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Peter Thiel: we must stop fearing the future

The co-founder of PayPal, Facebook board member and hugely successful venture capitalist is disappointed in the future. He doesn’t think we’re ambitious enough.

The Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel – a co-founder of PayPal, Facebook board member and hugely successful venture capitalist – is disappointed in the future. He doesn’t think we’re ambitious enough.

Someone living in 1964 might have imagined that in 2014 we’d be enjoying jet packs and moon hotels. Instead, we have to make do with Instagram and Segways. What’s worse, according to Thiel, is that our “financial and capitalistic” age is not bothered that we’re not doing as well as we should. The premise of his new book, Zero to One: Notes on Start-ups, or How to Build the Future, is that the most advanced economies of the world have been experiencing a four-decade lull in innovation – and that is because we’ve stopped daring to dream big.

Thiel’s ambitions for the 21st century are unusual – he’s an avowed libertarian and wants to build floating cities in the Pacific where businesses can work free from government regulation. As a member of the so-called “PayPal Mafia”, he is friends with the Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but lacks Musk’s charisma. Some journalists have compared Thiel to a robot, which doesn’t seem fair, though he was dry and serious when we met at a hotel in central London to discuss his book.

Zero to One is adapted from a class Thiel gave at Stanford in 2012 and is primarily a business text. His theory is that monopolies are good and capitalist competition is bad. He defines success for start-ups as creating a product, industry or science that nobody else has thought of, instead of just besting a competitor.

“As a founder you want to build a new monopoly,” he said. “It may not last for ever but if it lasts for a few decades that’s pretty good. ” He cites Steve Jobs’s launch of the Apple iPhone as a success story.

Free capital: a winning design for one of Peter Thiel's floating cities. Image: Andras Gyorfi

The larger picture Thiel paints in his book is that western society lacks “hubris” and is suffused with a psychological malaise he calls “indefinite pessimism” – a sensation in which “you generally have no idea of the future, but it’s vaguely the same to worse”. He believes that people are not only unsure of what the future will bring, they are scared of it.

“You look at the science-fiction movies that Hollywood makes, and they all show technology that’s destructive – it doesn’t work, it kills people,” he said. “I saw Gravity recently, and you’d never want to go into outer space; you’d want to stay on a muddy island somewhere.”

This lack of a coherent vision is holding everyone back, he argues. Unlike many other libertarians, Thiel believes that governments can be a source of innovation, but he bemoans modern bureaucracy and says none of the US government’s previous successes, such as the Apollo space programme, could be repeated today. “Now,” he told me, “a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room.”

He has a blind spot, however, when it comes to considering who should benefit from a hi-tech future. Although he points out that many successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are “white men”, he doesn’t believe this is because the likes of Bill Gates have social and economic advantages. “Luck is just an atheistic word for ‘God’,” he says, a catch-all that “covers up the laziness in our thinking”.

Thiel is a unique figure in Silicon Valley because he doesn’t care so much about making things faster or bigger: he wants to make them better. Although management texts often pose as works of philosophy, Zero to One is a serious read. Above all, it offers rare insight into how one of the few titans of 21st-century capitalism thinks. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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"Death to all Jews": Why Disney dropped YouTube's biggest star PewDiePie

The Minecraft vlogger turned internet celebrity's taste for shock comedy was too much for the family-focused corporation. 

Disney has cut ties with YouTube’s most-subscribed star after he paid two Sri Lankan men five dollars to hold up a sign that read “DEATH TO ALL JEWS”.

Feel free to read that sentence again, it’s not going anywhere.

A still from PewDiePie's video, via YouTube

PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, has over 53 million subscribers on YouTube, where his videos about gaming earned him over $15m last year. The 27-year-old, whose content is popular with children, came under fire this month after the Wall Street Journal investigated anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In one video, a man dressed as Jesus says “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong”, while in another Kjellberg used freelance marketplace Fiverr to pay two men to hold up the offensive sign. The videos have since been deleted.

Jumpcut.

The Walt Disney Company became affiliated with PewDiePie after they bought Maker Studios, a network of YouTube stars, for nearly $1bn in 2014. Following the WSJ’s investigation, Maker dropped the star, stating: “Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate. Maker Studios has made the decision to end our affiliation with him going forward.”

When you sack a YouTube Star, makes no difference who they are.

Via Wall Street Journal

But why should the story stop there? Neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer are now defending PewDiePie, while the notoriously politically-incorrect 4Chan forum /pol/ have called him “our guy”.  

In his defence, Kjellberg wrote a blog post denying an affiliation with anti-Semitic groups and explained his actions, writing: “I was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online.” In a video last December the star also said: "It's extremely annoying how I can't make jokes on my channel without anyone quoting it as actual facts, like something I actually said", before dressing as a soldier and listening to one of Hitler's speeches while smiling. 

Pause.

(If all of this sounds familiar, recall when disgraced YouTuber Sam Pepper claimed a video in which he groped unsuspecting females was a “social experiment”).

Play.

And yet the story still isn’t over. Disney have learned a hard lesson about assuming that YouTubers are the squeaky clean fairy-tale princes and princesses they often appear to be. Shay Butler, one of the original founders of Maker Studios, yesterday quit the internet after it was alleged he sent sexual messages to a cam girl via Twitter.

Butler is one of the original "family vloggers", and has spent nine years uploading daily videos of his five children to YouTube. A practicing Mormon, Butler has become emblematic of family values on the site. “My heart is sick,” he wrote on Twitter, neither confirming nor denying the allegations of his infidelity, “I have struggled with alcoholism for years… My purpose is to rehab.” 

The result is a very dark day for YouTube, which has now dropped Kjellberg from its premier advertising network, Google Preferred, and cancelled the second series of the star's reality show, Scare PewDiePie

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.