductor company, was a racist bully who fully deserves Harris’ one-word summation: asshole.
Hold on, I say to Harris, wasn’t Shockley such an outlier that his nastiness led eight of his brilliant engineers to abandon him and start their own company, Fairchild, and from there populate the Valley with other upstarts like Intel? Wouldn’t that mean that the modern system of VCs funding startups—and ultimately, companies like Apple and Google— was based on a counterreaction to the white-supremecist ethos that Harris finds tucked away in every corner of his hometown? Harris pushes back on that theory. “They made chips for bombs!” he says of the “traitorous eight.”
But for all his verbiage, Harris falls short when it comes to proposing remedies for the wage exploitation, racism, ecological carnage, and suicides he sees rippling outward from Palo Alto. He doesn’t provide a prescription for ending capitalism, short of waiting for its horrors to reach a point when ragtag survivors will pull the plug on it. He does have an idea how to fix Palo Alto, though.
Brightening as he speaks of the concept, he wants Stanford to return its 8,000-acre campus to the 614 people recognized as remaining members of the Ohlone, which once indigenously prowled that very turf. It’s a tall order, he admits. But giving back the campus, all of it—the football stadium, the Hoover Tower, the palm trees, the hospital, the Memorial Church, the classrooms, the buildings named after Gates and other capitalists who donated some of their ill-gotten gains to the university—is “low hanging fruit,” he tells me. I opined that this was fruit even higher than the tallest branch of the Palo Alto tree. Even Harris admits that the university is unlikely to embrace his idea.
I’m actually in agreement with a lot of Harris’ critiques of systems that reward harmful market power (and of course I am with him in condemning shameful behavior toward people who are from indigenous communities, Black, or Asian). While proponents of the status quo claim that Silicon Valley is the engine of wealth creation, income inequality is worse than ever, with the Bay Area a case in point. But my preferred solution is to constrain capitalism rather than employ Karl Marx’s playbook. I realize that significant change is difficult when the most destructive forces have the money and power to thwart reform.
But while we struggle to improve conditions for those not lucky enough to afford Palo Alto’s Craftsman homes, can’t we at least acknowledge that some of the technological benefits that have sprung from the system, tainted as it is by over-rewarded founders and exploited workers, have made our lives easier and richer? Even the scary technology of the moment, generative AI, has potential to perform amazing services for all walks of life.
Harris will have none of this. In a typical passage in Palo Alto he writes, “There’s no emerging artificial superintelligence that will automatically arbitrate the thoughts and claims of people. There is just capitalism, an impersonal system that acts through people toward the increasing accumulation of capital, the amassing of exploiting value.” Iconic words from the guy whose previous book was called Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.
Before we break, I ask Harris if he has a favorite gadget or service. Is there something that has emerged from the evil Palo Alto System that has brought him joy? He sheepishly pulls out his Android phone and shows me Recorder, a Google app for capturing and transcribing conversations in real time. He shows me how it captures a dialog and even identifies different speakers.
My first impulse is to agree that this is an unalloyed marvel. But then I recall a Google gambit of some years ago. In 2007, the company released a service whereby dialing 1-800-GOOG-411 from a cell phone or even a landline would connect you to free voice-based directory assistance that helped you find local businesses. While this ad-free service seemed like a miraculous freebie, it was actually a way for Google to capture millions of human voice interactions to train its algorithms. Users weren’t getting something from Google—they were giving something to Google. Once the company had what it needed, it discontinued the service. I imagine that the Recorder transcription app might be doing the same kind of thing for Google right now—exploiting our labors in the guise of helping us out. Still, despite its agenda, the service seems damn useful. So much so that it’s impressed even the most unforgiving of anti-capitalists. As does the guava croissant. “Pretty good!” says the Marxist.
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