What’s The Deal with Thiel?
Posted on May 30th, 2016
By Dan Taylor [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Recently, details have emerged about how Peter Thiel is funding the legal battles of others who have felt wronged by the online tabloid Gawker, spurred in part by his own outing by the tabloid.
Now, certainly there is good discussion to be had in the fact that the USA justice system is so broken that it is both susceptible to this “outside support" model, and that this type of funding would be useful in many cases. Lots of others are already covering that. Instead, I want to talk about how ideologically-confused Thiel appears to be.
So let’s start with this story about secret legal support. The New York Times has one of the less-polemic and biased stories about it. As detailed in this story, Thiel supports & funds free speech and free press around the world, while he tries to ruin a tabloid site at home. Now, there is certainly some complexity, here. Free speech does not guarantee a right to an audience, a free platform to distribute ideas, favorable reactions from audiences, or no repercussions from fraud/slander/libel. One can argue that Peter is fighting within these realms. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: let’s move on.
In the same article linked about, we read this sentence:
"A libertarian, Mr. Thiel is a pledged delegate for Donald J. Trump for the 2016 Republican National Convention."
What? Sure, the popular media likes to portray libertarianism as an alternative Right with simplistic descriptions like “gay Republicans who smoke weed", and I’m sure that is a fair representation for some who identify as libertarian, but libertarianism is essentially a political philosophy of non-aggression and ends-not-justifying-means. Does that sound remotely like a Trump candidacy? Of course not, because Trump is not remotely libertarian, and not even comparatively so, even in our current era where most Democratic and Republican candidates are on the authoritarian side of things on both social and economic axes.
Let’s dig further into this area. Have you heard of the Seasteading project? How about Palantir (the company, not the item from Middle Earth)? Seasteading is a plan to create floating cities outside the jurisdiction of national governments. Palantir, on the other hand, started off their offerings with “Palantir Gotham", which helps the US government with their bulk spying efforts. You can guess where this is going: Thiel is involved in both of these efforts.
Let’s finish by heading back in time to Paypal. Today, Paypal is mostly a simple online payments site, but it was once a project with some goals similar to what we see in bitcoin: a challenge to (and hedge against) fiat currencies and massive inflation. As a co-founder, the IPO and then sale to eBay provided Thiel seed money to do a lot of investment. Some of this, as we have seen above, is investment in efforts with strong ideological objectives. Broadly, Thiel financially supports many efforts that are correlated with radical technological progress: strong AI, transhuman technologies, and hard-science “breakthrough technologies". But on the other hand, he invests in things like Facebook, Yelp, and LinkedIn. Maybe this conflict is simply explained by dual goals of advancing certain ideologies while also keeping a diversified portfolio & investing with his connections, a sort of “make more money to accomplish more" approach.
But overall, we have a very strange picture. We have see someone with a vision for rights and technologies that will help create a bright future, but also one of that exacerbates problems in the here and now.
One possible way to explain much of the above is a view that says “technological progress, and living long enough to experience it, is the most important thing."
No, it’s not libertarian, except in the narrowest and most reactionary way. It’s the type of “libertarian" that shouts at everyone “PC culture is destroying America and not letting us Do Important Things(™), so I’m voting for Trump, because he tells it like it is."
But of course, it isn't, and he doesn’t.
It makes no sense to fight for a technologically-advanced future if we destroy ourselves in the process. We cannot continue to exhaust resources, make the environment unlivable, give power to dangerous people, nor fail to adopt ethical models of living together. If we do, our species will either be dead before that future, or we will find ourselves wishing we were, in the eventuality that unethical people are the first to create and control a singleton powerful AI.
Edited to Add: in Transhumanism Implies Anarchism, William Gillis makes a similar point: we need to have an ethical awakening to properly support a technological one. We must approach a social singularity, not just a technical one.