Skip to main content

Eugenics, Environmental Ruin, and Surveillance: The Story of Silicon Valley

California’s tech industry cannot escape its original sins.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1862),Emanuel Leutze

In the opening pages of his magisterial Bay Area history, Imperial San Francisco, historian Gray Brechin presents his book as an attempt “to answer the question raised by the kind of cities we build today: Are they worth it?” It’s a deceptively simple question, and it reemerges when we discuss San Francisco and its discontents.

From the city’s earliest days, visionaries looked at San Francisco and saw an heir to Rome. Brechin points to Army scout John C. Frémont, who said he named the bay’s mouth “Chrysopylae (Golden gate) on “the same principle that the harbor of Byzantium (Constantinople afterwards) was called Chrysoceras (Golden horn).”

Brechin also discusses Emanuel Leutze, who painted a mural on a wall in the House wing of the Capitol called Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, which depicts settlers seeing California for the first time. “To Leutze’s cultivated sensibility, these were more than settlers entering California,” Brechin writes, “they were both the Israelites entering Canaan and the holy family of the New World.” Brechin describes a party attended by Leutze where the painter concedes that the mural’s historical references might be lost on some and that its Catholic symbols could offend others, but he contends all the attendees grasped his intention.

“All could understand the divine justification for empire’s expansion,” Brenchin writes. “As if to emphasize that this was a literal shrine to the religion of territorial conquest, the artist included a long panel at the bottom of the mural resembling the predella of a Renaissance altarpiece.” Rifles, axes, plows, powder horns, Native American trophies, crossed shovels, pickaxes, revolvers, and gold littered the mural as well. “No pent up Utica contracts our Powers, but the whole boundless Continent is ours,” reads the inscription by the mural’s weapons.

In Imperial San Francisco, the land outside of America’s Rome is reframed as a contado—an Italian word (and another nod to Rome) for a land that “contains other cities and villages that owe tribute to the dominant city.” To Brechin, imperial cities, like San Francisco or the District of Columbia, command contadi that stretch much further; they demand tribute from nations, continents, or even the entire planet. “The difference is one of size as well as consequence,” Brechin writes, “just as the mighty Maelstrom differs from a mere eddy.”

The book does not call on us to abandon cities. It does not wave away the pleasures and benefits of living close to others, but it refuses to pretend that the costs are small matters. We must grapple with the history of urbanization, especially when we are tracing forces that exterminated natives, reshaped the land and waters, drove people together, and then repeated that process for lands further and further away.

Brechin invokes Lewis Mumford’s “Pyramid of Mining,” a concept that imagines a “megamachine” consisting of a city’s core activities, that subordinate nature and consolidate elite control. Mumford argued that we suffered authoritarian forms of technology in part because of warfare and mining. Organized warfare demanded an inexhaustible supply of metals for weapons, and mines demanded certain types of technologies and activities to sustain them, and so hierarchies and social organizations emerged to preserve these efforts.

In Mumford’s megamachine and in Brechin’s case study of San Francisco, mining was at the foundation of everything. Mines were the source of minerals and metals needed to build and rule the city and its hinterlands. Mines brought workers to the city and the nearby pits. Mines provided the wealth to fund cities and sustain them. Mines shaped the development of technologies, giving operations more power to spoil the land in pursuit of greater bounties.

The bounties of farmlands and the underworld mines grew and grew. The sciences that developed both helped those industries metastasize larger swaths of the land. A few individuals generated dynastic fortunes that helped build newspaper empires, propaganda campaigns, monuments and memorials, all aimed at inspiring and sustaining the waves of bodies feeding into the megamachine. More fortunes still were used to fund efforts to develop the knowledge, tools, and techniques to better dominate nature. Universities, laboratories, and corporations innovated tools of remote control to administer California’s depleted ecology and corral the populace. These forces shaped San Francisco’s development, and they never completely vanished.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

The problem is that San Francisco’s contado is now the world—there are always more mines, more bodies, more forests, and more wealth to be extracted; and there will always be a need for tools and techniques to subordinate everything outside the city for some Great Work.

For all its ambition and insight, Brechin’s case study is limited. It begins in the late 1800s as mining operations render the California countryside unrecognizable and ends in the 1950s, reflecting on the region’s scientific contribution to the creation of atomic weaponry. San Francisco has roots and tendrils that escape these bounds—specifically to Silicon Valley.

It is Malcolm Harris’s equally magisterial Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World that drives Brechin’s inquiry to its logical conclusion. Harris’s text stretches further back to the scouting, conquest, and colonization of the region and then stretches even further forward to the present as it sits atop a worldwide megamachine that has, as the subtitle suggests, shaped California, capitalism, and the world itself.

Silicon Valley may not have been born with the same imperial ambitions of San Francisco, but eugenic forms of it were present from the beginning. Harris teases that Silicon Valley’s first tech giant was a horse-stock farm developed by Leland Stanford. Here the visionary capitalist innovated the “Palo Alto System,” which combined “capitalist rationality and the exclusive focus on potential and speculative value.” Applied to horses, it would breed champion horses at record pace (never mind the busted limbs and corpses). Applied to humans, it would generate inordinate wealth (and consume everyone and everything it could in pursuit).

The horse-breeding system and its eugenic taint were soon exported to everything Stanford and his cohort touched. At Stanford University, which bears Leland’s name, professors of bionomics (the study of how biological beings respond to artificial environments) worked on the theory, and eugenicists like Ellwood Patterson Cubberly worked on the practice. “Assimilation, he believed,” Harris writes of Cubberly, “is best performed by the schools, which must prepare foreign-born to blend into the American race.” Thus came intelligence quotient (Stanford-Binet) tests promulgating the myth of “unitary general intelligence” along with tests straight from the horse-breeding system testing how fast children could run.

“Budding geniuses needed to be identified and elevated, while young degenerates needed to be corralled where they couldn’t dilute the national race or turn their underachievement into social problems,” Harris writes. “Stanford made large contributions to both strategies, promoting inequality as the only policy compatible with nature.”

Bionomics and eugenics faded but did not disappear. Breeding experiments and racist school policies became US apartheid and racist social policy. As Kim-Mai Cutler reported for TechCrunch, just east of Palo Alto’s Edenic paradise lies a stretch of land painted both as “a haven of affordability” for poor Black and brown people and “a stubbornly intractable core of poverty and violence amid Silicon Valley’s glittering wealth.” Years of segregation funneled non-whites into the neighborhood, while a nearby facility processing chemicals from semiconductor and hardware production poisoned the water and air. Superfund sites litter Santa Clara County—home to Palo Alto and East Palo Alto—and most are concentrated in predominantly Black and brown communities like Sunnyvale. The Palo Alto System pays them little mind as capital sloshes around them trying to find the greatest return at the lowest cost—or perhaps, the least noticeable cost.

There’s a dark side to nearly every tech venture. Amazon giveth same-day delivery; Amazon taketh the physical and mental health of workers hidden away in its sprawling logistics empire. Apple divines that we need $3,500 goggles, and overlooks the sacrifice zones around the mines for precious metals powering its products and the suicides at factories assembling them. Microsoft agrees to labor neutrality against efforts to unionize its various subsidiaries, and joins the other tech giants in becoming a military contractor while helping police departments across the world find sleeker tools to terrorize their communities. Google/Alphabet promises to revitalize its ailing search engine operations with generative AI, while pursuing military cloud-computing contracts. Facebook/Meta may flail around legless in a $100 billion metaverse prison while its social media platforms stumble along, but just out of view lie an army of exploited and tortured content moderators beside an ever-growing pile of corpses from the mob violenceethnic cleansing, and genocide its products incite.

As Silicon Valley metamorphosed from stolen land to a pioneer backwater to an imagined new Rome, as mines and oil wells puncturing the earth were connected by railroads, as the Stanford colony evolved into the American empire’s armament and laboratory during the Cold War, as one tech startup bubble deflated then gave way to an even hardier one, the Palo Alto System keeps living on like a hydra sprouting newer, hungrier heads from decapitated stumps.

Brechin’s polemic history was published back in 1999, but he updated it with an even bleaker preface in 2007 in which he doubted the possibility of resisting urban imperialism. Targets for the historian’s contempt included Thomas Friedman’s columns, interviews, and bestseller The Lexus and the Olive Tree that insisted that American empire could bring peace and wealth through awesome technology and unfettered trade; the decision by California universities to run Los Alamos Laboratories to “more like a business whose product is nuclear weapons”; and an obsequious media that all but chanted Friedman’s mantra “Give war a chance” and cultivated the profit-seeking and bloodlust necessary to deploy the US war machine in Iraq and Afghanistan. Friedman had invoked the line told to Tacitus by a chieftain crushed by the Romans—“They make a desolation and call it peace”—but Brechin doubted that he understood it:

Friedman had mangled his quip, for the taxpayer-financed fist that, he asserted, kept the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology was as much that technology itself as the military that used it. But even that parsing missed the mark, for safety proved elusive for all concerned. Full-spectrum dominance—whether expressed in Friedman’s sound bites or in the Department of Defense’s Joint Vision 2020—was sure to provoke resistance from those meant to submit to such wonders of remote control, as well as from the wounded earth itself.

In between Brechin and Harris’s histories, did anything change? Sam Harnett’s 2020 literature review of tech journalism covering the gig economy offered a clear answer: no. Sycophantic coverage continued as non-labor reporters and commentators passed off Silicon Valley PR copy as journalism and helped will into existence an untenable business model that sought to undermine labor laws worldwide, re-legalize piece work, codify a new racial wage code, and proliferate workplace structures mediated by algorithmic overseers. The greed and bloodlust remained. Countless firms pushed this regulatory arbitrage scheme, and countless public officials cashed in (namely, those from the Obama administration) while the system subjected workers to povertywage theftmurder, and health problems. A religious fervor took hold—this time thanks to the ecstasy of innovation and digital disruption promised by Silicon Valley.

Not a single major firm in the so-called gig economy has reported a profit despite hundreds of billions of dollars’ having been poured into the industry. App-based ride-hail has helped degrade the quality of urban life, contributing to increases in pollution and traffic. The champions of the gig economy are fighting to self-exempt themselves from US labor law while pursuing partnerships with US cities to cobble together a regulatory template for the coming years. As the corporations of the gig economy consume industry after industry, pushing larger swaths of the population into undignified working conditions and starvation wages, the question reemerges: Are they worth it? 

Copyright c 2023 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.

Edward Ongweso Jr. is a Brooklyn-based writer who focuses on technology, finance, and labor. He is a former staff writer at Motherboard, Vice‘s tech desk. He cohosts the This Machine Kills podcast on the political economy of technology.

The Nation Founded by abolitionists in 1865, The Nation has chronicled the breadth and depth of political and cultural life, from the debut of the telegraph to the rise of Twitter, serving as a critical, independent, and progressive voice in American journalism.

Please support  progressive journalism. Get a digital subscription to The Nation for just $24.95!