Brian Merchant: Silicon Valley elites are afraid. History says they should be

Brian Merchant, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

It’s become a common refrain among a certain set of Silicon Valley elite: They’ve been treated so unfairly. Case in point: Even after their bank of choice collapsed spectacularly — in no small part of their own doing — and the federal government moved with dispatch to guarantee all its deposits, tech execs and investors nonetheless spent the subsequent days loudly playing the victim.

The prominent venture capitalist David Sacks, who had lobbied particularly hard for government intervention, bemoaned a “hateful media that will make me be whatever they need me to be in order to keep their attack machine going.” Michael Solana, a vice president at Peter Thiel’s Founder Fund, wrote on his blog that “tech is now universally hated,” warned of an incoming “political war,” and claimed “a lot of people ... genuinely seem to want a good old fashioned mass murder,” presumably of tech execs.

It was a particularly galling display, a new high for a trend that’s been on the rise for some time. Amid congressional hearings and dipping stock valuations, the tech elite have bemoaned the so-called techlash against their industry by those who worry it’s grown too large and unaccountable. Waving away legitimate questions about the industry’s labor inequities, climate impacts and civil rights abuses, they claim that the press is biased against them and that they’re besieged on all sides by woke critics.

If only they realized just how good they have it, historically speaking.

It was mere decades ago, after all, that the Silicon Valley elite faced the active threat of actual, non-metaphorical violence. The most adamant critics of Big Tech of the 1970s didn’t write strongly worded columns chastising them in newspapers or blast their politics on social media — they physically occupied their computer labs, destroyed their capital equipment, and even bombed their homes.

“Techlash is what Silicon Valley’s ownership class calls it when people don’t buy their stock,” author Malcolm Harris tells me. “Today’s tech billionaires are lucky people are making fun of them on the internet instead of firebombing their houses — that’s what happened to Bill Hewlett back in the day.”


A 1987 article in this newspaper makes his point. When William Hewlett retired from the company he founded, Hewlett-Packard, or HP, as it’s known today, The Los Angeles Times dedicated a full paragraph to the various threats of violence that the billionaire faced in the 1970s:

“In 1971, radical animosities directed at the upscale Palo Alto community and Stanford University campus brought terror into the Hewletts’ lives: The modest Hewlett family home was fire-bombed. In 1976, son James, then 28, fought off would-be kidnappers. The same year, a radical group called the Red Guerrilla Family claimed responsibility when a bomb exploded in an HP building.”

Harris is the author of “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World,” the book that is currently the talk of the town — it just hit the L.A. Times bestseller list — though not for the reasons that the valley’s elites might prefer. It’s a robust, sprawling history that’s intensely critical of the Great Men of tech history, and even more so of the systems they served. It’s been received enthusiastically, as an overdue corrective to the industry’s potent penchant for self-mythology.

And some of the most potent mythologies, of course, rely on omission. Take, for instance, the popular narrative that whiz kids such as Hewlett and Steve Jobs started the computer revolutions from their garages in Palo Alto, where their starkest opposition came in the form of square old corporations such as IBM and Xerox — and not actual, bomb-throwing revolutionaries.


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