Where Global Capitalism Makes Landfall
I'm currently at work on a project centered on the Port of Oakland. It looks at how global trade really works and the people who do the labor of moving stuff—in the context of a Donald Trump presidency and the ascendance of artificial intelligence-powered automation.
Expect an 8-episode podcast in January 2017 and a book sometime this decade.
If you'd like to talk with me about this project, get in touch!
Tecate by Air
I wrote this after a couple of weeks hanging around the San Diego-Tijuana border, which just happens to be where my father crossed into the United States in the early 1960s.
PUBLISHED October 20, 2016 on
What I learned from a week at the Mexico border wall
It was not until our pilot grabbed the Cessna 172 by the propeller and pulled it to the gas pump at the tiny airfield that I started to get nervous about flying low along the US-Mexico border wall.
Yes, there’s a wall there. The wall that Donald Trump has been promising his supporters already exists. Hundreds of miles of steel stretch across nearly every populated part of the border. Trump had to know it was there, right? Still, he turned building the wall into a chant, a brand, a symbol of keeping people out and “putting America first.”
For me, making contact with the physical wall became part of my election-long battle to keep connected with baseline reality. It was a way to avoid the whirlpool of white nationalist fantasy.
So I’ve stood next to the wall and felt its height above me. I’ve listened to Homeland Security speeding along the American side and watched someone scale the wall back into Mexico. I’ve overhead a young father talking to his wife and son through wire and bars at “Friendship Park.” I’ve stood at its western end and watched the ocean waves lap against the barrier. I’ve clambered around the wall’s flank in east Tijuana, where it sometimes serves as the fourth wall of improvised housing for the dearly deported.
For me, this is personal, too. In the early 1960s, my Guadalajara-raised father crossed from Tijuana into San Diego, and an entirely different life. Once, I asked him what he thought I would have done if we’d stayed in Mexico. Without hesitation he said, “Oh, you’d be in the drug trade.” I think he was joking; Mexicans have a dark sense of humor. But maybe he was right.
Up close, though, the sense of the wall’s scale is hard to grasp. It is a human intervention on the scale of a river or a mountain range, not a pond or a hill. So, when I learned that Univision and Fusion’s Rise Up as One concert was being held a mile from an airfield, I knew I had to take a small plane up to see the wall from above.
It wasn’t my first time in this position. A few years ago, I flew over West Virginia’s coal mines with James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and a pilot. In the air, he told me his theory that the 2,000-foot view from a Cessna or Cirrus provides a unique perspective on human endeavor. I wrote back then: “It’s only a few thousand feet up where you can see large-scale land deformations for what they really are. Quarries, suburbs, coal mines.”
And we could add: borders.
This is probably the best feature I've ever written. It's about the saga of water in California.
PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 24, 2014
on THE ATLANTIC
Hood, California, is a farming town of 200 souls, crammed up against a levee that protects it from the Sacramento River. The eastern approach from I-5 and the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove is bucolic. Cows graze. An abandoned railroad track sits atop a narrow embankment. Cross it, and the town comes into view: a fire station, five streets, a tiny park. The last three utility poles on Hood-Franklin Road before it dead-ends into town bear American flags.
I've come here because this little patch of land is the key location in Governor Jerry Brown's proposed $25 billion plan to fix California's troubled water transport system. Hood sits at the northern tip of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a network of manmade islands and channels constructed on the ruins of the largest estuary from Patagonia to Alaska. Since the 1950s, the Delta has served as the great hydraulic tie between northern and southern California: a network of rivers, tributaries, and canals deliver runoff from the Sierra Mountain Range's snowpack to massive pumps at the southern end of the Delta. From there, the water travels through aqueducts to the great farms of the San Joaquin Valley and to the massive coastal cities. The Delta, then, is not only a 700,000-acre place where people live and work, but some of the most important plumbing in the world. Without this crucial nexus point, the current level of agricultural production in the southern San Joaquin Valley could not be sustained, and many cities, including the three largest on the West Coast—Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose—would have to come up with radical new water-supply solutions.
Too much is being asked of the Delta. The levees that define the region's water channels are aging, and geologists and climate scientists worry that earthquakes or rising sea levels could rupture them. More immediately, the Delta ecosystem is collapsing. Native fish species are on the brink of extinction in part because of this massive water-transfer apparatus. The unnatural flows disrupt their natural habitat, and when they reach the pumps—which they often do, despite the state's efforts—they die. The Delta smelt population, for instance, has gone from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands in the last few decades.
Brown's father, Pat, oversaw the completion of this productive, destructive system, and Jerry Brown himself tried to fix it during his first round as governor 30 years ago. A statewide vote thwarted him then, but he's ready to try again. His proposal, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, would bore two tunnels longer than the English-French Chunnel underneath the Delta, while simultaneously restoring thousands of acres of wetland.
The water intakes for the tunnels would flank Hood: two to the north, one to the south. Water that would have flowed down through the Delta, then sent south, will be diverted here instead. If the water goes underground at Hood, passing through new, high-tech fish screens, it will pick up fewer endangered creatures on the way to the south Delta pumps. State officials hope that means federal environmental agencies will stop interfering in their water delivery operations.
It is an audacious plan, one that seems to come from another era, where governments were more ambitious in their transformation of the natural world. Brown explicitly invoked this grand spirit in unveiling an early version of the plan in mid 2012.
“There's a lot of history here. Taking this history, I can say that the proposal that we're unveiling today is a big idea for a big state for an ambitious people that since the Gold Rush has been setting the trends and tone for the entire United States,” Brown said. “California has prospered because we've taken risks, we've pioneered, and we've been able to collaborate. Yes, there is going to be some opposition. Political, citizen, activist, whatever, it goes with the territory.”
Hood is one base for that opposition. Everywhere you look in this part of the state, you see signs that read, “Stop the Tunnels! Save the Delta!” The tunnels would take at least 10 years to build, and the $15 billion price tag, which doesn’t include $10 billion for habitat restoration, could go up, based on the experience of other underground projects like Boston's Big Dig. Huge construction vehicles would patrol the roads for a decade. There would be regular detours along River Road, a main thoroughfare. And at the end of all that inconvenience, there would be three massive industrial facilities flanking the river, jutting into adjacent fields.
The locals don't like that, but their real worry is that the tunnels will be used to drain the Delta's fresh water—in effect, wiping out the farmers here in favor of bigger southern producers. At the moment, the Sierra water that flows through the region overground acts as a hydraulic barrier to keep salty San Francisco Bay water from creeping eastward. The tunnels will change that. The Delta, they fear, could end up wiped out like Owens Valley, once home to a 100 square mile lake, which Los Angeles drained like a cold beer on a hot day. Chinatownwas made about that battle, and Delta residents don't want to be immortalized in a sequel. Only this place wouldn't become a dustbowl like Owens Valley so much as a saltwater world. As soon as the tunnels went into operation, much of the fresh Sierra runoff would leave the Delta waterways, and higher salinity Bay water would creep in. Then, perhaps, over time, once southern interests stopped relying on the Delta's above-ground channels for water transport, the state might not be so eager to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to keep the local levees standing. Sea levels are rising, and already, a few tracts of land have been permanently submerged.
Outside the Hood Market, the only open business in town, a man in a brown corduroy jacket and pants leans against one of the skinny white posts holding up the corrugated tin roof. I ask him if he knows Mario Moreno, the man I'd arranged to meet in town through the Hood community Facebook page...
Powering the Dream
Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology was my first book. It tried to trace both the tech and culture of renewable energy through time. Honestly, looking back, I think it's great in spots and boring in others. But I'm glad I wrote because it gave me a very solid historical foundation to think about how and why technologies succeed or fail. And I also got some more scholarly sophistication around what "succeed" or "fail" might mean to different people and social groups. Best of all, it introduced me to some writers and thinkers who have remained influential to me like David Nye and Donna Haraway.
You can buy the book here.
Real Future TV
In 2015 and 2016, I co-executive produced and co-hosted the first season of Real Future on Fusion. The television show focused on people using technology in their lives, and it is fun and smart and weird. The cast of characters is really, really unusual for a tech thing.
Housing and Racism
For the past couple years, I've been looking into various aspects of racism in the nation's housing systems, past, present, and future. This article covers some of that work, especially around the infrastructure of home appraisal.
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 28, 2016
Watching Donald Trump sputter and free associate through Monday’s “debate” with Hillary Clinton, I was reminded of the two leading theories about his rise.
The other is that his campaign is entirely dependent on white people, but that their support for him is not based on his racist appeals. No, their economic anxieties are the reason for their support (even if they aren’t experiencing greater financial stress than other people). His supporters aren’t racist, this theory holds, but are just worried about their kids’ futures in this economy.
But why choose? For white people in America, “economic anxiety” has always had a racial component. White worry about black and brown people has always been a mix of the social and the economic, all the way back to slavery, which was a system of production after all.
Even the original sin of American race relations, hereditary chattel slavery—the creation of a permanent enslaved group, based on skin color, whose children would also be born slaves—was (among many other terrible things) economic. It turned enslaved people having babies into a profitable enterprise for their owners. Recent scholarship by Ed Baptist and Ned and Constance Sublette has shown that the sale of enslaved people became a primary business for slaveholders in the colonial states of the South. In ways large and small, racism and the economic system of the time were bound inextricably.
Neither the end of slavery in the nation’s bloodiest war nor the passage of a century unbind these issues. Take real estate, our country’s primary means of holding wealth. History has shown time and again that white people don’t like it when black or brown people move into their neighborhoods. And yeah, that’s probably because some of those people are the kind of obviously deplorable racists who use the n-word and call Mexicans wetbacks while eating taco bowls from Applebee’s.
But there’s more to it. The whole mechanism that underpins the real estate market was built by racists to the benefit of white Anglo people. As early 20th century American real estate appraisers “professionalized” their methods, they built a discriminatory system that literally ranked homes in white northern European neighborhoods as more valuable than homes in neighborhoods where black people (or Mexicans) lived.
How Google Builds Its Maps
This story dug deep into how Google makes its maps, from the machine vision to the human labor. Maps, in turn, are key to one of my recent fascinations: automation in its many guises.
PUBLISHED ON SEPTEMBER 6, 2012
Behind every Google Map, there is a much more complex map that's the key to your queries but hidden from your view. The deep map contains the logic of places: their no-left-turns and freeway on-ramps, speed limits and traffic conditions. This is the data that you're drawing from when you ask Google to navigate you from point A to point B -- and last week, Google showed me the internal map and demonstrated how it was built. It's the first time the company has let anyone watch how the project it calls GT, or "Ground Truth," actually works.
Google opened up at a key moment in its evolution. The company began as an online search company that made money almost exclusively from selling ads based on what you were querying for. But then the mobile world exploded. Whereyou're searching from has become almost as important as what you're searching for. Google responded by creating an operating system, brand, and ecosystem in Android that has become the only significant rival to Apple's iOS.
And for good reason. If Google's mission is to organize all the world's information, the most important challenge -- far larger than indexing the web -- is to take the world's physical information and make it accessible and useful.
"If you look at the offline world, the real world in which we live, that information is not entirely online," Manik Gupta, the senior product manager for Google Maps, told me. "Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world and [the online world], and Maps really plays that part."
This is not just a theoretical concern. Mapping systems matter on phones precisely because they are the interface between the offline and online worlds. If you're at all like me, you use mapping more than any other application except for the communications suite (phone, email, social networks, and text messaging).
Google is locked in a battle with the world's largest company, Apple, about who will control the future of mobile phones. Whereas Apple's strengths are in product design, supply chain management, and retail marketing, Google's most obvious realm of competitive advantage is in information. Geo data -- and the apps built to use it -- are where Google can win just by being Google. That didn't matter on previous generations of iPhones because they used Google Maps, but now Apple's created its own service. How the two operating systems incorporate geo data and present it to users could become a key battleground in the phone wars.
But that would entail actually building a better map.
Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History
I'm fascinated by how technologies and technology companies warp and bend the places where they work. We expect industrial companies to generate certain landscapes. We expect farms to generate certain landscapes. We expect ports to look a certain way. But what about tech? That many billions of dollars has to change a place, right? That's what this story investigates through a variety of weird methods from data crunching to wandering the streets to deep historical digging.
PUBLISHED ON JULY 23, 2013
The precise center of Silicon Valley when it was the most important manufacturing region on Earth is now home to Super Space Self Storage.
I was able to map this location thanks to Richard E. Schmieder, who drove 6,000 miles around Silicon Valley, collecting the addresses of more than a thousand corporate headquarters, branch offices, restaurants, and hotels. He published this exhaustive niche Yellow Pages as Rich's Guide to Santa Clara County's Silicon Valley in 1983.
I discovered a copy of this rare book in Berkeley's library system and realized that it was a fantastic dataset: If I stuck all of the locations onto a map, I could reconstruct the Valley as it was 30 years ago, right before the Japanese manufacturers and the forces of globalization pulled and pushed chip production to East Asia. And though the idea of Silicon Valley does not allow for history, the place, itself, cannot escape it. The Valley we know now, the Paypal-Google-Facebook one, got built right on top of the original boom towns.
In our Internet-happy present, it's easy to forget that up until the mid-1980s, Silicon Valley was an industrial landscape. Hundreds of manufacturers lined the streets of Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, and San Jose. This is the Silicon Valley when AMD, Apple, Applied Materials, Atari, Fairchild, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, National Semiconductor, Varian Associates, Xerox, and hundreds of other companies made their products right here in the Bay.
The Valley was as important a manufacturing center as Detroit or Pittsburgh were. This was the place making the foundational technology of the era, and it brought prosperity to the region. Between 1964 and 1984, Santa Clara County added 203,000 manufacturing jobs, according to a report by the Association of Bay Area Governments; 85 percent of them were in high-tech. Another economist found that Santa Clara County's manufacturing growth had driven the economic well-being of the entire Bay Area during that period. Without the growth of Valley manufacturing, the San Francisco and Oakland's economies would have severely suffered, not to mention the rest of the country's. This was the industrial heartland of America, even if it was nestled against the San Francisco Bay.
In other words, Rich's Guide, I realized, would let me map this first peak of Silicon Valley, the one that gave meaning to the term high-tech. With substantial help from my colleague on The Atlantic Wire, Philip Bump, we put this map together. If you worked in the Valley at the time, it should take you back to the days of Ampex, Varian Associates, and the Rusty Scupper. But there's plenty to see, even if you only know the area by reputation.
For example, you'll find Apple headquarters at 20525 Mariana Ave, just across De Anza Boulevard from the current HQ at 1 Infinite Loop. They were part of a little cluster of companies just off Interstate 280, south of the hottest action up closer to Highway 101. Most of the rest have not survived -- Braegen Corp., Iconix, International Memories, Tymshare, Four-Phase Systems. Yet these same people would have all visited the Peppermill Lounge for some 80s-"fern bar" refreshment.
After geocoding all these points -- i.e. finding all their latitudes and longitudes -- I could compute the average of all the locations on the map. In a meaningful sense, the spot was the very center of the corporate ecosystem that we call Silicon Valley in 1983.
My math says it's located in Sunnyvale, south of 101 between North Wolfe Road and the Lawrence Expressway at precisely 37.38260152 degrees north, 122.0094996784 degrees west.
As luck would have it, this spot was smack in the middle of the headquarters of chipmaker and long-time Intel rival, Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD, in a complex centered at 901 Thompson Place.
How Netflix Reverse-Engineered Hollywood
This co-production with Ian Bogost was the most fun story I've ever written. We figured out how Netflix's genre-creation system worked. And then actually got them to talk with us about it.
PUBLISHED ON JANUARY 2, 2014
ON THE ATLANTIC
If you use Netflix, you've probably wondered about the specific genres that it suggests to you. Some of them just seem so specific that it's absurd. Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries? Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life? Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s?
If Netflix can show such tiny slices of cinema to any given user, and they have 40 million users, how vast did their set of "personalized genres" need to be to describe the entire Hollywood universe?
This idle wonder turned to rabid fascination when I realized that I could capture each and every microgenre that Netflix's algorithm has ever created.
Through a combination of elbow grease and spam-level repetition, we discovered that Netflix possesses not several hundred genres, or even several thousand, but 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies.
There are so many that just loading, copying, and pasting all of them took the little script I wrote more than 20 hours.
We've now spent several weeks understanding, analyzing, and reverse-engineering how Netflix's vocabulary and grammar work. We've broken down its most popular descriptions, and counted its most popular actors and directors.
To my (and Netflix's) knowledge, no one outside the company has ever assembled this data before.
What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.
Alexis Madrigal is a writer and journalist. He's interested in the ways that technology and capitalism warp the social and physical environments where people work and live.