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Malcolm Harris details the legacy of Stanford, Hoover, eugenics in interview

Author of 'Palo Alto: a History of California, Capitalism and the World' talked to Weekly staff at Thursday event

Malcolm Harris, author of the book "Palo Alto: A History of California Capitalism, and the World," joined the Palo Alto Weekly staff on Thursday to talk about the legacy of Leland Stanford and Herbert Hoover, the evolution of capitalism, the history of eugenics at Stanford University and his personal experiences in Palo Alto at a time when the city was addressing a cluster of student suicides.

The new book spans from the early days of California's gold rush to the modern era of artificial intelligence and iPhones. In a conversation over Zoom, Harris talked about how Leland Stanford developed what he called the "Palo Alto System" for breeding and training faster horses and how his methods were later applied to Stanford students and, ultimately, to Silicon Valley's tech industry.

Harris said he didn't originally plan on writing about Herbert Hoover as much as he did, but came to appreciate the huge global influence that the former mining engineer, food czar and U.S. president had.

Hoover helped spread his ideas about labor efficiency global. His influence, he noted, could be seen in the recent federal takeover of Silicon Valley Bank and the government's decision to guarantee all deposits after the bank's collapse. The move, he said, is consistent with the Hoover view of the government's role as a supporter of private, capitalist interests.

"This wasn't supposed to be a book about famous dead presidents. It wasn't supposed to be that kind of history. And then I run into Herbert Hoover, and he's just such a fascinating guy and he played an important role in the 20th century, just a shockingly important role ... and so much of it related to Palo Alto that I found myself writing dozens of pages about this president," he said.

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He also argued that the area's legacy of eugenics, as championed by people like David Starr Jordan and William Shockley, lives on to this day. While Palo Alto recently renamed the two middle schools that were named after Jordan and Lewis Terman, those ideas still persist, he said.

"When you say Palo Alto is dealing with its eugenics past and renaming a couple of schools and you go online and you see tech leadership out there talking about all sort of the same kinds of eugenics ideas that we had from Shockley — those people who are absolutely still convinced about natural hierarchy. And if you get two drinks in them and get them off the record, apparently they have a lot of stuff to say about the order of races that still sounds a lot like they did 100 years ago."

Harris also expanded on his view that the city did not properly respond to the two clusters of student suicides, which occurred when he was a Palo Alto student. This included an effort to limit "zero period" classes and reduce homework. All the students knew these efforts were a joke, he said.

"We knew teachers were trying to get through the same amount of material with the exact amount of time, they'd just given twice as much homework the day before," Harris said. "As a student who experienced the town's response to those suicides, we hear the message loud and clear, those of us who were critical … from my perspective, what I understood from the town's reaction was, there were structural issues here that hometown is not prepared to address."

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Malcolm Harris details the legacy of Stanford, Hoover, eugenics in interview

Author of 'Palo Alto: a History of California, Capitalism and the World' talked to Weekly staff at Thursday event

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Mar 17, 2023, 9:55 am

Malcolm Harris, author of the book "Palo Alto: A History of California Capitalism, and the World," joined the Palo Alto Weekly staff on Thursday to talk about the legacy of Leland Stanford and Herbert Hoover, the evolution of capitalism, the history of eugenics at Stanford University and his personal experiences in Palo Alto at a time when the city was addressing a cluster of student suicides.

The new book spans from the early days of California's gold rush to the modern era of artificial intelligence and iPhones. In a conversation over Zoom, Harris talked about how Leland Stanford developed what he called the "Palo Alto System" for breeding and training faster horses and how his methods were later applied to Stanford students and, ultimately, to Silicon Valley's tech industry.

Harris said he didn't originally plan on writing about Herbert Hoover as much as he did, but came to appreciate the huge global influence that the former mining engineer, food czar and U.S. president had.

Hoover helped spread his ideas about labor efficiency global. His influence, he noted, could be seen in the recent federal takeover of Silicon Valley Bank and the government's decision to guarantee all deposits after the bank's collapse. The move, he said, is consistent with the Hoover view of the government's role as a supporter of private, capitalist interests.

"This wasn't supposed to be a book about famous dead presidents. It wasn't supposed to be that kind of history. And then I run into Herbert Hoover, and he's just such a fascinating guy and he played an important role in the 20th century, just a shockingly important role ... and so much of it related to Palo Alto that I found myself writing dozens of pages about this president," he said.

He also argued that the area's legacy of eugenics, as championed by people like David Starr Jordan and William Shockley, lives on to this day. While Palo Alto recently renamed the two middle schools that were named after Jordan and Lewis Terman, those ideas still persist, he said.

"When you say Palo Alto is dealing with its eugenics past and renaming a couple of schools and you go online and you see tech leadership out there talking about all sort of the same kinds of eugenics ideas that we had from Shockley — those people who are absolutely still convinced about natural hierarchy. And if you get two drinks in them and get them off the record, apparently they have a lot of stuff to say about the order of races that still sounds a lot like they did 100 years ago."

Harris also expanded on his view that the city did not properly respond to the two clusters of student suicides, which occurred when he was a Palo Alto student. This included an effort to limit "zero period" classes and reduce homework. All the students knew these efforts were a joke, he said.

"We knew teachers were trying to get through the same amount of material with the exact amount of time, they'd just given twice as much homework the day before," Harris said. "As a student who experienced the town's response to those suicides, we hear the message loud and clear, those of us who were critical … from my perspective, what I understood from the town's reaction was, there were structural issues here that hometown is not prepared to address."

Comments

Wyn
Registered user
Atherton
on Mar 17, 2023 at 1:48 pm
Wyn, Atherton
Registered user
on Mar 17, 2023 at 1:48 pm

Hoover believed private capital should take care of itself. It was FDR who supported the banks, launched the FDIC, etc. Homework was not among the more fundamental causes of the suicides, though parents and sometimes students themselves cited the excessive homework.


Wyn
Registered user
Atherton
on Mar 17, 2023 at 2:09 pm
Wyn, Atherton
Registered user
on Mar 17, 2023 at 2:09 pm

Of course Hoover made some gestures toward helping the banks but though his attempts were sincere they fell short of what was needed. FDR went much further.


Wyn
Registered user
Atherton
on Mar 17, 2023 at 2:23 pm
Wyn, Atherton
Registered user
on Mar 17, 2023 at 2:23 pm

Regarding Palo Alto in general: Like the digital age itself, the positives far outweigh the negatives, which leaves Harris’ book more partisan than informative. Yet the negatives certainly exist. For the digital age: Those born during the age don’t realize what we’ve lost—not everything needs to be digitalized, creating all the hoops and booby traps for online ticket buyers (just print the tickets), long kiosk lines at events in lieu of fast cash transactions, and vastly more important, the damage social media is doing to lives and democracy itself.


What Will They Do Next
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2023 at 3:35 pm
What Will They Do Next, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Mar 17, 2023 at 3:35 pm

"When you say Palo Alto is dealing with its eugenics past and renaming a couple of schools and you go online and you see tech leadership out there talking about all sort of the same kinds of eugenics ideas that we had from Shockley — those people who are absolutely still convinced about natural hierarchy. And if you get two drinks in them and get them off the record, apparently they have a lot of stuff to say about the order of races that still sounds a lot like they did 100 years ago."

Really? Who? Inquiring minds want to know. And why wasn't he asked?


cheese guy
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Mar 18, 2023 at 7:54 am
cheese guy, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Mar 18, 2023 at 7:54 am

I suggest that people read the review of this book published in the New York Times Book Review (2/14/23). The rather scathing review, written by well known local writer Gary Kamiya, ends with the following line ( in reference to the author) "the intellectual product he rolls out is more like Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos than Apple’s iPhone."


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 18, 2023 at 8:38 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Mar 18, 2023 at 8:38 pm

Self-loathing is the worst.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 19, 2023 at 1:02 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Mar 19, 2023 at 1:02 am

@Wyn there in b the most lowest form of a win or loss system of belief. Whether he (Harris) b calling the kettle black, ma and pa . It’s blackened near non repair. Let me say it again, and again. Run a muck capitalism at the cost of a human life is not a democratic value. It’s slavery at its bassist degree. Back to the future 2 Centuries ago. We trade low wage workers every day every minute on the open market. What has resulted ? Tens of thousands of humans on our streets fighting the grain of gain to remain a part and equal to the wealth force subjecting a personal stock holdings. Just because slavery ended does not equate the end to labor & very low wage ownership. The scale just shifted from human ownership to human wage ownership . Now that data algorithms and robotics are replacing the human &’“missing” bottom does not excuse. Eugenics v robotics — what’s the difference? A: Human existence to jobs and productivity. Seriously: put 172,ooo robots out on the streets of California. See how far the machine withstands a lite sprinkle without a mechanism in place for repair. Human blasphemy!


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 19, 2023 at 1:13 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Mar 19, 2023 at 1:13 am

Let’s get MTV to reboot the “The Real World” as an post techno apocalyptic world where Stanford grads are rooming w robots and social media data driven algorithms. Who’s doing the dirty stacked up dishes? Swishing out the toilet? The lowly desperate SU students trying keep a Palo Alto roof over their head. Hello the new romance:?I have a vaulted ceiling (heat trap) home, do u?? While the robot arms & redirects to uploads, downloads, updates, out of date spyware firewalls...”Warning Will Robinson” have yet to see it all falling down.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 19, 2023 at 1:50 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Mar 19, 2023 at 1:50 am

@CheesyGuy Like the abolishment of zero period, robotics might be best served as a “zero period”, and reduced to an elective course 4 PAUSD students. Enhance the objective of human existence and not as a value of higher non human replicant replacement. After all, there are required community service hours. Yet, how does such requirement equate for a teen in these times? When in fact the teen feels shell shocked at our Calif state’s ineptitude to home misery and grieved humans. Ill prepared youth are at an utter loss of how to help in as many hours as tge algorithm irrationally, solves in nano seconds. The suspension of different s belief is brief in flux. There it will remain until the adults in the room GIT. In the meantime, Palo Alto has no skateboard shop, or a camera shop or a decent second hand shop or really any place a 15/16/17 year old teen can blow off teen steam in a positive , adult directional way. They spend 6/7 hours at a public school campus keeping up w their desk partner, while patents / guardians at home and work tell tales of grandiose success’. I feel very sad for our youth in this PA environment. What a waste of a great, evolving power of resource. Grand shame. PS Robotic are more highly regarded than a human life. And we are perplexed why our state can’t solve the “homeless” crisis. In WWll few Americans accepted the truth about Europe’s “death” camps until we “won” then saw from ground trooping, the result of our lack of an earlier
Cry for intervention ! So @CheesyGuy. How to connect the dire unhoused need to capitulate greed and make better? Action yes speak louder than dollars, intervention louder than words. Help or 911 are nebulous and just an echo chamber of nothing.


Wyn
Registered user
Atherton
15 hours ago
Wyn, Atherton
Registered user
15 hours ago

Hard to unravel these rants, but yes wealth disparity is a major problem, though it’s roots go way beyond Silicon Valley (the innovations of which outweigh its role in the ill effects), while climate, the nuclear threat (especially false alarms and its potential for terrorism), the threat of AI (which extends far beyond unemployment), and political polarization (disparity of wealth figuring largely in the latter) loom far larger. With every advance come negative effects. The effects subside and the advances remain. Yet, yes, we may have reached a point where history no longer applies.


Wyn
Registered user
Atherton
15 hours ago
Wyn, Atherton
Registered user
15 hours ago

I should be clear that the problems listed by “native to the bay” are real, though individual CEOs rather than “Palo Alto” as such are the current culprits.


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