This project explores the post-World War II development of environmental politics in Silicon Valley. Machines in the Valley seeks to investigate, represent, and analyze the social, political, and environmental changes to document Silicon Valley’s consequence for California and American history.

Silicon Valley represented a new vision for the American West’s political economy, an economic and political project marrying pastoral idealism with high tech urbanism. The urban form of the valley sought to overcome the urban industrial model of the Northeast and Midwest that had dominated the industrial centers of the U.S. As the Rust Belt decayed, discourse about what to do with this flagging industrial economy emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. A moment of possibility emerged for Silicon Valley. But as developers, planners, and business leaders tried to implement their vision, it ran into conflict with the suruban vision of open spaces, access to leisure, and freedom from pollution that white collar workers had come to expect. An environmental politic formed concurrently with the growth regime in Santa Clara County, and these two visions for the landscape came into contact with one another.

Between 1945 and 1990, the Santa Clara Valley experienced profound environmental change during an unprecedented wave of urban and industrial growth. With those changes came conflict over landscape change. Answering that question means extending historian Kenneth Jackson’s observation that “the space around us—the physical organization of neighborhoods, roads, yards, houses, and apartments—sets up living patterns that condition our behavior.”1 In Silicon Valley, the attitudes, ideas, and values that people impart on to nature—biological and idealized—reveals how ideas about nature played out in postindustrial American society. By examining the ways that people created place, the politics they engaged in to protect that place, and examining the physical changes to the landscape that resulted, my research argues for the importance of understanding how space creates politics. The story revolves around whose space Silicon Valley would become: A postindustrial trend-setter? A fertile and beautiful agricultural producer? A countryside paradise? A metropolitan leader?

Machines in the Valley seeks to use maps and immersive storytelling to demonstrate and narrate the process of landscape change in Silicon Valley between 1940 and 2010. The project combines detailed historic maps and curated visual stories to explore the racial, environmental, social, and political geographies of Silicon Valley. Inspired by geographer John Wright who argued that “places are best seen as shifting stages where the exercise of power and resistance to it vie for dominance,”2 Machines in the Valley explores these shifting physical and conceptual boundaries. By examining what Richard White called hybrid landscapes, I argue the interconnections between these competing idealized landscapes shaped environmental, cultural, and political identities in the Bay Area.3

Much of the site is a “work in progress.” As a whole, the project seeks to make available materials to exlore the history of Silicon Valley and its impact on American history by exploring the social and political underpinnings of environmentalism.

Suggested citation

If you use this project for academic work, here is a suggested citation.

Jason Heppler, Machines in the Valley: Growth, Conflict, and Environmental Politics in Silicon Valley, website, code, and datasets (2018): https://machinesinthevalley.org.

Project Team

Jason A. Heppler is the senior developer at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2016 and is under contract with the University of Oklahoma Press for his book on Silicon Valley’s environmental history due out in 2024.

Essays, Publications, and Whitepapers

As essays, articles, reports, and white papers are produced with research data and visualizations from this project, they will appear below.

  • My book, tentatively titled Suburban by Nature: Silicion Valley and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics, is under contract with the University of Oklahoma Press and is expected to be published in 2020.
  • “Green Dreams, Toxic Legacies: Toward a Digital Political Ecology of Silicon Valley,” International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, vol. 11, no. 1 (68-85), DOI: 10.3366/ijhac.2017.0179.

News and Updates

Much of this project is still a work-in-progress. Features, analysis, and narrative will appear over time as ways for me to ask questions of my research, illustrate points I’m trying to make, and extend upon subjects and themes covered in my book. Various aspects of the project are bound to change over time and I will try and record them here.

  • 2023-02-17 · Fixed some design layout issues.
  • 2017-08-03 · Updated San Jose narrative elements.
  • 2017-07-25 · Added historic base maps to San Jose annexation.
  • 2017-03-27 · Added the Introduction.
  • 2017-06-30 · Added table of county population growth to annexation visualizations. Added Mountain View annexation visualization.
  • 2017-07-05 · Added traffic visualizations. Removed the About page and replaced with the Introduction.

This project is under version control. If you’d like to see all of the updates the project has gone through, you can follow the updates on Github.

All material produced here is published freely for educational and research use, subject to fair use regulations. The site design, programming, and data structures are all developed under the open source MIT License. Images and other material may have copyright restrictions; please contact the appropriate institution.


Dr. Jason A. Heppler
George Mason University jason@jasonheppler.org

  1. Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 3. 

  2. John B. Wright, “Land Tenure: The Spatial Musculature of the American West,” in Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West, ed. Gary J. Hausladen, p. 85 

  3. Richard White, “From Wilderness to Hybrid Landscapes,” The Historian 66 (September 2004): 562-664.