Visionary Puppies

A new book unpacks Peter Thiel’s gambit to pay teens to skip college and incubate big ideas. If only it also unpacked Thiel himself.

Adi Embers

There is no greater subject of fascination in Silicon Valley right now than Peter Thiel, seminal Facebook investor, PayPal Mafia don, Palantir founder, billionaire venture capitalist, oceanic city-state enthusiast, sworn enemy of political correctness, scourge of Gawker Media, recent New Zealander, prospective vampiric consumer of young people’s blood, and President Trump’s chief envoy to the CEOs of the tech industry. Or you might describe him as Alexandra Wolfe does in Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story: He is the tech sector’s “first philosopher,” who possesses “the big ideas, contrarian outlook and a willingness to back crazy concepts,” and who is, as Wolfe acknowledges in her author’s note, a friend. That chumminess might have been the germ of a revealing, insider-y unpacking of Silicon Valley and the utopians, dystopians, geniuses, and strivers who populate it—a This Town of the Left Coast geek elite. Instead it largely provides her access to Thiel’s first formal class of acolytes, a group of young men and women who in 2011 Thiel paid to skip college and attempt to incubate ambitious, world-shaking ideas, like asteroid mining. Whether Thiel’s radical libertarian outlook and declinist view of American innovation mark him as emblematic of Silicon Valley or as an eccentric, these ideas have never been worthier of interrogation. And yet, though Thiel hovers above Wolfe’s narrative like an Oz-like godhead, he is barely a presence in it, except when he’s the recipient of its adulation.

The author is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the daughter of Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism pioneer and author—a lineage that might not be fair to note except that Wolfe fille invites the comparison with at least two references to Ken Kesey (the subject of her father’s beloved The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and a chapter titled “Asperger’s Chic,” a plain nod to her father’s liberal-ribbing essay “Radical Chic.” Her prologue certainly kicks off the book with a bit of Wolfean verve, hop-scotching through the haunts of Silicon Valley’s casually attired oligarchs and the investors and engineers riding their vapors. There’s the deck lounge overlooking the “Olympic-size pool skirted in fuchsias” at the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel in Menlo Park, and Prius-driving, Blue Bottle–guzzling entrepreneurs in Palo Alto, and the “Left Coast Ladies Who Lunch,” who “do so over Clif Bars while walking the Dish, the popular hiking trail on Stanford property.”

Eventually Valley of the Gods reveals itself in part as a tour through Silicon Valley’s cultural mores, from its group houses and startup accelerators and dating scene (insofar as it has one) to its highest-flying obsessions, like human immortality and advanced A.I. Wolfe describes the region, evocatively, as a place founded by “visionary puppies who realized that the Internet would become the world’s first great new industry in a half century—created, developed, operated, and more important, owned by children.” But the energy begins to lag quickly, as when Wolfe, visiting the shared home of several Thiel Fellows, pauses to offer a deadening description of the contents of their fridge: “It was fully stocked with sausages, vegetables, pasta, fruit, and loaves of bread from Whole Foods.” Pasta! Wolfe never hesitates to conjure up a sense of place to heighten the absurdities of her book’s setting, but the occasional polyamory compound aside, those places, at least in her telling, turn out to be kind of boring. The rest of the country has CrossFit gyms and jerks on Segways, too.

Less boring are Wolfe’s main subjects, the Thiel Fellows, most of them the kind of young, brilliant oddballs that the culture founded by those original visionary puppies continues to cherish. John Burnham, the one with the asteroid-mining idea, is awkward in the classroom but an autodidact who thrills at the notion of taking Thiel’s $100,000 to forgo traditional schooling; he ends up “pivoting” repeatedly as each of his Next Big Thing ideas fails to take off, and he eventually does go to college. In taking the fellowship, Burnham and his peers attempted to realize a particular utopian dream of Silicon Valley heavyweights: that they could “stop out” of the old, orthodox system; that they might embody the new tech industry’s meritocratic ideals; and that, in the industry’s parlance, they might change the world. (Mark Zuckerberg did it, after all.) But as Burnham realizes, to the people standing between a visionary and investment capital, changing the world actually means being profitable. “It’s just a really interesting phenomenon that if you’re running the company that does nothing, you can feel like king of the world,” he tells Wolfe.

It’s true that Thiel’s interests include things much loftier than earning a mint, like life extension. But Wolfe doesn’t seem interested in mounting a critique of Silicon Valley writ large that is anywhere near as perceptive as Burnham’s, and she certainly doesn’t pursue the uglier directions that Thiel’s view of the universe has taken him. His bullying, surreptitious campaign against Gawker Media, which he swore to litigate out of existence by any suit necessary after one of its sites wrote that he was gay, rates a brief, just-the-facts treatment. The narrative ends before the 2016 campaign, during which Thiel was Silicon Valley’s only prominent backer of Trump. While the Thiel Fellowship continues, and being accepted to it is tougher than getting into Harvard, it is now more like a gap year, requiring just one year out of school. And though many of those initial Thiel Fellows remain strivers in Silicon Valley—1 in 10 went back to college, by the way—the ones that populate Wolfe’s book seem to spend much of it being, well, lost and miserable.

To Wolfe, that outcome is no indictment of the project itself. “In the end,” she writes, “the Thiel fellowship was a microcosm of the millennial generation. It said, ‘If you’re so good, let’s take the best and brightest among you and see if you can prove it’—and maybe the fact that they didn’t start billion-dollar companies didn’t matter.” Even if the fellows didn’t get out of the experiment what Thiel intended, she writes, the experience was still worth the doing as a growth experience for them and especially for its core tenet, “the idea of breaking away from what an institution enforced and had to be.” And yet even Peter Thiel, she concedes, “couldn’t necessarily create” success stories like his own, even as his own triumphs have convinced him that only he possesses the right vision for a better future. But figures like Thiel, both outliers and central cogs of Silicon Valley’s dream machine, aren’t ominous for the moonshots they take and the ambitions they describe. They’re ominous because they keep trying to inflict their harebrained ideas on the rest of us.

Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story by Alexandra Wolfe. Simon & Schuster.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.