How to Become an Intellectual in Silicon Valley

Aaron Timms:

“Competition,” wrote Peter Thiel in his 2014 manual Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future, “is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it—even though the more we compete, the less we gain.” The idea Thiel articulated in Zero to One—that achieving greatness and building the future means “avoiding competition as much as possible”—is among the most important of his many achievements of the last decade. Equally important was Thiel’s decision, in 2016, before he headlined the Republican National Convention and told the country to vote for Donald Trump, to invite one of the country’s most influential white nationalists to dinner.

On your path to becoming an intellectual in Silicon Valley, understanding these two lessons—the Peter Principles, we’ll call them, since that adds nothing to the conversation but sounds sophisticated—will be key to your success. First, the point of your interventions in the public sphere is not to “win” any “argument,” nor to attract new adherents or convince neutrals of the righteousness of your cause. It is to avoid competition. When competition seeks you out, as it invariably will, your task will be to lose the debate and propose ideas that “seem” (and often are) “shit,” since popular discourse is a test of conventional mindedness; to be truly radical, you must be wrong. Second, there is no absolute moral evil that cannot be playfully reframed on irrelevant grounds as a net historical good. Take, for instance, poverty: what looks to most people like a recipe for social inequality, resentment, division, and violence will be, in your spritely retelling, the most powerful mechanism for income mobility in the history of human civilization. Or consider, say, Pol Pot’s killing fields: bad for the people who got stuck in them, but good for Cambodia’s startup ecosystem? Nazis did bad things to the world in the middle of the twentieth century, but there’s no reason to think they won’t do wonders for agency culture at the Food and Drug Administration in the early 2020s. Your success as a Silicon Valley intellectual will depend on your ability to insert difficult but necessary conversations like these into the public domain. A couple of half-decent ratioed tweets about the beauty of population control or the necessity of transphobia, and you’ll be well on your way to securing your status among the Silicon Valley elite.