Love him or hate him, you cannot deny that Peter Thiel has been for some time now one of the most prescient thinkers in the world and someone who has the courage to back his convictions with cold hard cash. As Ms Burton says in this superb essay: “With a net worth of approximately $2.3 billion, Thiel is far from the wealthiest person in Silicon Valley (Google’s Larry Page’s net worth is an estimated $66 billion, for instance). He may, however, be the most influential. Alongside his investments in high-profile companies like Airbnb, LinkedIn, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and health-insurance company Oscar, Thiel’s more esoteric pet projects and funding recipients include some of the Bay Area’s most out-of-the-box libertarian-utopian ventures: the Seasteading Institute, the Eliezer Yudkowsky–helmed Machine Intelligence Research Center, which researches how to counter the threat of an intelligent Artificial Intelligence; the Center for Applied Rationality, a de facto headquarters for the Silicon Valley rationalist community; the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which funds antiaging research under the aegis of controversial gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. Thiel’s foundations have funded gleefully contrarian events like “Hereticon,” originally scheduled for May 2020 in New Orleans but since postponed, due to the coronavirus. It is billed as “a safe space for people who don’t feel safe in safe spaces.” And they’ve founded, too, novel medical apps like Carbyne, an Israeli “self-surveillance” 911 tool now used in New Orleans as part of the city’s Covid-19 public-health effort. Add the spectacular collapse of Gawker Media—bankrupted after a Thiel-funded lawsuit by former wrestling star Hulk Hogan, whose private sex tapes the site had posted in 2012—and the election of Donald Trump, to whose 2016 campaign he donated $1.25 million, and a pattern emerges. Wherever there’s a major shift in the American landscape in the past half-decade—be it political or cultural—there, somewhere on the donor list of the political campaign, or among the investors in the controversial technology, is Peter Thiel.”
There are many strands of this rich essay on Thiel which we could write about. We will focus on only two here so that you read the essay to discover the other shape shifting controversial thoughts which are rumbling through Thiel’s brilliant mind.
Firstly, as articulated in his blockbuster bestseller ‘Zero to One’, Thiel has a very original take on why businesses should be created and how they should be run: “The creation of a remarkable, cutting-edge company…shouldn’t just be about amassing personal wealth for its founders. It should also be about remaking the world—transforming personal potential into a technological reimagining of human life. By contrast, the stasis of mimesis, driven by human resentment, leads to political mediocrity and technological anhedonia. To disrupt, insofar as it means to disrupt the mimetic system, is thus a liberating act.
And when radical human potential is unleashed upon the world, it demands—and deserves—proliferation. Thiel and Masters justify monopolies, so long as the company is creating genuinely new, life-improving technologies to earn its outsize profits. “Monopolies deserve their bad reputation—but only in a world where nothing changes,” the authors observe. “In a static world, a monopolist is just a rent collector. If you corner the market for something you can jack up the price . . . but the world we live in is dynamic: it’s possible to invent new and better things. Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.”
Secondly, Thiel has repeatedly talked about the increasing irrelevance of the formal university education system. He has then gone on to back his talk up with cash & investments and these investments now seem to be making him a lot of money: “The Thiel Fellowship would be a kind of “20 under 20” for the tech industry’s incipient disrupters. Twenty entrepreneurs under 20 would get $100,000 to drop out of college and work full-time on their startup ideas….
Since its first “class” was announced in 2011, the fellowship has funded between 20 and 30 promising young entrepreneurs annually. Past Thiel Fellows have created smash hits like Workflow—a productivity tool that, following its 2014 launch, was the Apple Store’s most downloaded app—and successful startups like Ethereum, the cyrpto-currency started by Thiel fellow Vitalik Buterin, and Figma, a design tool built by Dylan Field. Gibson and former fellowship director Danielle Strachman have since left the initiative to start the Thiel-backed 1517 Fund: a seed-stage venture-capital firm that backs the companies of several former Thiel Fellows….
Yet the Thiel Fellowship is, on closer inspection, radically subversive—as much an attempt at delegitimizing the contemporary American educational landscape as it is about rewarding young would-be founders. The American collegiate system, Thiel, his staff, and his fellows unanimously affirm, has become a giant scam, transforming potential innovators into subservient drones; indoctrinating the disrupters of tomorrow into Marxist myths of resentment; and using the social-justice buzzwords of class privilege and structural oppression to crush the spirit. Like American progressivism, they say, the university is rotten from the inside out, on this view—and it needs to be burned to the ground, figuratively speaking, so that something new and better can be built from the ashes…”
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