Guys, something's up with Peter Thiel. The Paypal co-founder, college hater and libertarian would-be sea-steader has been making the PR rounds for a book or something, but rather than shilling, he's been complaining. He mostly seems miffed that the tech landscape today doesn't have enough big idea guys like Thiel's friend Elon Musk, and has too many people doing and investing, well, like Thiel himself has done.
Look, this isn't to rag on Thiel, who seems like a nice enough guy. In fact, this comes from a place of concern, because—from what I'm piecing together—Thiel is bearing all the symptoms of a severe Musk-complex. Thiel knows enough to see the brilliance of Musk and how he'll change the world, while Thiel's own projects fit the pattern of things he regularly slags off in interviews. He's the Antonio Salieri to Wolfgang Elonmadeus Muskzart.
The Musk love is understandable; the duo go way back to the '90s. In his Reddit AMA from a week ago, Thiel named Musk's dual empire of Tesla and SpaceX as the "most exciting example of a company showing determinate optimism today," and in reply to next question about what he thought of Musk when he first met him, Thiel came off really humble, calling Musk, "very smart, very charismatic, and incredibly driven—a very rare combination, since most people who have one of these traits learn to coast on the other two."
The college-killing Thiel Fellowship's most public success so far Is a Caffeinated Spray
There's nothing really all that concerning here—Tesla, SpaceX, and Musk are obviously cool. What's troubling is how Thiel talks about the rest of Silicon Valley. As someone whose reputation and fortune were made in the legendary, bygone days of the 1990s, Thiel is something of an elder statesman in the Valley, and like many elder statesmen, he seems disappointed in these kids today. Just look at how this interview with MIT Technology Review is introduced:
"According to Thiel, developments in computers and the Internet haven't significantly improved our quality of life. In a new book, he warns entrepreneurs that conventional business wisdom is preventing them and society as a whole from making major advances in areas, such as energy or health, where technology could make the world a better place—though he doesn't offer detailed answers on how we might unlock such breakthroughs."
The interviewer asks Thiel about his Founders Fund slogan, "We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters," and Thiel is quick to assert that he has no problem with Twitter as a business, "but its specific success may be symptomatic of a general failure. Even though it improves our lives in certain ways, it is not enough to take our civilization to the next level."
Rather than spending their time making apps and other information tech to improve lives in "certain ways," he thinks companies and the investors who fund them should be working on the big issues, like extending lives by investing in biotech. According to the Founders Fund website, "we believe that the shift away from backing transformational technologies and toward more cynical, incrementalist investments broke venture capital."
Of course, Thiel's commitment to transformational technologies over information tech is somewhat undercut when he reveals that he "thinks that there will continue to be innovation in information technology in the decades ahead. About two-thirds of our work is there."
I think it was when I was reading this that it occurred to me that Thiel is known for making a fortune in these incremental improvements: investing in Facebook, co-founding Paypal. Can you imagine being known for achievements that you just don't respect? His Reddit AMA was full of sycophantic questions, but from people who wanted his expertise in entrepreneurship. Just days later he's being asked about saying that too many people are starting companies and telling Forbes that he's "skeptical of entrepreneur as a line on a resume."
Even his much-hyped, college-killing Thiel Fellowship's most public success so far is a caffeinated spray, and a New York Times article on the fellowship documented fellows making "a browser-based photo application–a sort of no-cost, easy-to-use, amateur-friendly competitor to Photoshop," and someone who wants to "revolutionize mobile gaming" with a "coco controller."
To evaluate these projects against no standards other than Thiel's, they sound pretty disappointing, don't they? Incremental, increased efficiency? Will either add years to anyone's life? College still seems like a pretty good option.
It's not as though Thiel lacked ambition. He had a dream that Paypal—which incrementally made moving money around online easier—would change the world, and end inflation, embezzlement, corruption. And, while it has certainly been massively important and arguably transformative in how we shuttle money around, it hasn't really done much to combat those three problems:
"We're definitely onto something big. The need PayPal answers is monumental," he said in a speech in 1999. "In the future, when we make our service available outside the U.S. and as Internet penetration continues to expand to all economic tiers of people, PayPal will give citizens worldwide more direct control over their currencies than they ever had before. It will be nearly impossible for corrupt governments to steal wealth from their people through their old means because if they try the people will switch to dollars or Pounds or Yen, in effect dumping the worthless local currency for something more secure."
Thiel sold PayPal (Beware going public! Beware quarterly reports to your shareholders!) and, since then, he hasn't followed it up with anything all that transformative.
Meanwhile, Musk is building rockets. During the Musk AMA did anyone ask what Peter Thiel is like?