Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Malcolm Harris, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World (Little, Brown and Company, 2023)

Malcolm Harris lured me into this book, a history of the area now encompassing Silicon Valley, with his very first sentences: “Palo Alto is nice. The weather is temperate; the people educated, rich, healthy, innovative.” Check—this matches my initial impressions, formed when I arrived in 1979 to attend law school on the campus of the university Leland Stanford formed in 1891 in memory of his son, a victim of typhoid at the age of 15.

One detail immediately stood out for me. It was difficult for me, a middle-class son of the Midwest, to come to terms with the fact that the undergraduate parking lot was filled with cars newer and more expensive than those I encountered on a daily basis in the suburban Twin Cities neighborhood of my youth. Nonetheless, I came to see Palo Alto as a wonderful place to spend three years, even if throughout that period I had a nagging feeling that there was something not quite “real,” for lack of a better term, about the place. It turns out this is a feeling I share with Harris, who grew up there. “There were signs,” he writes, “that, if Palo Alto was normal, it was too normal, weirdly normal.” Again, right on target.

For Harris, this feeling propelled him toward writing this detailed, informative, and perhaps a bit doctrinaire history of the Palo Alto area from the Gold Rush of 1849 through the present day. I say “doctrinaire” because Harris’s framework for this history is clear from the beginning, where he approvingly quotes Karl Marx as writing, in 1880, “California is very important for me because nowhere else has the upheaval most shamelessly caused by capitalist centralization taken place with such speed.”

What follows is a tale of a town and a university shaped by unbridled capitalism, a process accelerated exponentially as it fed on the seemingly unlimited resources of the defense industry (especially during the Cold War years). The product of this process is what Harris calls the “Palo Alto System,” originally an approach to breeding and training horses developed at Stanford’s farm. The idea was to bring pressure on horses early and often, rather than to coddle them, because it was better that any horse not up to the mark fail early rather than after years of expensive training. Harris believes this notion—the basis of a hothouse culture of competitive individualism—permeates all facets of life in and around Palo Alto, from highly leveraged start-ups based on ideas alone to an educational system he describes as a “human capital” factory.

That’s one way to look at it. I’m not sure it’s an entirely satisfactory explanation for life in the Palo Alto bubble, but it does make me think about what was happening all around me while I had my nose in law books and was editing law review articles so many years ago. No doubt that, whether you view it through a positive or negative lens, Palo Alto has certainly generated MANY famous entrepreneurial success stories, including the stories of Sergey Brin (Google), Tim Cook and Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Hurd (Oracle), Debbie Fields (cookie, anyone?) not to mention both Hewlett and Packard, along with dozens of other notables!

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