THIEL TALKS TRUMP FACEBOOK
By DAVID STREITFELDMARCH 7, 2018
Peter Thiel is Silicon Valley’s homegrown Cassandra. He warned for years that the big tech companies were arrogant and clueless and less good for mankind than they believed.
Comeuppance, the billionaire investor warned, was coming.
Trouble has now arrived. Unfortunately for Mr. Thiel, the storm is centered on Facebook, whose board he has been a member of practically since its founding. The social network, which billed itself as bringing democracy and enlightenment to the world, was used by the Russians to subvert democracy and sow confusion in the United States.
Even people paid to see the future didn’t see that one coming.
“The board’s role is to help think about some of the medium- and longer-term problems coming around the corner,” Mr. Thiel said. “We were far from perfect in doing that.”
Mr. Thiel, 50, is at the center of nearly every issue that roils Silicon Valley, ranging from the tech elite’s fascination with New Zealand hideaways (Mr. Thiel obtained New Zealand citizenship) to Bitcoin (he is a major investor) to the problems of herd thinking (he is moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles to escape it) to the evolving role of content on the internet (he has been exploring the creation of a media company that would outflank Breitbart and Fox for a younger audience).
Two subjects are currently overwhelming everything else: President Trump, whom Mr. Thiel aggressively backed for president, and Facebook, whose core mission is being called into question in the wake of the Russian revelations. In a typical Thiel move — he tends to run toward controversy even as his Silicon Valley peers try to make themselves inconspicuous — he agreed, in a rare interview, to talk about both.
“It’s been a crazier two years than I would have thought,” Mr. Thiel said in his new Midtown Manhattan apartment, which is so far up in the clouds that it literally looks down on Trump Tower.
Despite the proximity, the mutual enthusiasm between Mr. Thiel and Mr. Trump seems to have cooled. After Mr. Thiel spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016, there were unsourced media reports that said Mr. Trump wanted to put him on the Supreme Court. But now even photo ops are rare.
The investor said he had last spoken to the president “a few months ago.”
“We don’t talk that often,” he said, but added, “I can get access anytime I want.”
The Trump whom Mr. Thiel touted at the Republican convention was a candidate who would “end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country,” move us past “fake culture wars” and start projects the equivalent of the Apollo space program. That does not seem to be the president he got.
“There are all these ways that things have fallen short,” Mr. Thiel said. But he said he had no regrets about his endorsement. “It’s still better than Hillary Clinton or the Republican zombies,” he said, referring to the other candidates.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Thiel is routinely labeled a libertarian. On a bookshelf in the apartment, as if in confirmation, is a hardback copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” the bible of the movement. A gift, he said.
A lesser-known but possibly deeper influence was the French philosopher René Girard, who taught at Stanford University when Mr. Thiel was an undergraduate there. For 15 years, on and off, Mr. Thiel sat in on a study group about Mr. Girard’s ideas. Mr. Girard believed human beings were deeply mimetic, which is to say they copy one another.
“It’s very anti-Ayn Rand: There are no self-contained autonomous figures,” Mr. Thiel said. “Our desires are not our own. They get shaped powerfully by the society around us.”
It was this illumination that helped him see the potential of Facebook — where people could find out in intimate and addictive detail what their friends were up to — when it was barely a year old. He was the first outside investor, buying 10 percent of the company for $500,000.
He sold most of his holdings in 2012 as Facebook went public. A few months ago, with Facebook’s market capitalization at about $500 billion, he sold most of what he had left.
Last summer, there was a flap when a memo by a fellow board member, Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, appeared in The New York Times. In the memo, Mr. Hastings wrote to Mr. Thiel that he displayed “catastrophically bad judgment” in supporting Mr. Trump.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, did not ask him to step down from the board, and reports that he wants to leave the board are incorrect, Mr. Thiel said, noting that among other things that he brings “ideological diversity.” He declined to say exactly how much or what kind of advice the Facebook board was offering Mr. Zuckerberg, but defended the company from criticism that it was slow to wake up to what the Russians did.Read More...