A Long, Strange Trip for the ‘Uber for Nurses’Read more

Feb. 17, 2023 10:30 AM PST

Around 70,000 people live in Palo Alto, Calif., but to walk through it with Malcolm Harris is to see a town populated with ghosts. There are the specters of Leland Stanford and his wife Jane (who may or may not have been murdered in a battle for control of Stanford University). There’s the spirit of William Shockley, inventor of the transistor and father of the computer age, who was also a vocal proponent of eugenics. And then there are the forgotten stories of the immigrants, laborers and native tribes who lived there long before the town got its name.

Their influences are the raison d’être for Harris’s latest book, “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World.” The 720-page tome covers the 150 years since Palo Alto was established, chronicling “the gold rush and the next gold rush and the one after that.” As that line might suggest, this isn’t really a book about a place so much as it is a book about a place’s relationship with money. It starts with settlers who came to search for gold (or, more wisely, to sell shovels to the forty-niners) and ends with those who have done more or less the same thing in modern pursuits of capital.

Harris’ central argument is that the history of Palo Alto and the rise of capitalism as a world system are intrinsically entwined. “That allows you to tell a story about this whole period of modernity,” Harris told me on a recent stroll through the city, where he had come to celebrate his book’s release earlier this week. “The object of the story isn’t computers or the tech industry. It’s this place that represents the development of the bourgeois class.”

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