Silicon Valley’s New Robber Barons

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 enor220px-Leland_Stanford_c1870smous 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.

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  1. says

    Unlike the old robber barons such as the Rockefellers and Carnegie, the Silicon Valley moguls are notable for their lack of support for the arts. Many have donated money to various causes, but they are overwhelmingly technical or scientific in character. It became obvious that the exclusion of the arts reflected a narrowness of mind and a lack of intellectual breadth that reflected poorly on the education Stanford provides.

    The President of Stanford thus recently created of new program called the Stanford Arts Initiative whose purpose is to better integrate the arts into the students’ education. Some info here:

    I wonder what the long-terms effects of this might be. There’s an immense irony in efforts to make sure our robber barons are cultured.

    Will the effect be that a university with an abundance of students from privileged families will insure the continuance of a system of funding the arts by and for the wealthy? If so, the Hoover Institute, Stanford’s neo-liberal think tank, must take quiet satisfaction in this initiative. Or will it all backfire and produce students with the intellectual and social awareness to challenge neo-liberalism’s narrow worldview?

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