Easy Chair — From the August 2014 issue

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

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When an 1882 cartoon in San Francisco’s Wasp newspaper depicted the Southern Pacific Railroad as an octopus with the whole state of California in its far-reaching tentacles, it launched an image of monopoly power still with us today. Supersize these animals and put people, institutions, and buildings within their reach, and those tentacles become an apt shorthand for the diversified interests of an acquisitive force. Likely inspired by the cartoon, Frank Norris took up the figure for his 1902 muckraking novel about the railroads, The Octopus. A few years later, Standard Oil was similarly represented in an illustration for Punch magazine. The animal had evolved somewhat by 2009, when Matt Taibbi called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

You’d think all this would give octopuses — as well as vampire squid — a bad name, but it hasn’t as far as technology’s billionaires are concerned. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is only the world’s fifty-eighth-richest person at present, but he has the world’s thirteenth-largest private yacht: Octopus. The world’s fifth-richest person, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, runs most of his fortune through Octopus Holdings LP. Incidentally, Ellison’s Oracle Corporation is, as of April, being sued — not for the first time — as a monopoly-seeking beast. A lawsuit filed by the tech-support company Terix argues that since acquiring Sun Microsystems, “Oracle has pursued a deliberate policy of attempting to eliminate competition in the market for the maintenance and support of computer hardware running the Solaris operating system.” Generally, policing such anticompetitive behavior is the job of the U.S. Justice Department, but it has been notably shy on that front since losing a high-profile antitrust case against Oracle after the company’s 2004 acquisition of the software company PeopleSoft. Many of the biggest tech companies have grown by eating up smaller companies and beating the resultant antitrust suits.

The resemblance between the original octopus and today’s version is more than coincidental — it’s genetic. Everyone knows that to a great extent Silicon Valley comes out of Stanford University, but where Leland Stanford Junior University comes from hardly anyone inquires. It comes directly out of the Southern Pacific, and though we tend to speak as though the nineteenth century were very long ago and any of its descendants are great-great-great-grandchildren at least, the lineage is in this case quite short. The Southern Pacific, back when the railroads were our state-of-the-art networked technology, begot Stanford, which begot Sun Microsystems, Google, Yahoo, and numerous others.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her Easy Chair essay will appear in every other issue.

More from Rebecca Solnit:

Easy Chair From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

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