To frame his new 700-page examination of Palo Alto’s catastrophic effects on civilization, author Malcolm Harris begins with suicide.
Near the start of PALO ALTO: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, Harris writes: “The suicides started in 2002. That year, a Palo Alto High freshman stepped in front of the Caltrain, the same locomotive line on which Leland Stanford built the town.” Not isolated events, the suicides continued right up through 2022, as Harris completed his manuscript.
A few pages later, still in the introduction, Harris quotes Leland Stanford who famously told his wife, “The children of California shall be our children,” when they first decided to build Palo Alto on the burial grounds of indigenous tribes. The years Harris spent at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto later helped him envision the book.
“From the beginning, it was a question about the suicides and the train tracks,” Harris says. “Knowing that the train tracks are so literally foundational, but also symbolically foundational to the town and Leland Stanford, it’s like a true crime story almost, right? Except there’s no criminal. It’s the town.”
While a spate of deaths does seem like the start of a true crime novel, Harris did not see a personal or interpersonal crime story. This crime was systemic, implicating many historical and global processes, impersonal forces, all of which stemmed from capitalism.
A Marx quote opens up the book, with Harris then plotting the entire history of capitalism’s destruction of everything, all through the lens of Northern California tech. We learn about hydraulicking in the Gold Rush era, Leland Stanford’s horse-breeding eugenics and Herbert Hoover’s Red Scare operations reverberating all the way up through Reagan’s use of Stanford technology to butcher Central America. In Harris’ view, it is the build up of these things leading to suicides at Chinese iPhone sweatshops and on the peninsula. For Harris, who spared no one, a blasphemous 700-page takedown of everything the free market sycophants hold dear about Silicon Valley was long overdue.
“I tried to be objective,” Harris says, adding that he harbors no personal grudge against any Silicon Valley guru. He just thinks many of these people were wrong. He says that when most authors write about Silicon Valley, they focus on individuals, imbuing them with historical forces as characteristics of their personality—which is also wrong. It’s the other way around. Steve Jobs, for example, embodies all the historical forces, but we imagine that those forces are just Steve Jobs. They’re not.
Which is why Harris repeats over and over that the forces of capitalist exploitation are what shaped this very history and led to the emergence of all the individuals we’ve read about. If William Shockley, Bill Gates and Ollie North never came along, somebody else would have emerged in their place.
“Profits search for the necessary people, attitudes and weapons to do what needs to be done, and profits find them,” Harris writes.
But one doesn’t need to be a card-carrying Marxist to enjoy the book. The tangents and backstories give the project an open-source feel, encouraging anyone to pick a trajectory and go with it. The matrix of history Harris presents is a fun one to tackle. The 45 pages of endnotes are sheer bliss to explore and research further. For example, who knew the violent Ghadar Movement to overthrow the British in India actually had connections to Japanese anarchism and Mexican communism via Stanford?
Though it is no ghost story, Harris admits he is haunted: he is the product of the same impersonal forces he documents.
Yet, he remains convinced that the point of life—and the meaning of freedom—is to “make something with what the world makes of you.” Therefore, it’s necessary to locate those places where history launches a spear through the “self,” pinning it like a specimen to the board. This is what Harris has accomplished.
Looking back down the tracks from which he came, he has now written Palo Alto in the same way that Palo Alto has written him.
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The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached 24/7 by dialing 988