The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power by Max Chafkin - review by Martin Vander Weyer

Martin Vander Weyer

He’s Probably Not Going to Be Your Pal

The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power

By

Bloomsbury 366pp £25
 

Who is Peter Thiel and why does he matter? The answer, according to this book’s blurb, is that he’s a US-based technology investor and political-campaign funder who wields behind-the-scenes influence on ‘countless aspects of contemporary life’. While some American readers may know what Thiel looks like and even think of him as a role model, I suspect that for most British readers his name will ring only a distant bell and his face is unknown. Jobs of Apple, Zuckerberg of Facebook, Bezos of Amazon, Musk of Tesla:
these we know. But Thiel of PayPal and Palantir? Not so much.

Max Chafkin is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek who has been covering technology and start-up stories in Silicon Valley and elsewhere for fifteen years. His objective is to place Thiel in a broad perspective of technological progress and US political change. For readers who don’t know much about Thiel already, he also faces the task of making him sound sufficiently powerful and charismatic that they finish the book thinking they now understand who’s really been pulling America’s strings.

Does Chafkin achieve that? On balance I’d have to say not quite, though he has produced a very competent example of the American style of investigative business writing. He assembles his material with clarity but doesn’t overload the detail and isn’t afraid to pass judgement. And he must have encountered a particular challenge when writing this book, which was to compose a full-length portrait of someone whose most interesting feature is his knack for making money but who appears to have no likeable personality traits at all. Thiel – unlike, say, Donald Trump, whom he backed for a while then dumped – is also no brightly costumed pantomime villain. He just comes across as mean, secretive, misanthropic and frankly weird.

Born to immigrant parents from Germany, Thiel’s ‘joyless’ childhood was followed by an intellectual flowering in the hothouse of Stanford University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The origin of his $2 billion fortune was his role in the founding of PayPal, the payments system that was eventually bought by eBay. Later, he was a major investor in Facebook, alongside its creator Mark Zuckerberg, and has been a backer of many other ventures. In the early 2000s, he and others set up Palantir, a pioneer of ‘big data analytics’ with applications in fields as various as counterterrorism surveillance and pandemic response. So far so good: ‘patient’ investment by Thiel and his ilk has been the basis of Silicon Valley’s triumph as an incubator of digital technologies from which the world has benefited mightily.

But, oh dear, what an unattractive world-view underpins Thiel’s investment philosophy. At the right-wing, libertarian extreme of the American political spectrum, he’s on a mission to subvert big government, its agencies and regulatory structures, believing that tech entrepreneurs, free from state interference, will generate prosperity for all who deserve it. Concepts such as diversity and equality merely get in the way, as indeed does democracy itself.

Thiel’s ideal state (the concept is called ‘seasteading’) is a man-made offshore island beyond the control of governments and with no taxation. He’s also interested, by the way, in life extension beyond the natural span, possibly by means of blood transfusions to the elderly from healthy younger people. Surrounded by acolytes, hero-worshipped by wannabe billionaires, he inhabits a protected echo chamber populated only by those who think likewise. You really wouldn’t want to find yourself on a desert island with him, let alone on a giant artificial floating research laboratory.

Are there any British connections in the Thiel story? One that catches the eye is the curious fact that the younger Thiel was influenced by the thinking of the late William Rees-Mogg – father of Jacob, editor of The Times and grand panjandrum of the British conservative establishment. In 1997 Rees-Mogg co-authored (with an investment expert, James Dale Davidson) The Sovereign Individual, which predicted that the advance of the internet would lead to the disintegration of the nation-state, with its antiquated tax and welfare systems, while the individual would win economic independence and power would shift to a global entrepreneurial elite. The thesis gained no traction in the UK – Rees-Mogg was much mocked for the eccentricity of his later writings – but set out exactly the sort of future in which Thiel imagined a leading role for himself.

And if you had to think of anyone in British life who is at all like Thiel, it wouldn’t be one of our rather small cohort of super-rich entrepreneurs: Richard Branson and James Dyson are rays of sunshine by comparison. No, it would probably be former Downing Street chief adviser Dominic Cummings, with his tech obsessions and contempt for conventional government.

Having finally watched a YouTube clip of a speech given by Thiel (at Stanford on the theme of ‘Competition is for Losers’), I observe that he and Cummings share a pale, thin-lipped demeanour and perhaps a hint of Spock from Star Trek. I enjoyed The Contrarian and learned a great deal from it, but having reached the end, I’m glad I’ll be spending no more time in the company of Peter Thiel.

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