Pando

Today in "Peter Thiel says things." Does society really hate tech?

By David Holmes , written on September 29, 2014

From The News Desk

Peter Thiel* is very good at saying things.

The PayPal founder/Facebook investor/possible-libertarian-supervillain is eloquent and quick-witted, with a penchant for boiling down big concepts into bite-sized truisms. "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters" is his signature line. (I prefer Jeffrey Hammerbacher's "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," but Thiel's is good too). And his PandoMonthly fireside chat with Sarah Lacy is among the most entertaining interviews we've ever done.

But is Thiel right? There's no questioning his ability to make lots of money and to use that money to make even more money. But when it comes to big macro trends related to society and politics, is Thiel really an oracle of wisdom or more like a walking thinkpiece?

Consider this interview published today at the Wall Street Journal. Thiel tells Lisa Fleisher and Thorald Baker, "We live in an age that’s dominated by hostility and unfriendliness towards all things technological."

How does he know? Hollywood told him.

"The easiest way to see this is you just look at all the movies Hollywood makes. They all show technology that doesn’t work; that kills people; that’s destroying the world, and you can choose between ‘Avatar,’ or ‘The Matrix,’ or ‘Terminator’ films."

Never mind that people began lining up for the latest iPhone before it was even announced. Never mind that 88 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use the Internet "every day or almost every day." And as far as Hollywood goes, we live in a world where no less than 13 tech CEOs have come on as guests of "The Colbert Report."

As for the movies he names, "The Terminator" and "The Matrix" came out in 1984 and 1999 respectively. Whatever "tech" means today is something far different than what it meant 15 and 30 years ago. As for "Avatar," that movie was really more of a commentary (and a limp one at that) on the military-industrial complex than technology in general -- though as cofounder of the US government contractor firm Palantir, I can see why Thiel is miffed by that message.

Thiel also says this anti-technology credo has infected politics.

“If you had a politician that said that if he was elected, he would change everything, that poll tests very badly, scares all the voters,” Thiel said. Well yes, many voters, particularly Republicans, aren't always so keen on changing things. But I happen to recall a certain presidential candidate campaigning on a platform of "Change" a few years back. I think he did okay. (Hint: He's still in office.)

The problem with technology evangelists like Thiel, or people who despise technology in all its forms (which I guess means people like the Unabomber?) is the notion that tech is either "bad" or "good." Thiel's cult-like worship of technology is evident in a TEDx talk in which he claimed to be more worried about stalled innovation than he is about climate change, nuclear war, and global pandemics. Nothing is all good, or all bad, even technology. Reality is somewhere in the middle.

So it would seem that Thiel's theory that society hates tech is a bit overstated. It's not that society hates tech, it just lacks the fervent blind devotion to innovation and disruption that Thiel possesses -- and apparently anything less just won't cut it.

*Peter Thiel is an investor in Pando through Founders Fund

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]