Wherever there’s a major shift in the American landscape, one can usually find Silicon Valley’s iconoclastic investor.
Michael Gibson still remembers his first day working for Peter Thiel. Like many of Thiel’s hires, he’d met the contrarian investor through several of the PayPal founder’s variously eccentric political ventures. A onetime self-described “unemployed writer in L.A.,” who’d left a doctoral program in philosophy at Oxford, Gibson had met Thiel through his work at the Seasteading Institute, a Thiel-funded attempt to create a libertarian “floating city” in international waters. Then Thiel asked him to help teach a class at Stanford Law School on philosophy, technology, and politics. And then Thiel asked him to work for his hedge fund. Gibson had no intention of working in finance, or any experience in doing so, but he and Thiel had, he felt, “gelled philosophically,” sharing an interest in social thinkers and scholars of religion like Émile Durkheim and René Girard, as well as a commitment to what Gibson called “liberating people” from socially conditioned ideas.
Some opportunities you just don’t pass up. “I show up to work my first day,” Gibson says: September 27, 2010. “It’s a hedge fund, just as you might imagine on TV—there’s a ticker tape going around the room, a trading desk, lots of screens with Bloomberg Terminals. And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking—how did I end up here?”
It took only a few hours for Gibson’s life to change. A colleague, he remembers, showed up at his desk and told him: “Oh, on the plane ride back from New York last night we came up with this idea. We’re going to call it the anti-Rhodes Scholarship,” a reference to the prestigious 118-year-old scholarship program that brings young scholars from across the former British Empire to study for free at the University of Oxford. “We’re going to pay people to leave school and work on things.”
There was no time to waste. The annual TechCrunch Disrupt conference was starting that day. Thiel was scheduled to speak. Thiel’s staff was keen to burnish his image—Aaron Sorkin’s blockbuster account of the creation of Facebook, The Social Network, was slated to be released soon; early leaked copies of the script had suggested that Thiel, a major early investor in the company, wasn’t particularly sympathetically portrayed. “He wanted to get a jump on that with some good news,” Gibson explained. “So we went to his house, we got into a car, and we went to this conference. And on the fly, we’re coming up with—okay, well, what do we call this thing? How much money? How many years?”
By the time Thiel was backstage, Gibson recalls, they were still discussing specifics. “Then Peter’s on stage, being interviewed and talking about this program as if it already exists, in the present tense.” The Thiel Fellowship would be a kind of “20 under 20” for the tech industry’s incipient disrupters. Twenty entrepreneurs under 20 would get $100,000 to drop out of college and work full-time on their startup ideas. There was no indication, during his interview with TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacey, that the idea had been developed only that day.
Thus is life in the orbit of Peter Thiel. With a net worth of approximately $2.3 billion, Thiel is far from the wealthiest person in Silicon Valley (Google’s Larry Page’s net worth is an estimated $66 billion, for instance). He may, however, be the most influential. Alongside his investments in high-profile companies like Airbnb, LinkedIn, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and health-insurance company Oscar, Thiel’s more esoteric pet projects and funding recipients include some of the Bay Area’s most out-of-the-box libertarian-utopian ventures: the Seasteading Institute, the Eliezer Yudkowsky–helmed Machine Intelligence Research Center, which researches how to counter the threat of an intelligent Artificial Intelligence; the Center for Applied Rationality, a de facto headquarters for the Silicon Valley rationalist community; the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which funds antiaging research under the aegis of controversial gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. Thiel’s foundations have funded gleefully contrarian events like “Hereticon,” originally scheduled for May 2020 in New Orleans but since postponed, due to the coronavirus. It is billed as “a safe space for people who don’t feel safe in safe spaces.” And they’ve founded, too, novel medical apps like Carbyne, an Israeli “self-surveillance” 911 tool now used in New Orleans as part of the city’s Covid-19 public-health effort. Add the spectacular collapse of Gawker Media—bankrupted after a Thiel-funded lawsuit by former wrestling star Hulk Hogan, whose private sex tapes the site had posted in 2012—and the election of Donald Trump, to whose 2016 campaign he donated $1.25 million, and a pattern emerges. Wherever there’s a major shift in the American landscape in the past half-decade—be it political or cultural—there, somewhere on the donor list of the political campaign, or among the investors in the controversial technology, is Peter Thiel.
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