(Disclosure: I’m working on a podcast about the show “Succession” for HBO, which has aired programming featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and André the Giant.)
This week I spoke with Max Chafkin, an editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of a new biography of the tech mogul Peter Thiel called “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power.”
1. Why did you pick Peter Thiel as a subject, and what do you think he represents in Silicon Valley?
There are other figures you could tell the story of Silicon Valley’s rise through — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. But Thiel seemed interesting for two reasons: First, he’s full of contradictions. How, for instance, does a gay, immigrant technologist with two Stanford degrees come to enthusiastically support a reactionary nativist like Donald Trump? Second, while those other tech moguls have had a direct influence through their companies, Thiel’s influence has been more subtle and, I’d argue, more profound. “Silicon Valley” is as much an idea as a place at this point, and I think Thiel’s ideology, which combines nationalist and libertarian (Liberthielien?) politics with a view that tech founders should rule the world, has shaped that idea more than anyone else. Silicon Valley’s liberals like to distance themselves from Thiel politically, but when you get down to it, they tend to agree with him on most things.
2. What do people get wrong about him, and what do you think does not get enough attention?
Thiel is not the Randian superhero his tech-bro followers imagine; he’s also not the vampiric right-wing villain imagined by the left. He’s gotten a lot of things right, but he’s made mistakes in his career, which I think contain lessons for both his fans and his critics. At times, he has allowed himself to be blinded by his biases — an interesting problem for someone who has been keen to call out biases of his critics. As I report in the book, Thiel’s climate change denialism caused him to miss a chance to invest in Tesla early, and his need to have a contrarian take caused him to run his hedge fund into the ground during the 2008 financial crisis. Often the consensus view is the correct one.
3. I think Thiel, who is on Facebook’s board, is one of the biggest influences on Mark Zuckerberg and not in a positive way. Please discuss.
I agree completely — his influence on Zuckerberg has been enormous. First, he’s pushed Zuckerberg toward a libertarian worldview, which I think has caused Facebook to take a hands-off position on misinformation and violence. Personally though, I’m less worried about Thiel’s politics than I am about the influence he’s had on Zuckerberg’s approach as C.E.O. The Thiel business philosophy says that founders should have absolute power and should pursue monopolistic growth at all costs — breaking rules and norms whenever possible. It’s pretty clear that this mind-set allowed Facebook to become dominant, but it also made Facebook indifferent to its responsibilities to society. A tiny start-up that subscribes to the Thiel playbook is no big deal; a trillion-dollar media conglomerate with endless data on three billion people that is operating according to that playbook is scary.