THERE’S a very fine new piece in the August Harper’s in which Rebecca Solnit draws a straight line between the 19th century robber barons and Silicon Valley’s cyber-utopians. The common denominator, she writes, is Stanford University. The relationship between the early kings of the railroads — who were given free reign across much of California — and today’s enormous tech corporations is “genetic,” she writes.
The way monopolists like Southern Pacific Railroad bought politicians, overpaid themselves and burned their accounting books resembles the huge market share companies like Google have captured.
The old railroad barons, Solnit writes, “grew rich even when they created chaotic, dysfunctional corporations that ill served the public.”
And while Silicon Valley does not literally buy politicians, “Google spent more on lobbying the federal government in 2012 than any other corporation except General Electric.”
Similarly, despite the number of free-market-loving libertarians that roll out of Stanford, the federal government funds roughly 85 percent of the research that takes place there! (I should point out I have no gripe with the institution, exactly; I was born at Stanford hospital while my father was attending the graduate journalism school.”
Most of Solnit’s piece is behind a paywall. She concludes it this way: “Technology was supposed to bring us forward — remember Bill Clinton’s ‘bridge to the twenty-first century slogan…? Fourteen years into that century, it looks a lot like the nineteenth.”
I urge CultureCrashers to find the new Harper’s and read this story in full.