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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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Pupils need internet classes? Here are 41 lessons they should learn

Forget privacy and security, here's what to do when a black and blue dress looks white and gold. 

It is imperative that children are taught how to survive and thrive on the internet, claims a new House of Lords report. According to the Lords Communication Committee, pupils need to learn how to stay safe, avoid addictive games, and become “digitally literate”.

It’s hard to argue with the report, which is a great step forward in acknowledging that the internet now basically = life. Yet although it is crucial that children learn how to stay private and secure online, there are also some equally crucial and not-at-all-flippant pieces of information that the youth urgently need to know. Here are the first 41 lessons in that curriculum.

  1. To figure out how much to donate towards your mate’s charity half-marathon, half X OR double Y, where X is the amount paid by their mum and Y is the amount donated by your closest rival, Becky
  2. Don’t mention that it’s snowing
  3. If – for some reason – you talk about bombs in a Facebook message, follow this up with “Hi Theresa May” in case Theresa May is looking, and then Theresa May will think you are just joking
  4. If you are on a train and you are annoyed about the train, do not tweet @ the social media manager who runs the account for the train, because they are not, in fact, the train
  5. If a Facebook meme starts “Only 10 per cent of people can get this puzzle right” – know that lies are its captain
  6. It’s not pronounced me-me
  7. Never say me-me nor meem, for they should not be discussed out loud
  8. People can tell if you’ve watched their Instagram stories
  9. People can’t tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos
  10. People can tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos if you accidentally Like one – in this circumstance, burn yourself alive
  11. Jet fuel can melt steel beams
  12. If a dog-walking photo is taken in the woods and no one uploads it; did it even happen?
  13. Google it before you share it
  14. Know that Khloe Kardashian does not look that way because of a FitTea wrap
  15. Do not seek solace in #MondayMotivation – it is a desolate place
  16. Respect JK Rowling
  17. Please read an article before you comment about a point that the article specifically rebutted in great detail in order to prepare for such comments that alas, inevitably came
  18. Don’t be racist, ok?
  19. Never, under any circumstances, wade into the Facebook comment section under an article about Jeremy Corbyn
  20.  If a dress looks white and gold to some people and black and blue to some others, please just go outside
  21. Open 200 tabs until you are crippled with anxiety. Close none of the tabs
  22. Despite the fact it should make you cringe, “smol puppers” is the purest evolution of language. Respect that
  23. Take selfies, no matter what anyone says
  24. Watch Zoella ironically until the lines of irony blur and you realise that the 20 minutes you immerse yourself into her rose-gold life are the only minutes of peace in your agonising day but also, what’s wrong with her pug? I hope her pug is ok
  25. Nazi Furries are a thing. Avoid
  26. Use Facebook’s birthday reminder to remember that people exist and delete them from your Friends list
  27. When a person you deleted from your Friends list inexplicably comes up to you IRL and says “Why?” pretend that your little cousin Jeff got into your account
  28. Don’t let your little cousin Jeff into your account
  29. “Like” the fact your friend got engaged even if you don’t actually like the fact she is reminding you of the gradual ebbing away of your youth
  30. No one cares about your political opinion and if they act like they do then I regret to inform you, they want to have sex with you
  31. Please don’t leave a banterous comment on your local Nando’s Facebook page, for it is not 2009
  32. Accept that the viral Gods choose you, you do not choose them
  33. Joke about your mental health via a relatable meme that is actually an agonising scream into the void
  34. Share texts from your mum and mock them with internet strangers because even though she pushed you out of her vagina and gave up her entire life to help you thrive as a person, she can’t correctly use emojis
  35. Follow DJ Khaled
  36. Decide that “Best wishes” is too blah and “Sincerely” is too formal and instead sign off your important email with “Happy bonfire night”” even though that is not a thing people say
  37. If someone from primary school adds you as Friend in 15 years, accept them but never speak again
  38. The mute button is God’s greatest gift
  39. Do not tell me a clown will kill me after midnight if I don’t like your comment because that is not a promise you can keep
  40. Don’t steal photos of other people’s pets
  41. Accept that incorrect "your"s and "you’re"s are not going anywhere and save yourself the time 

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