Palo Alto

A History of California, Capitalism, and the World


By Malcolm Harris

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“Welcome and necessary…illuminating and revelatory.” – The New Yorker

The history of Silicon Valley, from railroads to microchips, is an “extraordinary”* story of disruption and destruction, told for the first time in this comprehensive, jaw-dropping narrative. (*Greg Grandin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The End of the Myth)

Palo Alto’s weather is temperate, its people are educated and enterprising, its corporations are spiritually and materially ambitious and demonstrably world-changing. Palo Alto is also a haunted toxic waste dump built on stolen Indian burial grounds, and an integral part of the capitalist world system.

In PALO ALTO, the first comprehensive, global history of Silicon Valley, Malcolm Harris examines how and why Northern California evolved in the particular, consequential way it did, tracing the ideologies, technologies, and policies that have been engineered there over the course of 150 years of Anglo settler colonialism, from IQ tests to the "tragedy of the commons," racial genetics, and "broken windows" theory. The Internet and computers, too. It's a story about how a small American suburb became a powerful engine for economic growth and war, and how it came to lead the world into a surprisingly disastrous 21st century. PALO ALTO is an urgent and visionary history of the way we live now, one that ends with a clear-eyed, radical proposition for how we might begin to change course.


Carleton E. Watkins, El Palo Alto Tree (ca. 1878)
Guy Miller Archives, Palo Alto Historical Association

Section I


Diagram of Palo Alto “kindergarten track,” in Charles Marvin, Training the Trotting Horse (1890)

Chapter 1.1

To Whom Time Is Money

The Uneventful Conquest of Alta California—Gold Rush—West Coast Genocide—The New Almaden Mine—Immigrant Agriculture—Bank of America

To speak of the Ohlone is to speak of the broken link between the Bay Area’s indigenous people and the Bay Area itself. Disease—rather than extermination campaigns, death by labor, or environmental destruction—killed half of the approximately 300,000 Alta California Indians during the Spanish and Mexican periods, beginning in 1769 and 1821 respectively. It’s worth noting that these populations were not uniquely vulnerable to the spread of intercontinental disease in the nineteenth century, which killed millions of people all around the world. I mention this not to soften the cruelty of Spanish colonization but rather to make clear that there was no natural tendency toward the elimination of the California Indians. But when the United States showed up, the rules changed.

Unlike the Armenian genocide or the Nazi Holocaust, the California genocide was a bottom-up, settler-led process. And yet unlike the eastern states, California was a project of a United States federal government. The resulting synthesis of grassroots action and national planning expanded the country at a speed the world had not seen before. California settlers didn’t negotiate. “Government officials apparently preferred to kill California Indians rather than make peace or honor treaties,” writes Benjamin Madley in An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, his blow-by-blow reconstruction of the state’s eliminationist program.1 Historians like Madley are still trying to reconstruct the massacres: Militias guarded water sources and tried to force every Indian onto rancherias, where they were enslaved. Settlers slaughtered the members of indigenous communities by the hundreds, and the federal government as well as the new state of California paid them to do it. There was no single Ohlone tribe; anthropologists used the term to refer to the dozens of small, distinct regional groups that occupied the South Bay when white settlers broke the mutualistic relationship of belonging between humans and the rest of the ecology. As California became California, settlers forced the Ohlone to become the Ohlone.

The adventurer John C. Frémont was a perfect synthesis of U.S. federal authority and U.S. “just some guys.” On the one hand, he was a commissioned officer in the federal army and the son-in-law of Thomas Hart Benton, who had been a senator from the state of Missouri for as long as there had been a state of Missouri; on the other hand, he was a topographer by trade and an adventurer by vocation, accustomed to making decisions far away from and out of communication with his bosses. This was a useful combination for the federal authorities at the time, and in 1845 the expansionist president James K. Polk sent him on a military expedition to survey the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, conveniently located in poorly defended Mexican territory. Frémont got the message, from Polk and from the manifest-destiny-inspired Benton, and he took his handful of soldiers through the mountains to the Pacific. Along the way, Frémont stirred up nationalist sentiment among Anglo settlers in Alta California, implying (but not declaring) that he was there to help them break the territory away from Mexico and deliver it to the United States as their countrymen had recently done with the Lone Star Republic, which he was. Resentful of answering in any fashion to the absentee Mexican government and worried about the legitimacy of their land claims (which varied), the settlers were already primed to revolt.

Frémont’s entrepreneurial insurrectionism paid off, and in the summer of 1846, a few dozen Anglo dudes rode on the pueblo of Sonoma from Napa Valley, bloodlessly seized the ex-Spanish installations, and took Colonel Mariano Vallejo prisoner. Out of a Chilean flour sack and some scraps of flannel the men made a flag, adding a single star alluding to the breakaway republic’s statehood aspirations. Without much else to occupy them, they drew “something that they called a Bear” onto the flag with berry juice and hoisted the banner over the empty Sonoma Barracks.2 Then, with no one to fight, they waited, drank, and assigned themselves titles. Ten days later Frémont arrived, took command, and rode south with 120 or so men looking for Mexicans. The American military gang spent the spring practicing on California Indians, massacring unknown hundreds in repeated acts of wanton brutality. Mexico didn’t present the same opportunity, and Frémont’s troops (now informed that, in fact, Mexico and the United States had been at war since April) occupied the old coastal military infrastructure almost entirely without shooting, which was lucky because they didn’t have much gunpowder left. The number of Frémont’s combined volunteer and uniformed army forces never topped 500, and the U.S. Navy sailed into Los Angeles unopposed. The federal government was prepared to renounce Frémont if things went badly, as they had renounced William Walker when his tiny 1853 invasion of Baja California and Sonora failed. But in more sparsely colonized Alta California everything worked out, and even a court-martial resulting from Frémont’s semi-rogue campaign didn’t stop him from getting elected the state’s first U.S. senator.

The short-lived Bear Flag Republic was now a United States territory, but the title was no long-term guarantee. Greater Mexico proved far too unwieldy for Spanish colonial occupation, and independent Mexico suffered from the same problem. The country not only lost Alta California, New Mexico, and Texas to conquest in the north, it was also fighting a losing war with Maya insurgents in the Yucatán, to the south. California was isolated from the rest of the United States, much farther from the White House than it was from Mexico City. Frémont felt safe massacring unarmed indigenous groups in 1846, but the Anglo settlers were vastly outnumbered, and the tables could turn fast—never mind the European powers and wildcards like Russia and the Chinese. In the West, the United States was out on a limb.

What the United States needed was for a bunch of people to go to California and stay there, anchor the territory, and ready it for statehood. The problem was that there were not a whole lot of reasons for settlers to try it. The sea routes around the Cape of Good Hope or down to British Nicaragua and up the West Coast after an overland trek were long, dangerous, and expensive; the Oregon Trail across the continent was even worse. When they got to the California territory, settlers found unsurpassed natural beauty and unbelievable biodiversity, but the pecuniary prospects—the only thing that could lure them in large numbers—were not all that great at first. There was plenty of land but no one was especially enthusiastic about working it for profit. Indians comprised the vast majority of laborers (as they comprised the vast majority of the population), but their connection to the land always left them an exit if the contracted terms were insufficiently remunerative. Wages tended to be high, which allowed Indians to labor on their own seasonal terms, supplementing traditional subsistence practices with paid work and maintaining independence from white employers. And though some Anglos kept workers under conditions we can uncontroversially describe as involuntary servitude, and some southern Anglo immigrants held on to their black slaves regardless of if not in defiance of the law, Frémont was a Free Soiler and the slave trade was banned in the territory. The United States could not rely on slave dealers to profitably colonize the West Coast the way they had Texas. California had plenty of land, but there was a lot of space between the western states and the Pacific coast and ambitious settlers didn’t have to go all the way out there to get started. For Europeans and Anglo-Americans to want to go settle in California before 1848, they had to be a bit weird.

One of those weirdos was John Sutter. Born Johann, the Swiss merchant ditched his wife, children, and debts in Europe to seek his fortune in the West. His circuitous route indicates just how far Alta California was from Anglo territory: Sutter only arrived in the Bay after traveling through New Mexico, Vancouver, and Hawaii. Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) was the final stop, and he stuck around there, traveling up the river and establishing a fort and farm complex after talking the Mexican governor into a land grant of just under 50,000 acres. Sutter invited American settlers, establishing them as an overseer caste above the Indians who made up the majority of workers on the wheat ranch. He named the complex New Helvetia, and reports describe it as on par with southern plantations in its horrors. Sutter enslaved hundreds of Miwok, Nisenan Maidu, and “missionized” Ohlone Indians during harvest time.3 Although whites were racially outnumbered between 100 to one and 1,000 to one in the region, Sutter relied on brutality as well as racial division to secure his place, importing native workers from Hawaii and South Asia. Still, he suffered from the same problems as the Spanish settlers did: California Indians were on their own land, where they could provide for themselves just fine. For some Indians, white people who didn’t guard their horses well enough became another natural resource.

Anglo settlers denigrated Alta California Indians, and in particular Ohlone communities, as “diggers” who lacked accumulative agriculture practices. Although they did use digging sticks to pry up edible bulbs, Bay Area Indians enjoyed an outstandingly diverse diet based on seasonal community rotation. Nomadic in the sense of not having permanent constructed dwellings, the Ohlone moved in response to abundance rather than scarcity, and individual communities maintained small, consistent territories. Natural cycles of ripening and spawning dictated short periods of intense hunting and collecting labor, followed by longer periods of social luxury. To European settlers who had no idea what was going on, the natives seemed lazy. But California Indian life was exceedingly complicated, rooted in the qualities of many different plants and particular flocks and herds. That map of specificity included one of the densest concentrations of human linguistic and cultural diversity scholars have ever been able to reconstruct anywhere in world history. If California Indian life appeared too easy to Europeans it’s because the former could rely on thousands of years of enduring knowledge about their environment.

The settlers, by contrast—especially socially isolated settlers like Johann Sutter, who was half on the run from creditors—didn’t know anything about where they were. To combat Indian specificity, they wielded the scientific power of white genericity: one day like the next, one bushel of wheat like the next, one bowl of gruel like the next, one worker like the next, and (most important) one gold dollar like the next. Historian Albert L. Hurtado describes the impact of Sutter on the region, in particular the bell he used to summon Indians to work:

Sutter’s bell heralded the arrival of a modern sense of time in the Sacramento Valley… Now, for at least part of their lives, some Indians were wedded to a concept that proclaimed that time was limited and that it had economic value. The clang of Sutter’s bell announced that time was money, that it marched onward, and that it waited for no man, including Indians in the 1840s. Necessarily, the arrival of the modern sense of time coincided with the establishment of market agriculture, which in turn was linked with an international economic network.4

When Sutter couldn’t entice enough workers on the right terms with wages or credit he used force, but harvest was only one season, and it was more efficient to let the majority of workers feed themselves off the land most of the year. There weren’t nearly enough whites (or sufficient demand for year-round wage labor) to institute total rule by the bell. That all changed when Sutter built a sawmill on the American River, a precursor to the city he wanted to build on his land. In 1848, a carpenter he employed named James Marshall brought Sutter some rocks he’d found in a drainage ditch. Marshall was pretty sure it was gold, and try as they might, the two of them couldn’t disprove it. When word got around, Sutter’s workers quit to go looking for nuggets. And when word got to San Francisco, the river was soon awash in what came to be called forty-niners.

The gold strike on the American River wasn’t the first sign that there was precious ore in the region. For example, a Mexican soldier named Andres Castillero acquired a land grant to an ancient cinnabar (mercury ore) mine in the South Bay in 1846, though the grant became difficult to enforce soon after. But nuggets of gold that you could pluck off the ground was a whole different ball game. Gold was money, the universal equivalent, good for buying basically anything anywhere you could buy things, which at the time was more of the world every day. The allure to opportunistic settlers was unmatchable: There was money on the ground. Men (and the settler population was almost all men) dropped what they were doing and headed for the gold fields. Boats stacked up abandoned in the harbor as crews disappeared up the river. Settlers hiked down from the Oregon Territory up north. No boss made as good an offer as California’s waterways did in the early days of the gold rush. Using pans with ridges patterned on Indian baskets, the miners filtered rivers and streams, dragging gold-flecked sediment through their hands. As it turned out, the world center of cultural and biological diversity was also full of generic gold, and whites couldn’t get enough.

The forty-niners destroyed the Alta California Indian lifeworld in a different and much more comprehensive manner than the Spanish and Mexican settlers did. Unlike the ranchers, the surface miners needed little capital for overhead, and they had incentive to spread quickly. With their complex societies Indians lived off the land efficiently, communing abundantly in small territories for countless generations. Gold mining is much the opposite, single-mindedly exhausting territory and moving on to the next as fast as possible, extracting and piling inorganic nonreplenishing nuggets and dust until it seems like it might be easier to get it somewhere else. Instead of cycling with the seasons, mining moved linearly, exponentially, cumulatively. There is no such thing as enough gold. The forty-niners disregarded the Mexican land grants, which the United States promised to respect according to the treaty between the two countries, pushing the descendants of Spanish colonists off the good spots. Claim jumping was par for the course for streambed “placer” miners, and the first jumped claims belonged to the Indians. As violent whites crowded them off their land, California’s indigenous peoples lost the basis for their shared existence; in their place, white men found a basis for their own.

Gold rushers were not really settlers—at least most of them didn’t think of themselves that way. They were there to stack up gold and go back or onward, rich. Even after the state’s inaugural constitution—itself a rogue affair—and California’s quick incorporation as a “free” state to balance Texas in the Compromise of 1850, the men weren’t coming to stay, and their behavior reflected that. Greed and opportunism were an unstable basis for a society, but a war of all against all wasn’t good for business, either. If you spent your time jumping claims, you never got any gold. In the frontier camps, miners formed crude protocols for collective governance. Immortalized in Charles Howard Shinn’s 1885 account, Mining Camps: A Study in American Frontier Government, these temporary associations of free men settled property disputes and kept retaliatory violence between the guys under control. But this was Anglo-Californian self-government, and that hardly described the mass of miners. Gold was nearly universal, and people came in large numbers from anywhere they could: French adventurers, Chinese fortune seekers, experienced miners up from Chile and the northern Mexican region of Sonora. “Difficulties with such foreigners were inevitable,” Shinn writes, “and they only served to weld the Americans into a closer union.”5 Excluding foreigners and Indians from gold claims became a raison d’être for the miner councils and then for the Golden State government itself.

From the beginning, the state of California was a whiteness cartel, defining national belonging in relation to territorial access. In 1850, the state passed the Foreign Miners’ Tax Act, assessing a monthly rent for access to the land, putting everyone else at a comparative disadvantage. It wasn’t a bad deal for, say, French miners, who could (for a fee) secure claims that in former days the Anglos might have simply bullied them off of, but the protections didn’t apply universally. The state’s civil and criminal procedural codes excluded testimony from Indians and black people in cases involving white people. The testimony ban ensured that nonwhites could not protect themselves from white predation—that they had no claim a white man was bound to respect. In 1853, George Hall appealed his conviction for the murder of miner Ling Sing to the California Supreme Court, and the judges ruled for Hall, concurring in a ruling full of bizarre race science that the Chinese were also ineligible to testify against whites because to allow them to do so opened the door to full civic equality.6 The result was that California’s whites were legally permitted to kill nonwhites as long as no other whites complained. Mining-camp governance and the state it birthed didn’t simply quell violence: It stoked it, focused it, and organized it along racial lines.

With the state endorsing white supremacy by statute, American miners turned their attacks on the Indians into a national mission. In the decades following the gold rush, these settlers murdered and plundered on their country’s behalf, organizing themselves into Indian-hunting militias that demanded payment from the state, which in turn demanded reimbursement from the feds. The synthesis between national power and grassroots initiative was similar to the one that drove the Bear Flag Revolt and Frémont’s campaign, now with the additional state layer. The first civilian governor of California, Peter Burnett, explained in his 1851 state of the state address that “the white man, to whom time is money, and who labors hard all day to create the comforts of life, cannot sit up all night to watch his property; and after being robbed a few times, he becomes desperate, and resolves upon a war of extermination.”7 He provided direct support for the genocidal project with an 1855 law that assessed an annual 25-cent tax on all fighting-age white men who didn’t join a militia, a tax the legislature doubled the next year. The big giveaway, however, was federal: The 1855 Bounty Land Act offered 160 acres to any soldier or militia member who fought for two weeks or more. Predictably, California militias embarked on rinky-dink expeditions against unarmed Indians, killing a few at a time and confiscating land. With these land grants, settlers saw a future in California, and they advanced inland and north, driving an increasing number of tribal communities from territory that the militiamen then received in payment. The Bounty Land Act was a prelude to the 1862 Homestead Act, which offered the same 160 acres to settlers who spent five years improving the land, drawing an equivalence with two weeks of Indian killing. And the federal government sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state to pay California’s “war debt,” thanks to the support of Louisiana senator (and future Confederate secretary of state) Judah P. Benjamin. It was a particularly American mode of legalized conquest, plot by plot.

On the stolen land, miners planted wheat, barley, and oats—not as valuable as gold, though similarly generic—but the population wasn’t set up for a plantation economy. To become gentlemen farmers the settlers needed laborers, and there weren’t many around. As a result, even displaced Indians (who comprised the majority of potential wage workers) commanded high pay. The Anglos came to the same conclusion as the Swiss psychopath Johann Sutter did: forced labor, enslavement. While free workers commanded at least a dollar a day, farmers could buy Indian captives from labor contractors for not much more than a month’s wages. While black slaves in the South sold for upwards of $1,000 each, planters could get kidnapped California Indians for under $100 per person. White women were nearly absent from the coast, and white men enslaved Indian women and children for domestic labor, including sex. Militia campaigns drove Indians off their land into Anglo homes and fields. Slavery was illegal, but so was Indian testimony, and in the early 1860s, California slave raiding peaked, which along with technological improvements in mining and wheat agriculture finally drove down the price of Indian wage labor. By 1870, scarcely twenty years since the initial rush, California’s settlers had destroyed 80 percent of the California Indians by one estimate, bringing the population from 150,000 down to 30,000—“quite possibly the most extreme demographic disaster of all time,” in the words of historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.8 Commenting on the public abuse of one young Indian farm laborer who was dragged behind a horse in Mendocino County in 1865, a Sacramento reporter scoffed about the supposed ban on forced labor: “So much for slavery in California.”9

Move Fast and Break Things

As Albert Hurtado notes, California Indians were not alone in being pushed off their land into a harsh new historical epoch in the second half of the nineteenth century. Settler colonialists seized and enclosed agricultural lands around the world, forcing peasant and indigenous communities into capitalist work, whether waged, enslaved, or (most prevalent) somewhere desperate in between. “The age of empire was dead; that of free traders, economists, and calculators had succeeded,” wrote economist Eric Williams of Atlantic plantation slavery’s collapse. Beginning in the 1840s, “the whole world… became a British colony.”10 The London-led imperial core optimized its overseas territories for genericity and export, undermining subsistence systems, and as a result millions of people died of starvation from Ireland to India. Starving the peasants into the factories is the classic narrative of proletarianization, the creation story of the industrial working class. California didn’t have the factories of a Manchester, UK; a Lyon, France; or a Lowell, Massachusetts, but the state took on a factory orientation toward what it did have, which was gold and land. Unlike so much of the world, California did not see capitalist economics evolve step-by-step out of feudal property relations. Capital hit California like a meteor, alien tendrils surging from the crash site.

It didn’t take long for the forty-niners to exhaust the placer mines. In the absence of accumulative economies, gold didn’t have much to offer California Indians—some communities ceremonially destroyed people’s possessions with them when they died because those items were thought to have died spiritually with their specific owners. Much of Ohlone material culture, like the reed huts and canoes they remade every year, was intentionally disposable. By contrast, the gold miners were linked to a burgeoning global financial system, and they fed a bottomless pit of demand as fast as they could. But soon the system of distributed independent miners, with their iron pans, small claims, and murder militias, could no longer pull out gold at the same awe-inspiring rate. It was time for the capitalists to take over. The initial model for California gold mining didn’t have much to do with blowing bedrock; instead, miners used water to wash sediment, letting the exceptionally heavy gold fall to the bottom of their collecting pans. The genius engineers of genericity figured out that, in order to get their yield up, there were two things they could do: more and faster.

First, miners upgraded from the pans to rockers, essentially big narrow pans made out of lumber with a filtered hopper on top to catch large stones. The men set the boxes up on an incline, piled sediment in the hopper, and washed it downhill through the trough with a bucket of water, rocking the hopper frame to get the water washing the rocks and dirt into the filter, then the wooden channel, then over a series of riffles that caught the dense gold. One miner could operate a rocker by himself, and without a constant flow of water. The Long Tom was a step up, a giant rocker 10 or 20 feet long whose operation required several men at a time as well as a constant natural flow of water. California Chinese miners could find secure employment in these jobs if they were willing to forgo the potential upsides of independence, and racist laws made them cheaper to hire than Anglos. From there, investors scaled the model, combining boxes into channels hundreds of feet long and diverting natural waterways into their sluice boxes. A little mercury at the bottom helped collect the tiny bit of gold “flour.” The more efficient the model, the more investment capital was required—for research into claims, for engineers and construction, for expensive field provisions, and for employees. (More capital also meant more mercury flushed into the regional water system.) The frontier community of free white gold miners with nothing but the clothes on their backs disintegrated as specialists such as engineers and managers took over operations on behalf of clean-handed investors.


  • One of THE NEW YORK TIMES’s Most Anticipated Books of 2023
    One of SALON’s Best Books of 2023
    One of BLOOMBERG's Best Books of 2023
    One of THE NEXT BIG IDEA CLUB's Must-Read Books of 2023
    One of VULTURE's, LA TIMES, ESQUIRE, NYLON, ALTA, THE MILLIONS’ and LITERARY HUB's Most Anticipated Books of 2023
  • “Malcolm Harris's singular and brilliant PALO ALTO is a geologic survey of the bedrock of the imperial violence that lies beneath the surface of some of the country's wealthiest ZIP Codes.  The formations it follows stretch outward across the globe, to Asia, Europe, across the Americas and to the rest of the United States.  In the end, the book provides not so much an account of strict cause and effect—the familiar history of the robber barons and tech tycoons—but a core sample of the thorough-going greed and pillage at the heart of American history: the expropriation, the violence, and the guilt that seep upward through the soil of neoliberalism's most fruitful plain.”—Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History and African American Studies at Harvard University and author of The Broken Heart of America
  • "Extraordinary. In lucid, personal, often funny, and always insightful prose, Malcolm Harris finds the driving thrust of reaction not in capitalism’s left-behind regions but in its vanguard: California, and specifically Silicon Valley.  We have not yet felt the full force of the shit storm that the titans of tech have been conjuring. We soon will.  If you want to understand what’s coming, you need to read this book."

    Greg Grandin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The End of Myth
  • “Harris’s earlier book Kids These Days was a broad cultural history of millennials, zeroing in on the unfair economic stereotypes that have dogged the generation. Now, he tells an ambitious story of Silicon Valley, showing how its specific culture and history allowed it to become the site of both breathtaking technological advancement and capitalist exploitation.”—Joumana Khatib, THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • “Engaging and unsettling.”—Bethanne Patrick, LA TIMES, Most Anticipated Books of February 2023
  • "Harris’s writing is astute and clear, accessible but never watered down. Like Silicon Valley, this book promises a lot, but unlike Silicon Valley, Harris is far more likely to deliver with this 'radical proposition for how we might begin to change course' to escape from the wasteland of technological progress."—Isle McElroy, VULTURE
  • “A searching history of California and its role in predatory, extractive capitalism…[Harris] proposes a program of divestiture and restitution, including ‘the forfeit of Stanford’s vast accumulated wealth,’ that is breathtaking in its audacity…highly readable, sharply argued and well researched.”

    KIRKUS REVIEWS, Starred Review
  • “Malcolm Harris traces exactly how Silicon Valley was built – from its origin as a haunted toxic waste dump built on stolen Native burial grounds to the powerful and often disastrous tech engine it is today.”—NYLON, Must Read Books of February 2023
  • “A monumental work of research and imagination, Palo Alto is destined to sit on a high shelf next to other unforgettable works of national history.”—Adrienne Westenfeld, ESQUIRE, Best Books of 2023
  • "From 19th-century railroad barons to the counterculture capitalists of the 1970s, Harris tells a story of wanton hubris and curdled idealism, one that seeks to account for the global rise—in tech, in war, in capitalism—of an otherwise forgettably pleasant suburb of San Jose."—Jonny Diamond, Literary Hub, Most Anticipated Books of 2023
  • “Harris painstakingly connects literature, geography, and economics to understand Palo Alto's history and its relationship to capitalism…Readers interested in U.S. history, particularly pertaining to capitalism and technology, will find an engaging and clear-eyed Silicon Valley tale of a small city with global importance.”—BOOKLIST
  • “Harris’s comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that.Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region’s economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism.”—THE MILLIONS, Most Anticipated Books of 2023
  • “Harris traces over a hundred years of colonialism to explore how this unlikely suburb became the mecca for the digital gold rush. This book's time is definitely now.”—Alison Stine, SALON, Best Books of 2023
  • “With this powerfully written and deftly articulated treatise, Harris has produced a comprehensive look at how Silicon Valley grew into the all-consuming power center it is today.”—ALTA, Most Anticipated Books of 2023
  • “a rollicking 600+ history that runs the gamut from antiwar movements to racial genetics to the Hewlett Packard garage.”—MIT Technology Review
  • "It feels wild to call this 720-page tome 'immensely readable,' but it is! Harris has deeply researched and developed his analysis of 170 years of history, and synthesizes it with skill into prose that's both understandable and a joy to read."—Michelle C., Powell's Books
  • “In Palo Alto, Malcolm Harris gives us a comprehensive deep-dive into the history of the Silicon Valley. From stomping on the Indigenous peoples, to immigration, railroading, the gold rush, and all of the other elements found in the history of Northern California, we learn when, how and why certain people came to power and what they did with that power… This is a long read, but well worth the time and effort. So much to learn on these pages!”—Auntie's Bookstore (Spokane, Washington)
  • "For a book whose concepts include global examples, Palo Alto exhibits mastery of local places...Harris has a planner’s ingenuity for the relationship between place and people, but a broader worldview than most of us. Even local issues have global ramifications, and vice-versa."—Asher Kohn, APA California Northern Section
  • "[Harris] retains a keen eye for the cultural and economic hallmarks and exports of his famous hometown. . . [Palo Alto] feels like the culmination of his upbringing and career. It’s a stunning, Technicolor anvil of a book. . . Palo Alto nonetheless manages to tell a story that is grand in its scope, startling in its specifics, and ingenious in the connections it draws."—Scott W. Stern, THE NEW REPUBLIC
  • Palo Alto is a skeptic’s record, a vital, critical demonstration of Northern California’s two centuries of mixing technology and cruelty for money…Even while attending to larger patterns, [the book] studiously works through the town’s history by focusing on its most famous and influential residents.…conviction and research burn through the page and give coherence and urgency to a daunting subject.”—Federico Perelmulter, THE WASHINGTON POST
  • “Part history book, part indictment of an American idyll fueled by environmental destruction, racism and dubious business practices, Palo Alto is a valuable contribution to the city’s mythology.”—James Tarmy, BLOOMBERG, Best Books of 2023
  • “It’s a sprawling tale, covering juicy stories…Harris handles it all with dizzying detail and charmingly loopy metaphors…Harris describes himself as a communist, and that analysis is peppered through the text, but he has a knack for boiling down complicated dynamics to their blunt basics.”—Sam Dean, LOS ANGELES TIMES
  • “For a guy who loathes capitalism, Harris writes about the subject with vivid depth.”—Chris Vognar, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
  • “Palo Alto lives up to its description, but it’s also so much more—in these whopping 720 pages, you’ll find nothing short of an exhaustive history of American capitalism. Harris deftly charts the long shadow of extraction in northern California…”—Adrienne Westenfeld, ESQUIRE
  • “Provocative, damning…Harris busts the myths about his hometown’s vast history, and how its reputation is nothing more than deceptive."—Yannise Jean, FAST COMPANY
  • "We don’t love civilizational collapse brought on by tech chodes like Elon and Zuck and Jeff and Bill, but Valentine’s Day has to do with love (and capitalism), and Palo Alto comes out on February 14, so it all works out. We’re both swooning and pulling out our wallets.”—Adam Willems, THE STRANGER
  • "...a staggering exploration of the historical forces that shaped the technological mecca of Silicon Valley...Harris is approachable, yet unrelenting. His subjects are as inspiring as they are insidious. The depth of his research unveils plentiful connective tissues between capitalism and exploitation, agriculture and organizing, start-ups and psychedelics, as well as the communists and labor leaders that attempted to subvert the malevolence of the ruling class."—Ryan Baesemann, CLEVELAND REVIEW OF BOOKS
  • "Both the earnestness and the acidity of Harris’s prose can be read as signs of an effortful articulation of the historical reality of what has been called ‘the Californian ideology,’….at once so detailed and so ambitious…Harris’s book offers no end to this tale, only the possibilities for thought and action that spring from its symbolic parricide.”—Ben Beitler, LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
  • “Sweeping…the book’s expansive social history is more about how Palo Alto changed the world than it is about the suburb itself….The beauty of this sprawling book is that, although you can open it anywhere and begin reading, its scope draws connections over a vast period of time.”—Scott Feeney, THE DEMOCRATIC LEFT
  • "Harris avoids a propagandic tone by working from historical points that are objectively true — Palo Alto has become the most consequential suburb in the world, we live in a capitalist world system — and connecting dots throughout history that not only create a picture of California, but also offer persuasive explanations for why California looks the way it does, wields the power it has and espouses the toxic achievement philosophies that have become its trademark and albatross…"—Naomi Elias, KQED Arts
  • "Palo Alto reads at times like a novel by Thomas Pynchon, a psychedelic romp through Silicon Valley office parks and Central Valley union halls, Chinese iPhone factories and Afghan battlefields. The paths can be difficult to follow, but the patient traveler hoping to learn more about any one of California’s many gold rushes will be rewarded."—Benjamin Schneider, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
  • “In these lively pages, Malcolm Harris provides counterweight to that modern mythology, painting a far more detailed and complicated picture of the entire region, and exploring the social and economic inequalities that are often glossed over in other accounts.”—CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, 10 Best Books of February
  • "Harris’ book—written in engaging prose while filling more than 700 pages—represents both an overdue corrective and a compelling counternarrative. Offering nothing less than what its subtitle suggests—a comprehensive origin story of modern capitalism."—Luke Savage, SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE
  • "If you’re looking for a beautifully written, continually surprising, deeply researched book about why so much of life is, on balance, so f**ked up right now, get your hands on [Palo Alto]."—BLACKBIRD SPYPLANE
  • "A useful counter to Silicon Valley’s self-mythologizing, this history of Palo Alto begins in the late nineteenth century, with the state-funded genocide of Alta Indians by settlers and the coming of the railroad, which led, via the fortune of Leland Stanford, to the establishment of Stanford University ('the pseudostate governing Palo Alto'). Harris highlights the city’s connection to the horrors of napalm, Japanese internment, and eugenics, and notes that many of the early tech companies in the area began 'in the space between the military and academia.'"—THE NEW YORKER
  • “Engrossing. Harris has an engaging narrative voice and a marvelous command of language despite his propensity for peppering his work with expletives.”—Leonora Cravotta, THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR
  • “Epic…Palo Alto is crystalizing…not only for a generation of Americans, but for any citizen of the world who wishes to understand their situation in order to change it.”—Adrian Chen, INTERVIEW MAGAZINE
  • “The question driving Malcolm Harris’s inquisition into the flashy hollowness of Silicon Valley—predicated upon exploitation, grotesque inequality, and a total disavowal of the public good—becomes more urgent than ever: ‘How does the Palo Alto System end without taking the rest of the transformed world down with it?’”—David Helps, PROTEAN MAGAZINE
  • “Poignant…Harris compellingly shows that one of the distinctive historical faults of California was the oppression of Asian-Americans….Readers who can withstand, or enjoy, Harris’s ideological bludgeon will learn some things about the region…Harris’s explanations of scientific advances are detailed and punchy.”—Jason Willick, WASHINGTON EXAMINER
  • “[A] welcome and necessary new book…illuminating and revelatory. Triple exclamation points, and skull and crossbones—doodles to which I rarely resort—pepper the margins of my copy…I couldn’t stop reading…By the end of the book, Harris has mounted a largely persuasive and extremely damning argument.”—David Leavitt, THE NEW YORKER
  • “Readers will relish Palo Alto for its scope and precision, for its pugnaciousness, and for its sardonic amazement at an emperor who couldn’t be strolling down the avenue any nakeder. There’s a brute glee is Harris’s version of historical materialism; even the book’s title eschews metaphor and abstraction. Harris has done the hard work, and he has done it in a cause: to urge us awake from our capitalist-technological inertial dream state. The truth may sometimes hurt, but the lies are in bed with collective death.”—Jonathan Lethem, THE NATION
  • “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…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.”—Ross Perlin, THE ATLANTIC
  • "Harris lands his ambitious claims alarmingly convincingly...the chains of connection that Harris traces accumulate gradually into a web of persuasive and often shocking revelation that this wealthy Bay Area enclave really might be the economic, cultural, and moral epicenter of our universe—less a shining city on a hill than a hideous Lovecraftian maw."—Michael Docherty, LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
  • "[Palo Alto] is an urgent and visionary history of the way we live now, one that ends with a clear-eyed, radical proposition for how we might begin to change course."—Annalee Newitz, SCIENCE FRIDAY
  • "[Harris's] ability to make complex, thorny topics highly readable makes him a must-read; [Palo Alto] is a tour de force."—ASK MEN
  • "Palo Alto reads like a big social novel in the tradition of John Dos Passos . . . The picture Harris presents of the valley is more complete than any attempted thus far."—Ben Tarnoff, THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS

On Sale
Feb 14, 2023
Page Count
720 pages

Malcolm Harris

About the Author

Malcolm Harris is a freelance writer and the author of Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials and Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit: History Since the End of History. He was born in Santa Cruz, CA and graduated from the University of Maryland.

Learn more about this author