Is Silicon Valley Beyond Redemption?

A new book argues that the region has been hopelessly poisoned by profit. Is there a way to reform it?

large smartphones stuck in grass
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Consider a proposal: Stanford should give its more than 8,000 acres to the Muwekma Ohlone, the land’s original people. After all, the university would still have $36 billion in the bank. (U.S. colleges and universities have amassed enormous wealth—more than $800 billion in endowment assets, according to a recent survey of 678 institutions.) Even more outrageously endowed is the surrounding region of Silicon Valley, which is Malcolm Harris’s real target when he makes this suggestion at the end of his new book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. It’s precisely Stanford’s land, Harris explains, that has “nurtured the Silicon Valley extraction machine,” one he believes is wreaking havoc on the planet and immiserating so many of its people.

Deeply researched and richly detailed, Palo Alto is a prehistory of today’s all-too-familiar Valley of oligarchs and Big Brother brogrammers who seem to taint everything they touch, including housing, transportation, and democracy. At the same time, it distills and expresses a stark new techno-pessimism, growing especially fast on the left. Under the Palo Alto System, a term Harris uses to trace the history of Silicon Valley—particularly the obsession with productivity and economic value that he sees as a constant—technology has been hopelessly poisoned by the drive for profit. “Competition and domination, exploitation and exclusion, minority rule and class hate: These aren’t problems capitalist technology will solve,” Harris, who is a self-proclaimed Marxist, writes. “That’s what it’s for. In the proper language, they are features, not bugs.”

Harris wants to wipe the hard drive clean. He makes no calls to protest, divest, or boycott. He is not interested in seizing the means of digital production (and reproduction), organizing tech workers, or “socializing social media.” Harris instead argues that returning the land to the Ohlone could help “draw a new path, away from exhaustion and toward recovery, repair, and renewal.” (The tribe is currently focused on regaining federal recognition, and Harris joined its delegation in D.C. this month.) But he entirely bypasses another way forward: reclaiming Silicon Valley for the public.

A modern Marx in Palo Alto, crashing (of course) at one of Stanford’s seven cooperative houses, wouldn’t give up on such an important site of struggle. Silicon Valley’s mystique may be evaporating fast, but its infrastructure still holds enormous public potential. It is, after all, a collection of utilities (encompassing not just chips, cables, and servers but also digital infrastructure) that should be considered as much a part of the public domain as water and electricity—not least because as Harris, the historian Margaret O’Mara, and others have shown, that infrastructure was built at almost every step with public money.

Besides transforming our daily lives, Silicon Valley infrastructure, especially mobile phones and social media, has been justifiably hailed as helping drive major social movements, including the one that led to Barack Obama’s election, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter. Rather than dismantling it, as Palo Alto suggests, wouldn’t governing, developing, and harnessing it make more sense? The Valley is more than just a few monopoly platforms; it’s everything we put into them and everything they took from us. When the Valley falters or collapses one day, as happened with the railroads in the 1970s or Wall Street in 2008, there could be a onetime chance to usher in “people’s community control of modern technology,” as the Black Panthers put it. Earlier this month, venture capitalists and start-up founders triggered a run on Silicon Valley Bank, requiring a federal takeover. The rescue should come with terms and conditions.

Popular control of technology should be the ultimate goal, through whatever combination of law, code, and direct action may be necessary. Among other things, it would mean people, not companies, controlling their own data. Treating essential technological services like water and electricity would mean regulation and legislation to ensure that they are universally accessible and open source, and subject to democratic deliberation. Technologies built with any substantial public funding—MRI and GPS, the Human Genome Project and self-driving cars, Google and the internet itself—should in turn fund and serve the public. Forget buzzy black-box bots like ChatGPT, Bing, and Bard impersonating human language and behavior for corporate profits. These new forms of text prediction should be developed openly and carefully to improve public services.

Unlike related critiques of Silicon Valley, which usually highlight its libertarian and dystopian dimensions, Palo Alto is a takedown grounded in the long-term history of an actual place. That place is really a series of nested dolls, starting with Stanford and the small, adjacent city of Palo Alto, which it dominates. Beyond lies the Valley, itself just one part of the Bay Area, and beyond that California, the fifth-largest economy in the world. The influence of California, of course, can now be felt everywhere.

Obituaries for California are also now everywhere. Banking on conservative Florida and Texas to take its place at the center of the nation’s social, economic, and cultural life, many on the right are gleeful about the deep-blue state’s demographic slowdown and frequently point to its litany of disasters: wildfires, homelessness, inequality. For his part, Harris, though attuned to the Bay’s radical history, skewers Palo Alto as the “belly of the capitalist beast” and impugns the entire state by extension.

Absent in both cases is actually existing California, the glorious stew of contradictions stirred up in Kevin Starr’s encyclopedic eight-volume history of the state. Today’s Golden State is still one of the most diverse societies in human history, and the Bay’s massive Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Mayan, South Asian, Pacific Islander, and other communities are not just pawns on Silicon Valley’s chessboard. Forged by a mass middle class, modern California has been an engine of economic uplift for millions, with a unique if embattled system of public higher education.

California is worth fighting for, and so is Silicon Valley. If not at Stanford and in Palo Alto, the dynamic and destructive love triangle between technology, capitalism, and higher education would surely be happening somewhere else. (An Austin System might be even worse.) California can draw from a broadly liberal, and even radical, inheritance. Among all the different institutions and interests involved, potential reformers have leverage, not least with disenchanted tech workers themselves.

In 1876, the transcontinental railroad chief and first Republican governor of California, Leland Stanford Sr., bought a farm and built a town near a millennium-old sequoia tree, a palo alto (“tall stick”) that still stands. The original Palo Alto System, Harris writes, was a method the governor designed on that farm for breeding and training horses, which identified and quantified talent as early as possible, with brutal efficiency. In 1891, the farm, which had recently become a university to honor Leland Jr., dead at 15 of typhoid, welcomed its first students. “Still a breeding and training project,” as Harris argues, it was now focused on human beings, though nondenominational, coeducational, and channeling a spirit of invention and progressivism.

As Harris writes, Silicon Valley is home to some of the “most productive workers in the history of the world”—a handful of haves throwing the have-nots deep into the shade—whose “productivity” is destroying (“disrupting”) industry after established industry. Their companies are becoming some of the world’s most valuable, not only by creating jobs or social goods but by attracting enormous global flows of capital that chase unsustainable returns and inflate gigantic bubbles.

Yet as a callow undergrad in the trough between the dotcom bust of 2000 and the ascent of social media around 2005, I found Stanford and the surrounding area genuinely open to outsiders, deluged with money but also weird ideas and alternative currents both cultish and corporate. For every dorm-room start-up and back-of-the-napkin business plan, there were people curing diseases, contending with the origins of the universe, advancing clean energy, and pioneering irrigation techniques, not to mention all the eternally overshadowed artistic, humanistic, and social-scientific work being done on and around campus. Palo Alto misses the core of curiosity and experimentation that still exists there, fuel for a less profit-obsessed future Valley. Realizing it, however, may take a tech crash or a new antitrust movement.

But for Harris, who grew up in Palo Alto, this future is exceedingly unlikely. With the Palo Alto System, he names a revealing but rigid through line in the region’s history, connecting early faculty forays into eugenics to Cold War military research to the venture-backed Valley of today, where it’s “progress by victory, defeat, and ruthless elimination, full speed from day one.” Or as the Stanford sports chant has it: “Give ’em the axe, the axe, the axe! … Right in the neck, the neck, the neck!”

Tracing the system’s genealogy through the most virulent figures—such as Stanford’s founding president, David Starr Jordan, and the semiconductor pioneer William Shockley, both eugenicists—Harris captures crucial continuities but forecloses some difficult questions. How did an industry and a region stocked with liberals and leftists become the bleeding edge of capitalism? And isn’t the future of many potentially liberatory or at least neutral technologies still up for grabs, just as people in the ’90s saw the internet as a commons for freedom and experimentation?

The Palo Alto System today encompasses rampant law-breaking, long-term loss-making, and “big exits” (whether IPOs or departures from Earth’s atmosphere), along with dependence on despots and workers employed by a thousand external contractors. But for now most people are still hooked on the hype and glued to their screens. No sooner were Americans bound thumbs-first to Apple, Google, and Facebook than they started succumbing to Uber, Airbnb, and Zoom. Data and control, backed by big money and scaled to the nth degree, keep yielding results that enchant and entrap, and people keep handing over their money and information, minds and moods, lives and societies.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.