The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, by Max Chafkin, Bloomsbury, 400 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1526619563
Bruno Maçães, a former minister for Europe in the Portuguese government, speculated in a recent essay in the New Statesman that at different stages of history different types of people typify their age; saints in the Middle Ages who built cathedrals, explorers in early modern Europe who “discovered” the rest of the world and revolutionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today’s equivalent, he argued, are the tech billionaires. These are not to be confused with wealthy business tycoons of the past who wanted to make lots of money and enjoy the resulting prestige and power; they are much more ambitious, with missions and projects connected to the higher aspirations of mankind like ensuring eternal life and setting up communities in outer space.
It is worth considering the philosophy that lies at the heart of the tech billionaire’s beliefs and behaviour. It was clearly spelt out by John Perry Barlow, once a songwriter for the Grateful Dead who became one of the early proselytisers of the digital age in 1996 when he published “A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”. It began: “Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not live within your borders.”
So now we know, and in recent years we have become more familiar with some of the tech elite. Mark Zuckerberg is probably the best-known, partly because of the controversies surrounding his Facebook business. Sergei Brin and Larry Page, joint founders of Google, are less well-known but their business’s ubiquity has given them some profile, Amazon’s increasing stranglehold over retailing has heightened awareness of founder Jeff Bezos and the Tesla phenomenon has made the world take notice of Elon Musk. Peter Thiel is not as well-known but he’s a fully-fledged member of the club and he is the subject of a fascinating new biography by the experienced business journalist Max Chafkin, aptly titled The Contrarian, because although he has much in common with the other major tech figures mentioned above his extreme opinions make him somewhat of an outlier. He was born in Germany but his parents moved to America when he was two. Like the others, he excelled at school, earning almost perfect scores in his exams. He was nerdy and socially awkward but made little or no attempt to compensate. Regarding his fellow pupils with disdain, his main social interaction was beating them at chess. He was an avid reader of science fiction and also developed an obsession with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, claiming to have memorised all three volumes He enrolled at Stanford University, the most prestigious college in the eyes of the tech elite, and again graduated with ease. But it was here that definite signs of his contrariness began to emerge. He expressed particular scorn for the study of the humanities, referring dismissively to “degrees in sex and drinking”. He was gay but not “out”, and this would appear to have compounded his social discomfort.
Annoyed by the prevailing liberal ethos on campus he and a group of like-minded acolytes founded a conservative publication to present an alternative future vision heavily influenced by the right-wing icon Ayn Rand whose philosophy of objectivism, based on individual self-interest and unrestrained free-market capitalism, he enthusiastically endorsed. Thiel’s extreme libertarian views were shared by many of the tech aristocracy but he was alone in attempting to work out a more coherent account of what he stood for. While in college he co-authored a book, The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance on Campus, and later contributed an essay, The Education of a Libertarian, to a publication from the right-wing think-tank the Cato Institute, in which he concluded “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” He shared the Silicon Valley aversion to paying taxes of any kind and became interested in “seasteading”: creating independent mobile communities at sea to escape any form of government regulation or taxes. He went on to argue in a Cato Institute publication that the decline of the US in the twentieth century began in the 1930s with the introduction of higher welfare benefits and the extension of the franchise to women.
After university he drifted into the financial sector in New York, but like many ambitious young men of the time he was attracted by the much greater financial rewards offered by the emerging tech sector out west in Silicon Valley. His first breakthrough was with an awkward hand-held computer in the late 1990s then called PalmPilot, popular among geeks, a kind of proto iPhone. Immediately sensing the possibilities of using the machines for money transfer, he became one of the first investors, renamed it PayPal and it became the initial basis of his wealth and gave him a taste for intuitively based early-stage investments. But it was his instinctive ability to see what the embryonic tech revolution was capable of that was the crucial factor. The clunky PalmPilot machine, he realised, could facilitate the electronic transfer of money on a global scale beyond the reach of established banks and nation states. This reminds us of another characteristic of the tech elite, their sheer level of their aggression: they are not content with beating the competition, they want to destroy it. In linking Thiel and Zuckerberg the author reveals that the latter admired the Roman emperor Augustus, even adopting his hairstyle for a time but more importantly using his ancient war slogan Carthago delenda est. And if they can’t destroy a competitor, they simply buy them, which explains why Facebook now owns What’s App and Instagram.
Thiel’s most celebrated act of destruction was more personal but equally violent. The US satirical muck-raking blog Gawker had been stalking him for some time, concentrating on the fact that he was gay. Thiel secretly manipulated a legal action being taken by another well-known personality who also felt he was being targeted by the blog into a much more serious legal complaint, which eventually bankrupted Gawker. Thiel invested over $10m in destroying his opponent but to someone of his wealth that was only small change. He continues to invest in “disruptive” start-ups that have the potential to achieve world domination in specific business sectors, including Airbnb, Uber and the Irish Collinson brothers’ Stripe.
Like many of the “techverse” elite he wants to live forever and is interested in extropianism, the idea that advances in technology will allow humans to achieve that goal. He is also involved in the field of experimental biology known as parabiosis which involves “surgically joining two bodies so that their circulation systems merge creating in effect synthetic conjoined twins”. Adapting this idea to humans could involve transfusing older patients with blood from younger ones. When questioned about his interest in parabiosis he replied: “I am not a vampire.”
Regardless of his ambition to defeat death, Thiel has achieved much in his life to date. According to Chafkin, he set out three main goals for himself: to make a shedload of money, to be a power broker in Silicon Valley and to be a thought leader in Washington. He has certainly achieved the first two goals but in spite of some progress with the third his impact remains uncertain. His political views are clear enough from his slim volume of writing on the subject. He is an extreme libertarian with scarcely disguised misogynistic undertones. Chafkin alludes to some disturbing traces of white supremacy and antisemitic thinking which are unfortunately becoming more common in the current feverish atmosphere of American politics. After dithering around a number of Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 election Thiel finally settled on Trump because he thought he was a winner. He was the only Silicon Valley power broker to do so and was rewarded with a speaking slot at the Republican convention and then put in charge of a transition team in the White House to make recommendations about who should run various government agencies. However, most of his choices were too extreme even for Trump. But he is still active in US politics and according to Chafkin is currently providing financial support for a number of extreme right-wing Republican candidates for governorships and senate seats; so we’re unlikely to have heard the last of his malign influence.
Chafkin’s book is a useful addition to the increasing number of biographies being written about believers in the independence of cyberspace. Too little attention, however, is being given to the gigantic flaw in the portentous rhetoric of the so-called “declaration” quoted above. The reality is that the wealth of the tech billionaires is derived from “our world”. Silicon Valley’s wealth is mined from data collected from us, the weary citizens of the old world whose consent was not solicited. The secondary title of this book, “Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power”, should alert those of us who believe that freedom and democracy are compatible that in future we need to overcome our weariness and be much more vocal in defending our beliefs.