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Palo Alto:
A History of California, Capitalism, and the World

by malcolm harris
little, brown and company, 720 pages, $36

The Palo Alto suicides started in 2002, when Malcolm Harris, Palo Alto High School class of 2007 and author of Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, must have been in middle school.

I, a year ahead in the class of 2006, was adjusting to the awkward realities of the freshman PE locker room when the news began to circulate that one of our classmates had, instead of coming to school that morning, stepped in front of the Caltrain line just a block away and ended his life.

Harris vows in the introduction to Palo Alto not to write yet another personal account giving an unsatisfying answer as to why one student after another in our leafy suburban hometown, even then a global epicenter of wealth and academic achievement, chose to die like Anna Karenina in what the CDC calls a “suicide cluster.” He prefers, in the spirit of his hero Karl Marx (no HUAC investigation is required to find evidence of Harris’s communist affiliations) to delineate the great impersonal forces that have shaped Palo Alto’s history.

Nevertheless, he can’t seem to avoid focusing on those gaps in our ranks, and he chooses to frame his seven-hundred-page history, which begins long before the town’s incorporation or indeed the existence of the state of California, by describing the town as haunted. Harris has produced what he imagines is the People’s History of Palo Alto, and the reader cannot escape the feeling that he wants to write it from the perspective of those whom the “Palo Alto System” burned out, especially the dead.

It’s a story worth telling, because—as Harris’s book at its best demonstrates—our current elite is in many ways a metastasization of the California model, which finds one of its purest expressions in Palo Alto. And of both that elite and Palo Alto itself, there are some important criticisms in this book, even if readers would be advised to take the specifics of Harris’s radical history with several tons of salt.

Harris accuses Palo Alto specifically, and capitalism writ large, of a long list of crimes, including most of the crimes that one person can commit against another: robbery, mendacity, fraud, exploitation, even murder. You can sense the author’s glee as he shoots gaping holes in the tech hub’s self-conception as the place of countercultural left-wing hippies with the nerd skills to skyrocket their garage companies to fame and fortune.

Harris’s well-researched but ideologically biased account is littered with names famous inside and outside of Silicon Valley, from Leland Stanford and Herbert Hoover to Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel. Not a single one of these men, in Harris’s telling, advanced to his wealthy position out of an abundance of any talent except greed and special efficiency in the unjust misuse of Labor with a capital L. Even the New York Times calls the book’s history “cherry-picked,” “over-theorized,” and lacking in “complex realities.” I can’t claim any special expertise in the history of Palo Alto, but as the kids who spend too much time on the region’s signature invention say: Press X to Doubt.

When Harris closes in on histories and subjects closer to my knowledge and experience, it’s clear how far from reality his ideological priors can take his tale. Laughably, he imagines Palo Alto to be a major hub of conservatism, and the heavily left-wing town is transmuted into the Reagan-and-Bush brain trust. Anyone at all familiar with the history of the conservative movement in the U.S. since the 1950s would not recognize Harris’s description of the Bay Area as its beating heart. The Heritage Foundation, which really could be described as the Reagan administration’s policy brain trust, and whose dossier of recommendations Reagan gave to each of his cabinet members upon assuming office, goes unmentioned. Instead, the (very fine) Hoover Institution on Stanford’s campus is magnified into a colossus, on the thin evidential basis of its public support of basic free-market policy prescriptions agreed upon by most right-of-center organizations and voters in America.

More historical voodoo is performed to present the city as a deep well of patriotism after September 11, whereas I recall exactly the opposite: Palo Alto was one of only a handful of places deep-blue enough in 2001 to jettison post-attack unity more or less immediately in favor of the usual concerns about Republicans and racism. In Harris’s account, Silicon Valley political dissenters such as Peter Thiel, the Young Americans for Freedom chapter on Stanford’s campus, and right-wing college papers with tiny rosters are transformed from lonely political exceptions into emblems of the region. Nevertheless, Harris makes some uncomfortably accurate observations about how Palo Alto works, as well as what kind of delusions it encourages—many of which have now spread far beyond the borders of the city.

The Times, which can always be counted on to defend the sort of leftism that requires only slightly higher tithes from the elites who buy the $40,000 watches it advertises, dismissed Harris’s notion that Stanford University and the town around it constitute a “human-capital factory.” But this book’s analogy between the “Palo Alto system” and Leland Stanford’s horse-breeding farm has some truth to it. The Palo Alto system entails a conception of talent that is singularly uninspiring, precisely because it requires all talent to be bred, trained, and put through its paces by an academic system that requires not genius so much as careful attention to teacher.

Even the city’s valorization of midcentury artists and radicals is always restrained by the need to move to the next layer of the selective system. There are few Jimi Hendrixes or Jack Kerouacs on the Stanford stock farm—Jimi dropped out of high school, and how would you get your four hours of nightly homework done “on the road”? What the town really produces is not brilliance but self-declared Prometheans who can’t tie their shoes—who get venture-capital millions for a high-growth, no-profit-yet start-up making an AI robot that will tie their shoes for them.

Harris is right that Palo Alto’s denizens, past and present, are too often shallow phonies who appropriate a costume of radicalism and rebellion while sublimating the harder edges of politics into therapeutic navel-gazing. Such narcissism can easily coexist with the trademark Palo Alto system of ruthless academic and commercial competition. Unlike Harris, I do not object to such competition in principle—but in this case, it’s a competition that flattens rather than elevates. Real genius, real out-of-the-box thinking, real conquest: All are anathema in the Palo Alto system. Their radicalism is more like a Levi’s commercial, an aesthetic cover for what really matters in the town.

The book reserves a special disdain for those who deal with their hypocrisy through “existential melodrama” (Harris’s description of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) rather than by effectuating the violent Leninist conclusions of their purportedly radical politics. I received an early lesson on Palo Alto therapeutic ideology in an elective high school film-production class, when every group but my own chose as their topic their own exaggerated personal neuroses.

Meanwhile, my classmates’ parents, a mix of Stanford professors and dot-com programmers, would “consciously uncouple” from their spouses, not for the sake of hedonistic adventure, but for exhaustive spelunking into the abyss of their own psyches—for therapy, self-discovery, and quasi-religious desert treks to take psychedelics that by the nineties had lost even the novelty and danger of Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” After all, no one is dropping out in Palo Alto.

To his credit, Harris sees clearly the shallowness of the personal therapy revolution of the 1960s, which replaced politics with personal growth. It’s questionable whether its many adherents in California and beyond ever achieved any growth, although they, like the author’s much-more-admired Black Panthers, did manage to provide fodder for some of Tom Wolfe’s most enjoyable mockery.

Today, personal growth has given way to personal transformation. Though Palo Alto’s young strivers haven’t given up on cultivating peak psychological fragility and treating it with Freud and antidepressants, they’re now obsessed with achieving what they imagine is human greatness through biohacking transhumanist technology. But the Palo Alto system doesn’t produce Nietzschean giants or world-conquering Caesars; it produces grinders, nerds, and lifehackers so disconnected from the physical that they can’t even do drugs without obsessively measuring the impact on their productivity. The world they want to conquer should be forgiven for disputing the ruling ambitions of boys who fine-tune their brains and bodies with microdosing and endless bizarre vitamin regimens that, intended to stave off mortality, merely leave them thin-armed and sickly looking. They’re the world’s most physically and psychologically fragile Übermenschen. Rome produced legions of hard men bent on glory; Palo Alto produces billionaires who inject themselves with the plasma of their teenage sons and subsist on Soylent Green to keep their hairlines going for another couple years.

Palo Alto breeds radical materialists and techno-lords in equal measure because its human capital assembly line, like the Amazon package facilities excoriated in the book, has hit maximum capacity. The town has maxed out what capitalism can offer, not because capitalism is the great evil Harris proposes, but because, as some famous guy who probably didn’t even invest in Apple in 1997 once said, “man does not live by bread alone.” What religion exists in Palo Alto is quiet and apologetic and doesn’t claim to answer great questions.

Palo Alto’s liberal globalist ethos places little value on character, loyalty, or service to one’s country. Instead, what counts is intelligence—whether identified pseudoscientifically by Stanford in the late nineteenth century or today by means of hollow credentialism—and consequently, the city has a giant sucking sound where its core should be. Stripped of all other ways to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “What’s my purpose?” the children of Palo Alto seek meaning and authenticity in a grueling rat race, Selma envy, radical chic, and sometimes, tragically, on the train tracks. It’s little wonder disaffected children of Palo Alto find escape in Marxism or radicalism of all stripes, and, in retrospect, it’s not difficult to understand why the pampered kids of wealthy computer magnates paraded down University Avenue in the mid-2000s breaking Starbucks windows. The sound of glass shattering must have made them feel alive like nothing else in town.

For those most committed to the Silicon Valley ethos, the dream is to live forever. The idea that anyone might not want to live forever in an endless and demeaning Kafkaesque system of productivity and demerits, being rapped on the knuckles by woke schoolmarms, is incomprehensible, which is why I suspect the Palo Alto suicide clusters will continue to elude the understanding of the various counseling groups set up to try to forestall them. Neither academic achievement, nor billions made off “disruption,” nor—sadly for Harris—the international solidarity of the workers of the world can convince a boy of fifteen not to jump in front of an oncoming Caltrain. The angst in Palo Alto isn’t bequeathed by the alleged crimes of Leland Stanford, but springs up because the closest thing its hyper-distilled neoliberal worldview can offer to transcendence is the dream of merging with circuitry.

Palo Alto is, as Harris insists, haunted—but not by ancient Indian burial grounds or a history of conquest that has been duplicated in every corner of the world. Rather, by its own BS, and by the knowledge that, deep down, these nerdy little kids fear they don’t deserve the power they blithely wield. If Palo Alto is haunted, it is haunted by the idea that high IQs and silicon chips could transcend not only God but the death of God, substituting half-baked, LSD-laced therapeutic journeys for answers to eternal questions about man’s purpose. In Palo Alto, there’s no God and no glory; both Christian and Pagan sources of meaning are shut out. Four-hundred-thousand-dollar salaries and Google virtual reality goggles just aren’t a good enough substitute.

Recent polls suggest that Americans value money more as they value God and family less. If that rule is any guide, then Palo Alto’s ambitious nihilism may be merely the latest Silicon Valley gadget destined to end up in all our pockets.

Inez Stepman is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Image by King of Hearts licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added. 

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