Franklin Foer's perceptive and dystopian book misunderstands the real threats posed by Big Tech.
It seems like everyone–but especially conservatives–is talking about Peter Thiel these days. One sees his name all over. The traditionalist conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute has made the venture capitalist and PayPal cofounder this year’s speaker defending Western civilization (link no longer available). I met Peter (and sat cozily beside him for two days) at a theology conference sponsored by First Things, where he shared his quite singular interpretation of Genesis. Last December, I went to a Straussian conference on Burke and Strauss, funded, of course, by Peter Thiel.
I (and 60,00 or so others) recently got an email from Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, who began by saying that he often disagrees with Thiel; he thinks his praise of the innovative benefits of monopolies, for instance, applies “only in the narrowest cases.” Still, “right or wrong, or somewhere in between,” Peter’s writing is always “interesting,” and he is “one of our more important public intellectuals.” Thiel’s big claim, that “the collapse of technological progress over the last 40 years is the root of our cultural, political, and economic malaise,” is worth arguing about.
You know, it really is.
Several people had shared with me an interview Thiel gave where he’s all about transhumanism, which means being on the techno-warpath against death, and not being gentle or accepting or defeatist when it comes to the prospect of personal extinction. Prompted by that interview I did some research on line and found the excellent notes taken by Blake Masters on “the course about startups” that Thiel taught at Stanford in 2012.
If you want a wild ride, look up those notes. The Thiel course is really about everything—in many respects as much about the thought of Rene Girard and Leo Strauss as about creating new business enterprises. There was a dazzling class on founders and foundings that included advice on how to perpetuate a founding as long as possible and to founders on how to avoid scapegoating. It was a little unnerving (and, to me, a little crazy) for him to collapse the distinction between political founders and startup founders in the narrower techno-sense. In both cases, founding is creating and building new things; it is the techno-project of creating “value” out of nothing. (This is an interpretation Machiavelli would appreciate, if only to a point.)
Now comes the book that Crown has just put out, and it’s based on the legendary course. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters is a compressed and somewhat sanitized version of the course. It is as much as a wider audience could possibly absorb with profit.
On the monopoly issue, for the record, I think Peter is pretty darn convincing. His point is that the experience of Silicon Valley’s colossally successful start-ups shows how out-of-date economists’ teaching is concerning the benefits of maximizing competition. The monopoly benignly understood is in a position to maximize innovation, combine concern for the “bottom line” with genuine attention to higher ethical goals, and treat employees fabulously well because of its much higher than normal profits. The true founder, we can say, knows that the tough (and failure-ridden) world of competition is for suckers, and there are no definite limits to his ability to rule others through manipulation for his own and their good. Highly competent economists, such as Donald Boudreaux, appreciate Peter’s insight here and only adjust it so far as to point out that it’s inaccurate to apply the brand “monopoly,” with all of its negative connotations, to what Peter is talking about.
In the chapter entitled “You Are Not a Lottery Ticket,” Thiel writes of Francis Bacon’s modern project, which places “prolongation of life” as the noblest branch of medicine, as well the main point of the techno-development of science. That prolongation is at the core of the definite optimism that should drive “the intelligent design” at the foundation of technological development. We (especially we founders) should do everything we can “to prioritize design over chance.” We should do everything we can to remove contingency from existence, especially, of course, each of our personal existences.
What, today, would be “the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery”? This would be the startup. For the libertarian Thiel, the startup has replaced the country as the object of the highest human ambition. And that’s the foundation of the future that comes from being ruled by the intelligent designers who are Silicon Valley founders.
Zero to One does not have the insistent transhumanist focus of the 2012 lecture course. The course’s last session was mainly about overcoming death through the coming of the Singularity. The idea was that the Singularity—the moment when technology “knows” more than we do— won’t come on its own as a result of some deterministic techno-development. We have to both hope and work for it to happen.
Indefinite longevity—as opposed to the literal immortality promised by the Singularity—might be considered to be in the spirit of the great founder Machiavelli. At the end of “You Are Not a Lottery Ticket,” however, Thiel calls for a “cultural revolution” that allows us to plan to make our futures as definite as possible. That means no more taking orders from John Rawls or Malcolm Gladwell; they are too accepting of the place of luck (or fortuna, to use Machiavelli’s word) in human affairs. It also means “rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance” by seeing that “You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world.”
The Singularity is treated more vaguely in the book than it was in the course. In the book’s final chapter, “Stagnation or Singularity,” it is said to be “an attempt to name the imagined result of new technologies so powerful as to transcend the current limits of our understanding.” Thiel adds, in a seemingly most edifying way: “Everything important to us—the universe, the country, your company, your life, and this very moment—is singular.” Many a distinction is collapsed and many a punch is pulled. He’s being a bit exoteric here, or not letting some big secrets out. Still, it is true enough, from Thiel’s view, that nothing trumps the singularity that is one’s own particular life, and so nothing is more urgently important than that technological progress not succumb to the malaise of stagnation.
We are told at that chapter’s beginning that “Only recently have people dared to hope that we might permanently escape misfortune.” And we learn in an earlier chapter on “Secrets” that hope is based on startup founders’ unveiling and keeping secrets. Thiel even says that theoretical physicists have pretty much discovered all we can know about the stars, knowledge that doesn’t help us that much. Now we should turn our attention to deploying the science of nutrition to get nature to yield secrets that might keep many of us around until the Singularity comes along. Why, Thiel wonders, is it impossible to major in nutrition at Harvard?
So, especially from a Straussian view, we can see that Peter Thiel has emerged as the most resolute and most imaginative defender of the distinctively modern part of Western civilization. That doesn’t mean that, when it comes to the libertarian displacement of the nation by the startup and the abolition of all contingency from particular personal lives, his imagination and his self-importance don’t trump his astuteness. They do. His theology of liberation is that we, made in the image of God, can do for ourselves what the Biblical Creator promised—free ourselves from the misery of being self-conscious mortals dependent on forces beyond our control. And our real future depends on keeping that techno-hope alive.