What Is It About Peter Thiel ? | The New Yorker
ilicon Valley is not a milieu known for glamour and charisma. Still, Peter Thiel has cultivated a mystique. A billionaire several times over, Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook; he went on to co-found PayPal, the digital-payment service, and Palantir, the data-intelligence company that has worked with the U.S. government. He has co-written a business best-seller, “Zero to One,” and launched a hedge fund; he now runs three venture-capital firms. But Thiel’s aura emanates not so much from these achievements as from a more general fish-out-of-water quality. In 2018, citing a regional intolerance of conservative perspectives, he moved from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles; he recently purchased a mansion in Miami Beach. He served on Donald Trump’s transition team and, in an address before the Republican National Convention, declared, “I am proud to be gay.” He has invested in efforts to “cure” aging, and also in libertarian organizations that hope to create floating cities in international waters. He publishes long, winding essays on politics, globalization, economics, and the nature of humanity that often contain Biblical epigraphs and references to the philosophy of his late mentor and friend, the anthropological theorist René Girard. Thiel also has side projects: Frisson, a now shuttered lounge and restaurant in San Francisco; American Thunder, a short-lived conservative publication geared toward Nascar fans; and the bankrolling of a lawsuit launched on behalf of the wrestler Hulk Hogan, which culminated in the 2016 bankruptcy of Gawker Media.
Thiel has fans who follow him in his peregrinations. He has become a center of gravity in the culture of Silicon Valley, and his infrequent talks and essays are circulated and analyzed by both admirers and critics. In “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power,” the Bloomberg journalist Max Chafkin argues that Thiel “has been responsible for creating the ideology that has come to define Silicon Valley: that technological progress should be pursued relentlessly—with little, if any, regard for potential costs or dangers to society.” Thiel’s devotees see him differently—as a techno-libertarian who associates technological advancement with personal freedom, scientific progress, and even salvation.
Thiel arrived at Stanford in 1985. He played speed chess, discovered Ayn Rand, and gravitated toward the work of Girard, a professor at the school. Thiel was particularly taken with Girard’s concept of mimetic desire. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote. “We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” Mimetic desire involves a surrender of agency—it means allowing others to dictate one’s wants—and, the theory goes, can foster envy, rivalry, infighting, and resentment. It also, Girard wrote, leads to acts of violent scapegoating, which serve to preclude further mass conflicts by unifying persecutors against a group or an individual. Thiel would later use this framework to develop his own theories about politics, tech investing, and culture.
He started a hedge fund, Thiel Capital, with money raised from family and friends, and then, in 1998, met a young cryptographer, Max Levchin, and invested in his startup. Within a year, Thiel was the C.E.O. of Levchin’s company, Confinity, which offered a money-transfer service called PayPal. For Thiel, the service had revolutionary potential: a digital wallet, he said, could lead to “the erosion of the nation-state.” Confinity went on to hire four former Review editors, and half a dozen former staffers.
PayPal was not registered as a bank, and did not collect information about its users; as a result, Chafkin writes, it could be used for illicit transactions that many banks and credit-card companies did not tend to support (porn, gambling), and which the company later banned. Meanwhile, Levchin created an eBay bot that contacted sellers, expressed interest in their wares, and then asked that they implement PayPal in order to be paid. (The company donated the items that it bid for and won to the Red Cross.) Thanks to these ethically dubious techniques—which might now be referred to as “growth hacking”—PayPal’s user base boomed.
Dodge the rules, skirt the law, shiv your business partner, abandon your friends: Chafkin argues that the Silicon Valley edition of this playbook was written at PayPal. Perhaps for this reason, the company’s early executives and employees became known as the “PayPal mafia.” A group portrait made in 2007, for a story in Fortune, suggested that they embraced the moniker. In the photograph, twelve former PayPal employees sit in a restaurant. They are styled like the Corleone family, in plush tracksuits and back-room casual. Musk is conspicuously absent; Thiel sits center stage, at a two-top covered in neat towers of poker chips. With his high forehead, deep-set blue eyes, and faint smile, he looks placid and amused.
Chafkin writes that, following September 11th, Thiel became “increasingly consumed by the threat posed by Islamic terrorism,” and grew skeptical “of immigration, and of all other forms of globalization.” While working at his new hedge fund, Clarium Capital, Thiel bankrolled a project called Palantir—its name was inspired by a “seeing stone” from J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy—which sought to collate and analyze an abundance of government data, from financial records to cell-phone logs. Palantir reportedly used software developed at PayPal to identify criminal networks and mitigate fraud; the idea was that, if the software was good enough to identify money launderers, it could probably identify terrorists, too. (Thiel says that Palantir used no PayPal tools whatsoever.) “It was assumed that this would violate certain pre-9/11 privacy norms, but that would be totally fine in a post-9/11 world,” Chafkin writes. Then as now, it can be hard for outsiders to get a handle on how well the software works: Chafkin claims that, at least at first, Palantir’s intelligence offerings were “effectively useless” and “more a demo than a real product.” (Thiel denies this characterization.) The C.I.A. invested through its venture-capital arm, and the N.Y.P.D. was a customer. Palantir, which went public last year, is now valued at more than fifty billion dollars.
In 2004, Thiel invested in Facebook, loaning it what would later translate to a ten-per-cent stake in the company. Around the same time, he organized a small symposium at Stanford on “Politics and the Apocalypse.” Thiel’s contribution, later published as an essay titled “The Straussian Moment,” was built on the premise that September 11th had upended “the entire political and military framework of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” demanding “a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The essay drew from a grab bag of thinkers—it meditated on Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, then combined ideas from the conservative political theorists Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt, who wrote about the inadequacies of liberal democracy, with the work of Girard—to offer a diagnosis of modernity. “A religious war has been brought to a land that no longer cares for religious wars,” Thiel wrote. “Today, mere self-preservation forces all of us to look at the world anew, to think strange new thoughts, and thereby to awaken from that very long and profitable period of intellectual slumber and amnesia that is so misleadingly called the Enlightenment.”
Whether the future would be utopian or apocalyptic, Thiel positioned himself to profit. In 2005, he established a venture-capital firm, Founders Fund, which announced that it would be seeking “riskier, more out-of-the-box companies that really have the potential to change the world.” He developed an interest in life-extension and anti-aging technologies—one of the firm’s early investments was Halcyon Molecular, a startup that sought to defeat aging through the development of genomic-sequencing technology—and in defense contractors, including SpaceX, Musk’s aerospace company. Around this time, Valleywag, a new Silicon Valley gossip blog owned by Gawker Media, began making Thiel a regular subject. A 2006 post, “Three Valley Moguls Dabble in Humanity’s Future,” noted that Thiel—a “Valley exec investing in weird dreams of a super-intelligent race”—had joined the board of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (now the Machine Intelligence Research Institute). In a later post, Valleywag mentioned a rumored million-dollar donation Thiel had made to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group affiliated with NumbersUSA, a far-right anti-immigration nonprofit. A 2007 post, titled “Peter Thiel Is Totally Gay, People,” was particularly upsetting to Thiel: although many of his friends and colleagues had known that he was gay, he saw the post as an outing.
As the decade drew to a close, Thiel befriended Patri Friedman, a computer programmer and grandson of Milton Friedman, who had written about so-called seasteading communities—hypothetical libertarian utopias floating in international waters. Thiel offered Friedman half a million dollars to start a seasteading nonprofit. He also gave money to the SENS Research Foundation, an anti-aging nonprofit, and to the Methuselah Foundation, an organization dedicated to life extension. In 2009, he wrote an essay for Cato Unbound, an online libertarian journal published by the Cato Institute, in which he stated that he no longer believed “freedom and democracy are compatible,” and that “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries” and the extension of voting rights to women had “rendered the notion of a ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” (Following backlash to the essay, Thiel put out an addendum of sorts: “While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.”) All of this only served as more fodder for Gawker.
Does Thiel’s world view make any sense? Critics see a tangle of unprincipled hypocrisies—intellectual ground cover for banal shamelessness and techy self-interest. Admirers perceive depth, and an enthralling, novel framework for the future. Thiel’s involvement with Trump alienated some followers, but for others it deepened his mystique, raising the possibility that he knew something his contemporaries did not.
Most prominent Silicon Valley executives have historically identified as liberal, but one might ask whether their companies and products have actually advanced progressive values or causes; today, privately owned platforms touted as democratizing are arguably among the most centralized and anti-democratic. Inasmuch as Thiel’s approach to technology acknowledges Silicon Valley’s roots in the military-industrial complex, he may be the tech industry’s most honest representative. It is often remarked that he is a villain out of central casting.