Machines in the Valley

Project Description: A running log of my thoughts on my book manuscript.

Last updated: 2017-07-22 00:00:00 +0000 UTC

This page is a running log of my thoughts on my dissertation and eventual book manuscript. Ideas here might be convoluted and change frequently as my research direction changes. Interpretations here are provisional and dependent on research in progress.

Dissertations are funny things. When I first proposed my dissertation topic in the winter of 2012, I was focused on the origins of the Internet as a physical place: the four western universities that made up the original nodes of the Internet. I was curious about exploring how these places came to be the origins of ARPANET and whether there was something about their history as major urban centers that led to them becoming a core site in network research. After I moved to Silicon Valley, immediately after defending my dissertation proposal, I came to another realization: that no history of Silicon Valley had considered the environmental impact of high tech suburbs. I was curious about the link between the West’s high-tech suburbs and the environmental cost of their presence: water, energy, land. And thus, my dissertation’s topic shifted.

I feel as though my dissertation is now entering its third life as it starts its transformation from dissertation to book. Broadly, I am tracing the emergence environmental politics in Silicon Valley between 1945 and 1990. Activists, residents, politicians, and business owners all sought to shape the political structure of the changing urban environment, and this highlights contests over space and who contested power over space at a moment in time when the postindustrial economy was exerting enormous change upon metropolitan regions.

Urban Environmentalism in Silicon Valley

I started with a seemingly simple question: Does nature matter to Silicon Valley?

The story I plan to tell plays out in many metropolitan areas across the United States. Many urban areas in the American West in particular underwent dramatic economic development in the wake of the computer economy’s appearance in metropolitan regions. Santa Clara County, California, had 800 factory workers in 1950. By 1980, it had 264,000 manufacturing workers and three thousand electronics firms. By the 1980s the West had become the center of atomic research, aerospace manufacturing, and industries specializing in military control systems. The information and electronics industries established roots in Dallas, Portland, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise, and Austin. Arizona, for example, was profoundly affected by the new high tech industries that were making the West their home. Electronics giant Motorola built a plant in the late 1940s, attracted to the right-to-work laws, pro-business attitude, and favorable tax climate. Within two decades, electronics-aerospace firms such as Hughes Aircraft, General Electric, and Honeywell moved in as well. Arizona shifted its traditional reliance on the 3C’s – copper, cotton, and cattle – to become a key locale in the corporate West.1 By the 1980s, 40 percent of Arizona’s economy was based on high tech industries and the state’s population ballooned to 3.1 million, a fourfold growth since 1945.2

The urban West also attracted high levels of investment by the military-industrial-academic complex through aerospace, computer, and academic contracts. In 1967, James Clayton identified western states as being heavily dependent on defense spending, concluding that “it is entirely possible that defense spending will loom as the single most important economic and demographic factor in the history of the West during the past two decades.”3 Clayton’s generalities were largely correct by the 1970s. California had 24% of the prime military contracts in the country in 1959. In 1962, the Pacific Coast had 46% of all Defense Department contracts for research and development. The interior states of the West also increased their ties to the growing military-industrial complex, and these industries attracted a better-educated workforce and urban populace. Urban westerners were better educated than Americans overall: almost 46% of adults in the metropolitan regions of the West were high school graduates in 1950, compared to 34.3% in the rest of the nation. As the national average rose over the next two decades the West maintained its 10% edge. In 1960, Albuquerque, New Mexico, boasted more Ph.D. degrees per capita than any other American city.4 Six of the ten metropolitan areas with the highest number of civilian Department of Defense employees were western – San Antonio, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Honolulu. Half of metropolitan areas in the West received more in federal defense spending than they paid in tax contributions for defense.5

The focus on Silicon Valley helps illuminate the growing influence of environmental politics in the United States. Throughout the postwar decades, everyday residents of metropolitan regions began asking questions about their environment, enough concerned about environmental change that local activists movements emerged to challenge municipalities in unrestricted urban growth and environmental degradation. I focus on a single locality and use a micro view of western cities to understand how people created, influenced, or were affected by urban change and culture. As Carl Abbott once reminded urban historians, “case studies are the imperfect equivalents of experiments through which we test and refine large-scale generalizations and theory.”6 The area under study is not comprehensive of metropolitan change, but investigates the engagement between economic development, urban growth, postindustrial change, and environmental politics. The importance of local politics means an intensive examination of the experiences in the metropolitan region and illustrates broader patterns of environmental activism throughout the United States.

In addition to environmental politics and political culture, the project uses place and landscape as a central point for analysis. Henri Lefebvre has noted that social relations are cultural and spatial constructions.7 So too are environmental relations entirely defined by individual relationships to space and culture. As Robert Self notes, people and communities do “not compete for resources for abstract goals and purposes. They competed to put those resources to use to create particular and concrete places. … [People] called for very specific things in relation to very specific places.”8 The environmental politics of Silicon Valley were tied to spatial politics.

Suburban Environmentalism

My work engages with the suburban origins of environmentalism identified by previous scholars, among them rome2001bulldozer, sellers2012crucible, mozingo2011pastoral, and klingle2007emerald. Much of the criticism leveled against industrial and urban growth by suburbanites was couched in the language of the countryside and idealism of country living.

Yet the research also intersects with the histories of postwar liberalism and conservatism. Rather than bastions of conservative political thought narrated by mcgirr2006warriors and others, I see the suburbs in Silicon Valley as harbingers of a suburban liberalism. Suburbanites of the Valley maintained a belief in the role of government, quality-of-life, civil rights, and environmental quality in their communities, thus complicating how not only politics worked in American suburbs but also how the origins of environmentalism finds itself in both liberal and conservative politics.

Urban Sustainability

My work also intersects, to a degree, on the emerging historiography on sustainability. The works here are a bit fewer, and I’m leaning mostly on sanders2010sustainability. But I’m also continuing to think through how the environmental movement intersects with the sustainability movement. In a place like Silicon Valley, where environmentalists I look into are getting their start on issues as varied as adquate housing and traffic congestion.

History of Capitalism

Still thinking through this and I’ll fill this out more as I confront the issues further. Some initial notes are in 20141112 - Suburbs and Nature#potential-directions.


I’ve moved my log of thoughts about using GIS to my GIS log.

Network analysis

I am keeping a Network Log to track my work as I go along.

  1. Malone, The Twentieth Century West, 255. [return]
  2. Abbott, “Paul Allen,” Western Lives, 391. [return]
  3. clayton1967coldwar: 449–473. [return]
  4. Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 515. [return]
  5. Abbott, “The Metropolitan Region,” 82-83. See also Gilbert S. Guinn, “A Different Frontier: Aviation, the Army Air Force, and the Evolution of the Sunshine Belt,” Aerospace Historian 29 (March 1982): 34-45; James Eastman, “Location and Growth of Tinker Air Force Base and Oklahoma City Air Material Area,” Chronicles of Oklahoma 50 (Autumn 1972): 326-346; Leonard J. Arrington and Archer L. Durham, “Anchors Aweigh in Utah: The U.S. Naval Supply Depot at Clearfield, 1942-62,” Utah Historical Quarterly 31 (September 1963): 109-126; Thomas G. Alexander, “Ogden: A Federal Colony in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 47 (Summer 1979): 291-309; Martin Schiesl, “Airplanes to Aerospace: Defense Spending and Economic Growth in the Los Angeles Region, 1945-60,” in Lotchin, ed., Martial Metropolis, 135-150; Stephen B. Oates, “NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, Texas,” Southwest Historical Quarterly 67 (January 1964): 350-375. [return]
  6. Carl Abbott, “Frontiers and Sections: Cities and Regions in American Growth,” American Quarterly 37 (1985): 398. [return]
  7. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (New York: Wiley Blackwell, 1992). [return]
  8. self2003, 17. [return]

Project Notes