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Citizen Thiel

by Guy Patrick Cunningham

(missing author)

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a review of Peter Thiel's Zero to One. some good ruminations on meritocracy, inequality, competition, technology and power

? (None). Citizen Thiel. Los Angeles Review of Books. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/citizen-thiel

[...] Thiel is our most articulate, forthright advocate of the power-law approach to individuality. He claims that freeing companies from competition will liberate them to make the kinds of advancements we need to conquer scarcity. But the lesson of the commercial web — where monopoly control undermines culture, in order to advance the interests of platforms and companies — makes me wonder why we should expect these monopolies to manage technological resources for the benefit of society at large, as opposed to only for themselves. If anything, Thiel’s forthright embrace of power-law principles convinces me that the contemporary understanding of antitrust law — where we look at its impact on consumers almost exclusively through prices — is insufficient. Antitrust law exists first and foremost to foster competition between companies, and we need to enforce it with that in mind. That’s not enough, of course. We also need to support — and engage with — cultural work, extend democratic values into more corners of society, and most importantly commit to an understanding of humanity that doesn’t reinforce aristocracy or hyper-elitism. Ultimately, it is human dignity, and not the power-law ethic, that deserves to be enshrined at the center of our politics, our technological ventures, and our society.

missing author 1 year, 4 months ago

[...] Thiel is our most articulate, forthright advocate of the power-law approach to individuality. He claims that freeing companies from competition will liberate them to make the kinds of advancements we need to conquer scarcity. But the lesson of the commercial web — where monopoly control undermines culture, in order to advance the interests of platforms and companies — makes me wonder why we should expect these monopolies to manage technological resources for the benefit of society at large, as opposed to only for themselves. If anything, Thiel’s forthright embrace of power-law principles convinces me that the contemporary understanding of antitrust law — where we look at its impact on consumers almost exclusively through prices — is insufficient. Antitrust law exists first and foremost to foster competition between companies, and we need to enforce it with that in mind. That’s not enough, of course. We also need to support — and engage with — cultural work, extend democratic values into more corners of society, and most importantly commit to an understanding of humanity that doesn’t reinforce aristocracy or hyper-elitism. Ultimately, it is human dignity, and not the power-law ethic, that deserves to be enshrined at the center of our politics, our technological ventures, and our society.

missing author 1 year, 4 months ago

Like culture, the word democracy can mean a lot of things, but anthropologist and political activist David Graeber hits upon a useful starting point in his book The Democracy Project when he writes, “It’s not even really a mode of government. In its essence it is just the belief that humans are fundamentally equal and ought to be allowed to manage their collective affairs in an egalitarian fashion, using whatever means appear most conducive.” From this standpoint, democracy is not a particular set of norms, such as elections or political parties, but a way of thinking. Thiel has a point about the power law — society is very unequal in a lot of ways. In effect, large businesses and venture-capital-backed startups are planning the future — just as the titans of the commercial web are planning life online. A democratic mindset looks at this and says that because imbalances might exist in someone’s circumstances — because they don’t have a lot of money, or because they’re marginalized socially in some way — doesn’t mean they don’t have a stake in society. And if someone has a stake in society, they deserve a say in how it’s run. It’s a simple matter of human dignity.

missing author 1 year, 4 months ago

Like culture, the word democracy can mean a lot of things, but anthropologist and political activist David Graeber hits upon a useful starting point in his book The Democracy Project when he writes, “It’s not even really a mode of government. In its essence it is just the belief that humans are fundamentally equal and ought to be allowed to manage their collective affairs in an egalitarian fashion, using whatever means appear most conducive.” From this standpoint, democracy is not a particular set of norms, such as elections or political parties, but a way of thinking. Thiel has a point about the power law — society is very unequal in a lot of ways. In effect, large businesses and venture-capital-backed startups are planning the future — just as the titans of the commercial web are planning life online. A democratic mindset looks at this and says that because imbalances might exist in someone’s circumstances — because they don’t have a lot of money, or because they’re marginalized socially in some way — doesn’t mean they don’t have a stake in society. And if someone has a stake in society, they deserve a say in how it’s run. It’s a simple matter of human dignity.

missing author 1 year, 4 months ago

[...] Thiel answers the problem of unemployment and underemployment only with vague gestures, spouting platitudes like “Properly understood, technology is the one way for us to escape competition in a globalizing world.” But technology is not magic. As Thiel himself observes, “computers are tools.” It matters a great deal who wields them. And that’s the problem. Thiel skips the most important part of the equation: who will control that technology and how they will use it. That’s what Thiel never quite admits: the power law he exalts isn’t about technology at all — as its name implies, it’s about power. Though Thiel often extols the virtues of individualism, his vision of the individual stems from his beliefs about the power law. In effect, he turns Pareto’s vision into something approaching a system of ethics. Under this power-law ethic, individualism consists of certain people exerting their power unchecked, the way the founder of a monopolistic business leverages the power that comes from cornering a market in order to escape the destructiveness of competition. But the power-law ethic offers very little to those who lack power to begin with.

missing author 1 year, 4 months ago

[...] Thiel answers the problem of unemployment and underemployment only with vague gestures, spouting platitudes like “Properly understood, technology is the one way for us to escape competition in a globalizing world.” But technology is not magic. As Thiel himself observes, “computers are tools.” It matters a great deal who wields them. And that’s the problem. Thiel skips the most important part of the equation: who will control that technology and how they will use it. That’s what Thiel never quite admits: the power law he exalts isn’t about technology at all — as its name implies, it’s about power. Though Thiel often extols the virtues of individualism, his vision of the individual stems from his beliefs about the power law. In effect, he turns Pareto’s vision into something approaching a system of ethics. Under this power-law ethic, individualism consists of certain people exerting their power unchecked, the way the founder of a monopolistic business leverages the power that comes from cornering a market in order to escape the destructiveness of competition. But the power-law ethic offers very little to those who lack power to begin with.

missing author 1 year, 4 months ago