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Malcolm Harris on Palo Alto, brain optimization, and fighting back against our tech overlords
In the 2000s and 2010s, something worrying kept happening in the supposedly happy and healthy suburb of Palo Alto, California: kids were committing suicide. The deaths forced some to reckon with a dark side to this tech-centered community. But no one seemed willing to do something about it, partially because doing something about it would challenge the very ethos of Silicon Valley capitalism. That’s the environment Malcolm Harris grew up in, and it’s part of what led him to write his bestselling new book Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World.
Malcolm was kind enough to talk with me about the mental health side of techno-capitalism, and what we can do to take back control from the people making the world such a depressing place.
Why did you decide to start the book with the story of these suicides?
Though the book isn’t exactly a personal story, you still write from somewhere, everyone writes from somewhere, and that’s where I was coming from in this book as someone who grew up there. A lot of what I was trying to investigate was this juncture between this happy, successful, healthy, wealthy place and the problem of the children of the community killing themselves. That gap between this promising place and reality was my experience there as a kid and the experience of many people.
Did you feel that ennui or malaise or disconnect growing up there?
It wasn’t even ennui. It was emergency, critical. It was scary. Every time the bell rang in class you assumed another kid was dead. It was really scary. And the community experienced it that way too. At the same time, the community found itself really unable to address the problems, even if it understood them. Immediately after the suicides, people understood that the schools are too high pressure and that it’s hard to be a kid in this place. People were not confused about why this was happening. But when they tried to do something about it they found that they were structurally blocked—that they couldn’t solve what was already a solution. And so everyone basically ended up giving up, and the problem has continued apace, and has in fact nationalized. When I was growing up, Palo Alto had an especially high youth suicide rate. But since then, the rest of the country has more or less caught up to Palo Alto.
Does no one want to point out the obvious—that this way of living, of high-pressure childhood, is partially to blame?
There’s still no official explanation. If you read the CDC report, it’s really interesting. They came in and did a like 200-page report on suicide centered on Palo Alto. And they can’t find the smoking gun. They can’t find the real explanation. So it gets social science-ified into this study of suicide clusters and gets treated as an example of that phenomenon. But that’s now how I remember it at all. It’s only if you play with the data in a certain way that it takes on that structure. And that’s become the most common explanation, but that doesn’t explain why these “suicide clusters” keep happening in Palo Alto, and that it’s pretty constant throughout the years. And I think that’s partially because they can’t structurally address what they understood early as the real causes—which is the environment itself that’s causing these problems. So they had to come up with another explanation.
It’s like the analogy I use—there’s a power plant down the street causing everyone to have cancer, and we’re willing to talk about the cancer but no one will recognize the power plant.
Yeah I think that’s exactly right. The power plant in this case is the haunting of this place—the historical responsibility of this place and the legacies of settlement and colonialism in this place.
Do you think the lessons of Palo Alto are applicable to the rest of the country in terms of our epidemics of suicide and deaths of despair?
Yeah, I think we often think about it in the wrong way. Because for the system that decides whether things are problems or solutions, it’s not human reason, it’s capital—so these things we think of as problems are actually solutions to this system. So part of my task in this book was trying to understand what the children of Palo Alto are a solution to—why do you need people who are made this way? What is the purpose of that? And I think there really is a purpose. It’s a global, historical solution to this problem of how to maintain an unequal world from the 20th into the 21st century. And that’s a very hard historical problem to solve that in many ways has been put on the backs of American children.
It’s interesting that Palo Alto—the place that’s dealt with this suicide epidemic—is also where many of the inventions now blamed for our mental health crisis were made. The internet and social media are always thought of as these kinds of abstract technologies as opposed to specific inventions by specific people from a specific place.
People always see it as a cause and correlation thing like: we have this rise in depression and self-harm among young people. And we have the rise of smartphones. And it’s easy to draw a line between those two things. But there could be a third thing that is causing both of them to happen at the same time, and that’s a disregard for the welfare of people. A structural disregard for the welfare of people could be both making kids depressed and also wasting their time on phone games and social media.
But the suicide wave of Palo Alto isn’t caused by smartphones—it started in the early 2000s. And that’s before smartphones and before the internet was so present in our lives. MySpace wasn’t causing our depression.
So do you think that the blame on social media and the internet for kids’ mental health these days is misplaced?
I don’t think the evidence is very strong to correlate the two. I don’t think spending all day on social media, away from your peers, and encountering the world like that, is going to be positively correlated to good mental health. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of evidence that social media is the cause itself. It would be better to see social media and phones as part of a general social constellation of, like, late capitalist techno-depression.
Yeah I guess that’s my general thinking too—that phones are a symptom of this larger problem of what’s required of us in capitalism today: that we be constantly isolated from each other, that we be constantly manufacturing and selling our own image. It’s not necessarily social media itself, but social media and isolation are required for the functioning of capitalism.
Yeah nothing has to be the cause. Things can be part and parcel. I think it’s funny that people who argue social media is the root generally don’t want to take much action to solve it. Like if you know this is an emergency health hazard affecting children, wouldn’t you want to shut down these companies and ban all social media? So I think that suggests they don’t really believe that it’s the singular, direct cause.
Well, even if you do believe that they are the direct cause, it’s kind of like saying “ban factories” during the industrial revolution. Like you can’t just ban something that is integral to the functioning of capitalism.
Right. For society to exercise control over private firms like that is not in their bag of tricks. It’s not understood as something we can do right now. And I think that fact is more depressing than anything else—not the phones themselves but the fact that we have no control over the phones, over anything in our society. The learned helplessness is what’s so sad.
So then what is the solution to this crisis of techno-depression?
I think we can look to history for them. I talk about in the book how in the 60s, the New Left finds itself in direct conflict with the tech industry on a number of different fronts. Somehow we’ve gotten this story that the left was tech-forward or pro-tech. But in the 60s not only do they argue that it is damaging to culture and making everyone conformist, they also understood its role in geopolitics. And so they were bombing computer centers and stuff. Protesters at Stanford put out this argument for people’s community control of modern technology as part of their occupation of a computer lab at their school. And that gets adopted by the Black Panthers as part of a 10-point program: community control over technology.
That’s what is important: the idea that society can direct technology, that technology doesn’t direct society. We’re not subjugated to some universal progression of transistors. Politically we can seize these systems and operate them according to normative ideas of human wellbeing. And that’s a radical idea, and that these ideas can be determined at the level of communities and not just nationally. That it’s up to us to decide how technology operates.
How do drugs and mental health fit into all of this? Silicon Valley has seemingly always been obsessed with mental betterment and mental productivity. How does their view of the brain fit into all of this?
The question is of optimization, and constantly optimizing what they understood as the best human material. That’s what eugenics was—a form of human optimization. So much of the technology that Silicon Valley has made has been about making “skilled” individuals able to impact the world at a larger and larger scale. If everyone’s got swords, there’s only so much difference one really skilled guy can do. But if you invent bombs, one really skilled guy can win the whole war all by himself. So this was a strategy for the preservation of inequality—to enhance and augment individuals, particularly Americans. When you look at Doug Engelbart, and the first personal computer, it’s coming out of the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford with the specific idea of augmenting human workers and human soldiers.
And you can go back further—Palo Alto and Stanford have always been obsessed with the augmentation of humans with the goal of securing America’s place in the world through the 20th century. Bill Shockley understands that more than anyone. He’s calculating how many more people the atomic bomb will be able to kill than conventional explosives and realizing that we’re getting close to the point that one person can destroy the whole world. And that’s the goal! To build the person who deserves and is able to wield power over the rest of humanity. And when you look at someone like Peter Thiel or Elon Musk, who seems to be really going for that, who seems to be trying to elevate themselves above humanity as a whole, you can see that’s the continued goal of the system. That’s the endpoint of the Palo Alto solution.
Does that kind of thinking infect the way we think about our own mental health? How we see ourselves as constantly optimizable objects?
Totally. And they’re creating the tools and environment in which we’re asked to do that. In the decade following the financial crisis, the only group of workers who saw sustained wage growth were workers with postgraduate degrees. We’ve seen this shifting of the importance for life outcomes to, “how much can you augment yourself?”
So how do drugs fit into that? I mean Silicon Valley is obsessed with using drugs to be more productive, and the CIA has used acid as basically a torture device. So does that mean drugs are bad, or somehow fit into this vision of constant optimization?
I mean where I come down in the book is that acid is fun. And it can be useful. I mean I used acid when writing the book to combine different lines of thinking and approach things from different perspectives. So I think there are uses for it in that way. It can be useful for augmentation, a useful tool—but the question is useful for what? And much of how we think of something like acid comes from the same people who were obsessed with augmentation in the tech world and literally out of the same Augmentation Research Center at Stanford.
Microdosing, for example, is not a recent invention of Silicon Valley, it’s an original invention of it. The guys who came up with it in the first place, they were doing experiments giving computer engineers and architects and other knowledge workers a little bit of LSD, and asking, can we enhance their productivity in this very Cold War way? Can we enhance America through dropping acid? And at the same time doing experiments on prisoners of war and on mental patients, asking if they can use LSD to torture people. I think one of the reasons Palo Alto ends up obsessed with LSD is just because the chemical is so powerful—and in a place obsessed with efficiency and productivity and power, it sees this chemical that can have such dramatic effects at such low doses. I think the only comparable compound in terms of power is botulism. They want to harness the power of it in the same way they want to harness the power of the transistor, or of atomic science: for the American project. So it’s not a coincidence that it ends up in the same milieu of these other things.
So given that all these people control the world and we live in a techno-dystopia, what gives you hope?
Studying history is always going to give you a little despair and a little hope if you do it right. So in writing this book there have been examples of things I found that are horrible and that bode poorly for the future. But for every one of those, I found counter-examples of people fighting back even in the toughest spots. That’s evidence that we’re never going to go away. They can’t get rid of us. So that gives me confidence in a general sense. And in a specific sense, if you look at the past 10 or 15 years, and the change in global politics and in American politics—all the uprisings we’ve seen—that’s part of what inspired me to write this book. It suggests to me that as bad as things are, they’re also deeply unsettled, and in that unsettledness we can exercise agency and reason and thought to change things.
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