From apricots to Apple: Keith Spencer on the "People's History of Silicon Valley"

Salon editor Keith Spencer on his ambitious account of the myth, history and real-world effects of tech's homeland

Published January 20, 2019 2:00PM (EST)

"A People's History of Silicon Valley" by Keith A. Spencer (Getty/zimmytws/Eyewear Publishing)
"A People's History of Silicon Valley" by Keith A. Spencer (Getty/zimmytws/Eyewear Publishing)

Just to be transparent right at the top, this interview with Keith A. Spencer, author of “A People’s History of Silicon Valley,” is a total inside job. Keith is the West Coast cover editor for Salon, and also manages our coverage of technology, science and health. We work on different coasts and I interact with him more as a colleague than a subordinate. But in keeping with the economic myth-busting of Keith’s book, let’s not avoid the facts: I’m his boss.

My reasons for wanting to interview Keith on Salon Talks during his New York visit a few weeks back, however, were just as much personal as professional. “A People’s History of Silicon Valley” is an important intervention, as radical academics say, in the mythic tale of a place that is barely a place and an industry that presented itself as pointing the way toward humanity’s future but has largely replicated and reinforced the inequalities and injustices of the past.

I was born in Northern California and can remember much of the change Keith writes about, even if I wasn’t exactly conscious of it at the time. When I was a child the verdant fields of the Santa Clara Valley were still full of fruit and nut orchards and widely dispersed small towns. Apricots have long since given way to Apple, and “Silicon Valley” is not so much a location on a map as a metaphor or an idea. It has spawned any number of clones and copies in regions around the world, and serves as the symbolic headquarters for the “information economy” that both connects and commodifies a large majority of the human population on this planet.

Keith himself grew up in Arizona, but comes from six generations of Californians, which is an extraordinary heritage for a white American with European roots. As he described in our conversation, much of the motivation for writing “A People’s History of Silicon Valley” was rooted in his own interest in science and technology, and the ways they interact with other spheres of life. But it was also sparked by his own family’s history, which included a micro-level example of the way Silicon Valley has displaced, damaged and destroyed the lives of real people.

I’ve edited our conversation to make the exchanges and ideas a bit clearer, but I’ve tried to avoid removing anything important. It’s a long read, but worth it -- and you can watch our full conversation on the embedded video.

Keith, let's talk first of all about the title and then about how you set out to write this book. There are a lot of books that use that convention: "A People’s history of XYZ." You make clear that you are invoking the tradition of the late, great historian Howard Zinn, who may not have invented that phrase, but certainly made it go big. Talk about your relationship that to that tradition and history.

Yeah. So there is this kind of tradition of the “People's History” book, like “A People's History of the United States,” the one that started it. There's the people’s history of the world, of ancient Greece, of London, of the French Revolution, and so on.

I wanted to write a book that was in that tradition, telling the story of a place like Silicon Valley but from the perspective of the workers that made it and the people who are involved in creating products, but aren't seen because of the way the industry sort of glorifies the people at the top. And also the story of the people who were displaced in the process of Silicon Valley being created, which includes a lot of my own family.

I think the challenge was that Silicon Valley isn't just a place. It’s also just the idea of the tech industry at large. I had to write this kind of dual history where I was -- in the beginning it's more geographic. It's about what was happening in Northern California at this particular time and also later, especially as the Internet developed.

And then the tech industry became -- I mean, its tendrils sort of wrap the whole planet. A lot of the book is about how the gadgets and the things that the tech industry does affect the world at large, and how for people in far-flung corners of the planet It can change or destroy their lives.

You talk about certain things we’ve heard about, like the Foxconn factories in China where many Apple products are made, where the working conditions are very intense and perhaps abusive.  somethings that we've heard a fair amount about like Foxconn and its factories in China with the intense working conditions, very hostile working conditions at times. But you also talk about the -- is it the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Yes, the DRC where the metals are mined from which semiconductors and other microchip technologies are actually made.

For anyone who has a connection to Northern California, which is where I was born, this book will have a remarkable resonance. It’s partly a history of that place and the ways that place has both been changed and has changed the world. Talk a little bit about how you approached that part of the story.

Well, you can track different phases of how Silicon Valley grew over the years. In the beginning, the Santa Clara Valley, as it was called then, was a place where there was a lot of semiconductor production. The defense industry was really interested in integrated circuits because they could put them on ICBMs, essentially to drop nukes on the Soviet Union. So it had all these sort of defense connections at the beginning, and then later it went through the pre-web phase, when we think of Microsoft and IBM and Apple and other companies like those.

But there's this interesting undercurrent that goes through all of it. Silicon Valley has always been a place that sells itself as creating the future. The thing about Western civilization is that we think of technology and progress is synonymous. So because of the name of the tech industry, because of what it's called, it has benefited from the idea that it’s sort of synonymous with progress, even when maybe the things that the corporations within Silicon Valley are doing are not progressive at all, or maybe even regressive in terms of how they're chipping away at democracy or democratic institutions. Or are pushing this subtle elitist rhetoric.

I really wanted to get at the root of that and expose the rhetorical ways that Silicon Valley sells itself as visionary. That rhetoric has always been sort of an illusion, there's not really anything different about it. I mean, the car industry or the snack food industry, are not really fundamentally different than the tech industry. Their goal is to make money and they'll do whatever they can in the process.

This is partly a book about an area of capitalist development, and also about the myth that particular industry was able to create around itself, to make itself seem like it was somehow apart from normal capitalist development.

Right. Yeah. One of the side effects of the Cold War was that a lot of people came to believe, especially after the Cold War ended, that there was no alternative to the liberal capitalist democracies that we have. That was the best we could do, there was no other way we could organize society. The side effect of that propaganda was that a lot of young people nowadays and over the last 20 years have looked at the world and they're like, “Well, this is the best we can do. How am I going to change the world?” They see Silicon Valley and they're like, “Oh, technology's gonna change the world. This is a great utopian place.”

Because we have no political hope besides the current situation, they find hope in the business-speak and techno-speak of Silicon Valley. I've met a lot of people in the industry who will be like, “Yeah, I studied business and I studied tech because I want to change the world.” It's so interesting, because I would study politics or art if I wanted to change the world.

Nobody epitomized that better or capitalized on it more effectively than the late Steve Jobs, right? I would agree with the consensus that he was brilliant, but his true brilliance was in marketing himself and his company.

Yeah, he was a brilliant marketer. I don't know how well he understood these things, it's always hard to tell in retrospect. He created an image of himself as a brand, with the turtlenecks and the way that he moved on stage. His strange manner of speaking, it all created this idea of him being a visionary. But if you go back and you look at what his life was, he really ran over so many people to get to where he got. He was probably a sociopath to some degree.

Tell us a little bit about what drove you to this project personally, because that's an interesting and important part of the story. Your family history and personal history brought you to this book.

Right. I had a lot of scientists in my family and a lot of Bay Area history in my family. I wasn't born there, but my dad and everyone on my dad's side was, going back six generations or so.

Your ancestors were actually among the group of white people who came across North America by covered wagon.

Yeah. My great-great-grandmother came by covered wagon from Iowa to Oregon. Then from Oregon, she took a wagon down to California. This would have been roughly the 1870s or something like that. It was a long time ago. They had a lot of orchards and such. A lot of my family's history was agricultural. There were apricot, plum and walnut orchards.

A huge part of the economy in the Santa Clara Valley. As recently as my childhood in the ‘70s, there were still lots of fruit and nut orchards in that area.

I don't have any family that lives there anymore because everybody's been gentrified out or evicted over the years. Actually, my grandfather was born in Mountain View and lived in the Bay Area for his whole life with the exception of when he was off fighting World War II. He got evicted at age 90 from his place in Menlo Park. He and his partner thought they would try to move to Chico, in the Central Valley, because it was affordable. But the stress of living in a place where he never really been and didn't know anything -- he lost his memory and dementia got worse. His quality of life got really bad. So the gentrification of Silicon Valley really impacted his life.

I've always had that innately critical perspective on Silicon Valley -- people use the phrase “tech community” a lot, the “Silicon Valley community.” But there was no one there for him. There was no one advocating for him to stay in his house, in the only place he knew. Then whatever happened, venture capitalists moved into his house after he got evicted.

But then the other thing is that -- I mentioned my scientific background before. I studied physics as an undergrad and I was a science and math teacher in San Francisco and Menlo Park for a while. I think being around a lot of STEM people gave me perspective on what is sometimes called STEM supremacy. The idea that their forms of knowledge -- science, technology, engineering, math -- are innately superior.

Because they’re inherently quantifiable. Isn’t that part of the reason?

Yeah, they're quantifiable. In the book by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition,” he articulates that in a postmodern world where religion is no longer a universal reference point, the only universal reference point that a lot of people have philosophically is science and math.

We could go into a whole tangent right now about the level of doubt that has emerged around that recently! But let's not get distracted into talking about Donald Trump.

Yeah, exactly. But I guess the point is, there's a lot of us have probably felt that doubt. There’s a sort of chauvinism, where people who are in tech or have tech or science knowledge think that their way of knowledge makes them superior to other people or know more about things. They can comment on anything, because they understand science and math.

I got a big dose of this when I was a physics major in college. All the physics students thought that since they understood physics, they understood the whole world. And they could comment on everything and understand how everything works.

Sure. You see famous examples like Einstein or Stephen Hawking, who over the course of their careers began to comment on a whole wide range of things where at least nominally they didn't have any expertise.

Yeah, there's this weird one-way street. It's like a lot of scientists believe they can comment on all world affairs. But I wouldn't say that every historian feels that they can comment on particle physics.

For anyone who's spent time hanging out with a lot of techies, you often see this, like with the push toward getting coding in elementary and middle schools, making it something you learn immediately. Getting computers in school. We're told by Silicon Valley and its foundations that these things are innately good for us, that we need to have more computing knowledge, more coding knowledge. This is the way of the future. Everything needs to be quantified.

It's called “computationalism,” this idea that it's inherently good to just count everything you do or think. Like the Apple Watch has that built in, it counts your steps no matter what you do. It has this idea, of course you'd want to do that. It's automatic. You don't have a choice.

One of the most interesting parts of your book is this area, the interaction between technology, society and politics. You talk about the differences between what's now called web 1.0 in the late ‘90s, the big “tech boom” that crashed right around 2001, and then web 2.0, with the growth of social media and its ambiguous relationship with commerce and with our private lives. And of course all the dark lessons from the 2016 election about Facebook and other forms of social media. Did you see that moment of reckoning coming in some ways?

Well, I may be a little bit too young to have totally foreseen it. But I do remember hearing someone I quote in the book deliver a polemic at a Stanford conference in 2005 about the “participatory panopticon.” And that was before -- Facebook may have just started, but it wasn’t a thing yet. I don’t think Twitter even existed.

But the idea that he had, which has come true, was what we call “surveillance capitalism.” We were going to be lulled into this world where someone, an unseen watcher, could see what you're doing at any time, but you're never aware if they're watching you. But it would be participatory in that we would willingly want to share our private information.

The thing is, the tech industry had to create that culture. Ten years ago, I would have thought it was weird for someone to share a picture of their breakfast. The tech industry was very active in moving to this model of surveillance capitalism where you constantly want to share tiny bits of your life in order for them to make money, because the more time you spend staring at your screen and look into it, the more they can monetize that.  There was this whole drive to normalize that type of behavior. I don't know if I saw it coming, but I listened to the people who saw it coming.

What about the idea that what we see now in the tech industry and its effect on the larger society is essentially the replacement of the “public sphere”? Meaning the welfare state and public education and public parks and the public libraries. All the stuff that government used to fund is replaced by a sort of pseudo-public sphere where you're sharing things with people, but everything is transactional and everything is commercialized. Is there some validity to that?

Yeah, absolutely, I think that's one of the darkest aspects of how the tech industry has stoked this narcissistic, oversharing culture. It's like the ultimate goal of social media is to transform the self into a brand, so that you don't do anything without thinking of how your actions interact with the brand.

Do you remember the phrase, “Corporations aren't people”? You heard that a lot in the 2000s, like, we needed to get rid of corporate personhood. Now it's the reverse, where a lot of individuals want to become not people but brands. And yeah, the other depressing side effect is a decaying social welfare state.

Where's the chicken and the egg here? Did the tech industry just capitalize on this intense fragmentation or atomization or whatever you want to call it, or did tech actually create and accelerate those trends? What's your sense about that?

That's a good question. On like a macroeconomic scale, I don't think -- like, the tech industry has created a lot of inequality, right? It's destroyed or decimated a lot of middle-class communities. But I think given economic trends, even without the tech industry throwing gas on the fire, we were bound to be in a  far more unequal world anyway. But they certainly seem content to capitalize on it. I'm eternally surprised by the creative ways that the tech industry keeps figuring out to underpay people or trick people into making less money than they think they're going to make, or to exploit them every single second and convince them it's a good thing.

The comparison has been made so often between the invention of the internet, or the tech industry more broadly, and Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press. A technological innovation that creates an entire new information system and remakes economic life as well. Obviously, the printing press had commercial implications and many people have made money off it. That was one of its driving forces. So that's a similarity. But I don't get the feeling that at any point in its 500 years of existence the publishing industry successfully created that kind of mythology around itself, or pretended that it was transforming every aspect of human relationships.

Yeah, it didn't have the PR apparatus. It's an interesting parallel, because sometimes you need to try to describe the tech industry, and how in web 2.0 it's become a mix of a printing press, a telephone and telegraph. A sort of mapping system, an encyclopedia, a TV set and a radio. It doesn't quite have any historical analogs. So a lot of that breaks down when you try to describe it.

My son and I often joke about this: If we could contact Alexander Graham Bell in the next world, and show him the device that we all carry around at all times, would he have any idea what it was? Would he see any connection between the cell phone and the machine he pioneered?

There’s not a lot of similarity. I mean, the design of the phone now, the fact that there's a camera in the front -- that tells you a lot about what the makers of that device want you to do with it, and how to use it. Alexander Graham Bell could not have foreseen that he would pick up this phone and look at it and there'd be a camera looking back at him.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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