My fascination with the technological fantasies of billionaires might seem like a peculiarly nerdy version of a familiar preoccupation with the super rich. However as Yuval Noah Harari observes on loc 3304 of Homo Deus, the dreams of technological salvation which the rich and powerful invest themselves in have important consequences for the rest of us because they condition how these groups orientate themselves to the existential risks which we all face:

How rational is it to risk the future of humankind on the assumption that future scientists will make some unknown discoveries? Most of the presidents, ministers and CEOs who run the world are very rational people. Why are they willing to take such a gamble? Maybe because they don’t think they are gambling on their own personal future. Even if bad comes to worse and science cannot hold off the deluge, engineers could still build a hi-tech Noah’s Ark for the upper caste, while leaving billions of others to drown. The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.

As a Guardian article last year put it, “Among the tech elite, space exploration is now the ultimate status symbol“. This reflects the ascendancy of a distinct elite, with converging dispositions reinforced by the peculiar niche within which they have accumulated their wealth and power. There are cultural and biographical explanations we can offer of their preoccupations, as well as sociological ones of how these ambitions spread amongst this intensely self-referential group of elites. However it also worth inquiring into the potential consequences of this passion given the control these people have over the future direction of technological development and the opportunity costs they confront in doing so:

Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is arguably the most visible billionaire in the new space race. The apparent inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark character in Iron Man, Musk has become a god-like figure for engineers, making his fortune at PayPal and then as CEO of luxury electric car firm Tesla and clean energy company Solar City. Yet it is his galactic ambitions, insiders say, that really motivate him. “His passion is settling Mars,” says one.

When pondering this stuff, it’s hard not to wonder occasionally if you’re being overly cynical, throwing sand at people seeking innovations which could transform human life. But when I hear Jeff Bezos say that “You go to space to save Earth” I feel renewed confidence this is something we ought to critique. If these investments fail then our engineering philosopher-kings have wasted countless billions of dollars pursuing the endless frontier which could have been better spent improving our life here on earth. If these investments succeed then what does this mean for those left on earth when the super-rich go to space?

This is an important though contentious article by Morozov, reflecting on the recent revelation that Peter Thiel was secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. While the much maligned company has regularly descended into prurience, they’ve provided a vital service by critically scrutinising the personal lives of digital elites & we need to resist the mobilisation of anger over their excesses into an attack on any organisation that dares invade the privacy of the increasingly well entrenched elites that run technology. In fact, this is Gawker’s own defence of their practice, as much as they’re seen as being deeply vacuous.

Gawker’s relationship with Silicon Valley, though, is more complicated for the sole reason that, when it comes to the behaviour of its own executives, the personal is also the political. Gawker has been producing coverage of the tech industry that is as lurid as it is important, subjecting the likes of Thiel to the scrutiny that they no longer receive elsewhere.

Consider what Gawker’s readers might have learned over the years. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, tells us that if we have something to hide, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it in the first place; he himself prefers to live in a luxury building without a doorman – so that no one can see him come and go. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants us to practise openness and radical transparency; he himself purchases neighbouring houses to get as much privacy as possible. Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky likes to boast that he is a typical Airbnb host; well, perhaps too typical – for a while, he was renting his house without obtaining the necessary legal permit.

Silicon Valley’s elites hate such intrusion into their personal lives. Had they worked for any other industry, their concerns would be justified. But they work for an industry that tries to convince us that privacy does not matter and that transparency and deregulation are the way to go. Since they do not lead by example, why shouldn’t their hypocrisy be exposed?

If tech elites are so concerned about privacy, they can start backing initiatives such as the right to be forgotten. Why can’t Thiel – a backer of the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of the world’s dissidents where the Human Rights Foundation awards the Václav Havel international prize for creative dissent – help us to make sure that embarrassing content, taken out of context and now enjoying worldwide circulation thanks to social networks and search engines, is easier to manage?

Incidentally, there’s an interesting suggestion here that Mark Zuckerberg’s concern to reassure publishers and cement developing relationships could lead him into conflict with Thiel, who’s a member of Facebook’s board:

Facebook is used by more than 1 billion people every day, but as it has moved from personal content toward what the company refers to as “public content,” it has moved huge audiences to publishers — and become responsible for a significant share of many publishers’ traffic. Its influence is so vast that many such publishers (including BuzzFeed) have agreed to host their articles directly on Facebook’s servers via the Instant Articles product. That outsized influence on how people all across the world are informed is why a major firestorm ensued after curators of its Trending column were accused of bias. After that episode, Zuckerberg said the company had a trust problem with conservatives that it needed to address. His vote on Thiel will send another message about how he sees publishers.

A really unusual addition to my growing catalogue of digital elites flexing their social, cultural and political muscles. Peter Thiel secretly backed Hulk Hogan’s case against Gawker:

Peter Thiel, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, helped fund the case brought by the wrestler, Terry Gene Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, against Gawker, said a person briefed on the arrangement who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and one of the earliest investors in Facebook, privately agreed to help pay the expenses of Mr. Bollea’s legal team, this person said.

From Peter Thiel’s Less Than Zero loc 1912:

Apple’s value crucially depended on the singular vision of a particular person. This hints at the strange way in which the companies that create new technology often resemble feudal monarchies rather than organizations that are supposedly more “modern.” A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons.

From Peter Thiel’s Less Than Zero loc 1279:

Max Levchin, my co-founder at PayPal, says that startups should make their early staff as personally similar as possible. Startups have limited resources and small teams. They must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world. The early PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd. We all loved science fiction: Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek . Most important, we were all obsessed with creating a digital currency that would be controlled by individuals instead of governments. For the company to work, it didn’t matter what people looked like or which country they came from, but we needed every new hire to be equally obsessed.

And from loc 1292-loc 1305. To what extent is he saying things in public which other tech leaders only say in private?

In the most intense kind of organization, members hang out only with other members. They ignore their families and abandon the outside world. In exchange, they experience strong feelings of belonging, and maybe get access to esoteric “truths” denied to ordinary people. We have a word for such organizations: cults. Cultures of total dedication look crazy from the outside, partly because the most notorious cults were homicidal: Jim Jones and Charles Manson did not make good exits. But entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously. Is a lukewarm attitude to one’s work a sign of mental health? Is a merely professional attitude the only sane approach? 

The extreme opposite of a cult is a consulting firm like Accenture: not only does it lack a distinctive mission of its own, but individual consultants are regularly dropping in and out of companies to which they have no long-term connection whatsoever. Every company culture can be plotted on a linear spectrum.

The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed. You’re not going to learn those kinds of secrets from consultants, and you don’t need to worry if your company doesn’t make sense to conventional professionals. Better to be called a cult—or even a mafia.

Peter Thiel describing how the ‘PayPal Mafia’ came about in his Less Than Zero, loc 1238-1251:

The first team that I built has become known in Silicon Valley as the “PayPal Mafia” because so many of my former colleagues have gone on to help each other start and invest in successful tech companies. We sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Since then, Elon Musk has founded SpaceX and co-founded Tesla Motors; Reid Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn; Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim together founded YouTube; Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons founded Yelp; David Sacks co-founded Yammer; and I co-founded Palantir. Today all seven of those companies are worth more than $1 billion each. PayPal’s office amenities never got much press, but the team has done extraordinarily well, both together and individually: the culture was strong enough to transcend the original company.


From the start, I wanted PayPal to be tightly knit instead of transactional. I thought stronger relationships would make us not just happier and better at work but also more successful in our careers even beyond PayPal. So we set out to hire people who would actually enjoy working together. They had to be talented, but even more than that they had to be excited about working specifically with us. That was the start of the PayPal Mafia.