Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle… Reviewing Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’

Peter Thiel occupies the public imagination in a lot of different ways.  Until somewhere around 2010, he was a figure of the new wave of software-driven social disruptors.  If you had the right software, if you had the tenacity of spirit, if you were male, you too could disrupt the old way and make a fortune doing so.  The money he made on PayPal soon went into other investments, like Facebook and LinkedIn, and Thiel’s wealth and influence grew.  By 2012, he was teaching a class on startups at Stanford University — the notes from which became the book, Zero to One: notes on startups, or how to build the future.

But it hasn’t only been through technology that Thiel has influenced society.  Having little interest in technology, I first became aware of Thiel through his lawsuits against Gawker Media.  Gawker had outed him as homosexual, and Thiel felt this was an invasion of his privacy.  He bankrolled lawsuits against Gawker — which he considered a philanthropic activity — until the Hulk Hogan case forced Gawker into bankruptcy.  I was (and still am) in support of Thiel’s position here, but disagree with him on the remedy.  Thiel’s position is strictly libertarian, and his bankrolling of lawsuits against Gawker was done to provide a deterrent to media companies invading the privacy of individuals.  That is, he thinks a private citizen driving a media company into bankruptcy is a market-based solution to privacy invasion.  But the same mechanism would also (and does) deter media companies from reporting matters genuinely in the public interest that happened to involve private citizens.  State-based regulation is a far better remedy, but falls immediately into the public discussion as ‘censorship’ or (in the US) a violation of the first amendment.

And then there’s the case of his support for Trump: $1.25m donation towards his election.

Which all brings me back to Zero to One: his book about being a success.

It is difficult to know where Thiel begins and ends in Zero to One.  At times, the book contains insightful discussions of what technological disruption means.  At other times (indeed, the majority of the time) is is an uncritical self-congratulatory rant.  But which bits are Thiel?  The book was also written by Blake Masters, who took notes of the Stanford lectures upon which Zero to One is based.  To what extent are we seeing Thiel through hero-worshipping eyes?

One of my favourite genres of philosophical book is the compiled lecture notes.  Most of Aristotle comes to us in this form, as do a number of modern works in political and legal philosophy.  Their strength is that they are clearly didactic.  They are designed to teach.

Zero to One doesn’t teach, and it is difficult to know whether this is because Masters was a bad student and bungled his notes, or because Thiel is a bad teacher (or both).

Thiel’s insights into technological disruption are excellent and thought-provoking, but suffer from a lack of depth.  I would have preferred more interrogation of the social dimension to his claims than endure his strange little rants about why not getting a good legal job was advantageous to his career.  The most interesting part of Thiel’s argument is the relationship between technological change and profit incentives.  Thiel advocates a ‘power law’: only investing in ideas that have the potential to make a return that exceeds the entire investment fund.  This creates a dynamic worth exploring: if you have a profit motive to disrupt society, who loses out when you’re only backing the changes that will have the greatest return on investment?  Are we letting too few people enjoy the profits of social disruption?  Are we allowing too few a group of people to determine what aspects of society are going to be disrupted?

That dimension to the analysis is obviously missing, and it flows from other comments Thiel makes about his own experiences.  Thiel frequently mentions his ability to take risks without analysing why he was able to engage in those risks.  The story about him missing out on a legal job typifies this analysis: Thiel is grateful that he didn’t get the dream job that he sought (being an associate to Justice Scalia) because it meant that he could create a start up.  None of the risks that Thiel takes in life have the potential to destroy him — he’s never one risk away from starvation.  He doesn’t have to overcome any particular hardship: he is an extremely clever person born into a highly successful family.  Missing from his account of his own life is his opposition to the success of others: he founded The Stanford Review in opposition to decisions of Stanford University to introduce diversity schemes.  The secret to Thiel’s success is that he makes the most of being white and male.

And he’s lucky.  It is easy to see that, in the universe next door, Thiel makes exactly the same decisions and doesn’t end up a billionaire.  But you don’t read a self-help book like Zero to One just to be told: ‘Be lucky.’

It is sometimes difficult to trust Thiel’s analysis.  He opposes government investment in areas of the economy — like ‘Green Energy’ — and so he is quick to declare the investment a failure.  But the same analysis would have resulted in governments not investing in finding a cure for polio: ‘Look at how much money is being sunk into research!  How will governments ever get that money back?’

He makes similar points in biomedical research.  Noting Eroom’s Law — that advances in medicine become slower and more expensive over time — Thiel argues that we should consider investing elsewhere in the pursuit of profit.  But this returns us to the social question of investing in disruption: if the government has already shifted the burden of investment to the market (which is what Thiel fundamentally wants) who continues to fund research when investors seek profits elsewhere?

Zero to One has made me think about my own projects differently.  What kind of researcher do I want to be, and how do I want to invest my time?  But it has done that by presenting a vision of the world that I want to dispute.  I don’t want to create a product that will attract investment from the privateers: I want to create projects that will be socially disruptive in a way that benefits society in the long term.  I don’t want to create projects that will make me the last mover — the product that makes it unprofitable for others to compete with me — but I want to create projects that facilitate others to create new projects.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s