I meet Malcolm Harris, voice of millennials and anti-capitalist crusader, in a Brooklyn coffee shop, pitched by his publicist for a book-tour interview. Goes for a guava croissant with the $3.75 drip. He hints that this is not an acceptance of a micro-luxury of the bourgeoisie, but an ironic jab at the Condé Nast media moguls who pick up the tab.
Harris, a 34-year-old, is causing quite a stir with his book, Palo Alto. He knows the city and the tech industry at its heart well. He grew up there, studied there and even studied journalism at Palo Alto High School under Esther Wojcicki, mother of (recently retired) YouTube CEO Susan and former mother-in-law of Sergey Brin. His father, an antitrust lawyer, took on Microsoft in a major trademark case in the middle of the decade. But as a writer, Harris doesn’t want to forge a first draft of the story but to use the research to advance his pre-existing point. “It’s not a journalistic work,” he says of his book. “It’s a Marxist story.”
Whatever you call it, Palo Alto is epic—a relentless 700-page indictment of capitalism, California, and the city 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 see Harris’ book as a companion piece to another tech-dismissal piece by Shoshana Zuboff The age of surveillance capitalism. But Harris thinks Zuboff’s book overemphasized the surveillance part and went too easy on capitalism. “It’s not really about global political economy,” he says.
Harris’s book gets there, in spades. In his extended, colloquial narrative, the story is not a sloppy development, but a sordid plot that serves capitalism to steal people’s work and dignity. His touchstone is Leland Stanford’s system of breeding racehorses, which combined genetics with a new emphasis on getting horses to run faster at a younger age than usual. (Kind of like Move Fast and Take Things.) Harris applies this “Palo Alto System” as a metaphor, characterizing everything from venture capital to Tiger Woods’ training methods as the inhumane offspring of Stanford’s original sin. Of course, one could argue that, having been nurtured in the city’s renowned school system and its tech community, Harris—a skilled writer and an effective marketer—is himself a product of the Palo Alto system.
Harris has no problem finding more villains than a thousand Marvel verses. There is of course Stanford 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-intentioned leftists like congressman/activist Allard Lowenstein for working too deep in the system. (Harris despises the Grateful Dead wing of the protest movement; he’s the guy at the SDS meeting who screams at the rocks in the back of the room.) More recent cheaters include famous Silicon Valley founders. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are smelly “crunchies,” he says, but “more importantly as personifications of impersonal social forces.”
However, Harris has a genuine super-villain in William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Shockley, father of the transistor, Stanford professor, and founder of a Silicon Valley semiconductor company, was a racist bully fully deserving of Harris’s one-word summary: jerk.