Many of the leading figures in contemporary Silicon Valley are those who survived the fall out from the earlier crash. Thiel made his fortune by co-founding the online payments platform Paypal, acting as CEO until its sale to eBay. He subsequently founded Clarium Capital (a hedge fund), Founders Fund (a venture capital firm) and Palantir Technologies (a data analytics platform). The latter has proved a particular source of controversy, leveraging the anti-fraud algorithms developed for Paypal transactions into an intelligence platform used by security agencies across the United States government. Their primary services, Gotham and Metropolis, provide data linkage and predictive analytics for corporate and governmental clients across an enormous array of datasets. The interests of Palantir have been central to Thiel’s emerging political ambitions, as his forceful backing of Donald Trump at a time when the rest of the tech world was steering clear has given him outsized influence with the unexpected Trump administration that has reportedly translated into significant influence over operations and appointments, particularly within the sphere of intelligence and security (Ciralsky 2017). Thiel has gained notoriety for his ultra-libertarian beliefs, infamously proclaiming in an essay for the Cato institute that he no longer believed that “freedom and democracy are compatible”. His essay explicitly frames his commitments to investing in cyberspace, outer-space and seasteading in these terms. Each represents a new frontier, opportunities to create “new spaces of freedom” beyond the confines of a state (Thiel 2009). It remains to be seen whether he will recant this commitment, given his seeming success at winning influence within the existing confines of the existing state within the Trump administration.
The same period has seen growing expectations of a future Presidential bid by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, raising questions about whether this is simply an extension of Facebook’s lobbying efforts or reflects a genuinely-held ideology which is beginning to coalesce into ambitions of social transformation (Marcetic 2017). Earlier reports from within the company suggest a sincerely held, though nebulous, vision of Facebook as facilitating “a world in which we all become cells in a single organism, where we can communicate automatically and can all work together seamlessly” (Losse 2012: 201). In some ways, this vision is a familiar one of global corporations outgrowing nation-states, demonstrating more effective ways of achieving social outcomes that nation-states will ultimately adapt themselves to. This is a faith which McGoey (2015: loc 289) has argued is embodied in contemporary ‘philanthrocapitalism’, a surge “rooted in growing wealth concentration”: nearly half of the 85,000 private foundations in the United States were created in the last fifteen years, as income inequality rose precipitously. Zuckerberg joined this movement in a significant way with the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, whose lofty promise to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy” is belied by a limited liability corporate status that evades the transparency and political neutrality requirements which would be imposed upon a charitable trust.
The most famous proponent of philanthrocapitalism is undoubtedly Bill Gates, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation working with an endowment of $44.3 billion as of 31 December 2014. While the ambitions of Gates have been less explicitly political than those of Thiel and even Zuckerberg, they have proved politically influential through the sheer scale of their philanthropic activity. One of their key focal areas has been ‘education reform’, with the foundation being the largest amongst the philanthropic donors who spend almost $4 billion on education in the United States each year (McGoey 2015: loc 1974)