How to Become an Intellectual in Silicon Valley

A guide for the dangerous of thought

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“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.

Nazis represent the worst of humanity’s past. But might they also be the best of its future?

You’re joining the movement at a good time. These are golden days for the philosopher-VC. Moore’s Law states that the power of computing doubles every two years. Paul’s Law states that the population of VC intellectuals increases at a similarly exponential rate. This law takes its name, of course, from Paul Graham, the man who has done more than anyone else to make the venture capitalist not simply an investor of other people’s money but a critical thinker on politics and society. From his pithy Twitter feed to his legendary blog, the cofounder of Y Combinator has exhibited an unrivaled capacity to be consistently wrong on all the great questions of the age—or so his critics would have you believe. And this is the man’s special strength: the more the online mob criticizes him, the more right he’s convinced he is, and the stronger he grows. “Counterintuitive as it sounds,” he recently tweeted, “I’m always encouraged when I publish a new essay and get showered with insults. Showered = lots of people saw it, and insults = there were no big mistakes in it for them to refute.” Studying the great man’s Twitter feed—understanding both his obsessions and his style—will offer a sturdy template for you to follow as you embark on your career as a VC intellectual. (Obsessions = the things he is interested in. Style = the way he writes.) But he is not the only peer whose work you should become familiar with. Consider also Sam Altman, who once argued that “we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics”; or Vinod Khosla’s pioneering contributions to the fight against public beach access (sample wisdom from Khosla Ventures website: “We believe change depends on unreasonable people”); or even Keith Rabois, who joined Khosla’s investment firm on the strength of its whiteboards and now knows more about residential real estate than probably anyone in the United States, according to Keith Rabois.

Jason Calacanis has leveraged the global pandemic and a $2000 UberEats gift card to completely change the way we think about early childhood education. Marc Andreessen’s work making the difficult case in favor of colonialism continues to astonish and impress. In a world where mainstream thinkers often present climate change, the incompatibility of growth-driven economics with our planet’s ecological limits, or conflict between China and the United States as the greatest global threats, Balaji Srinivasan instead spent much of 2020 zeroing in on the real danger to humanity’s future: New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz. To some, this looks like harassment. To those in the know, it’s a heroic stance against sensitivity to people’s feelings, which is orthogonal to the protection of free speech—a hall-of-fame contrarian move that you, as an aspiring VC intellectual, would do well to study in detail. And then of course, there’s Thiel, the singular genius of the era—a man who wants to live to the age of 120 and is so far ahead of the curve he often looks as if he’s already reached triple digits, around fifty years early.

Expecto Reductio

You will have noticed that all of these exemplars are men. From this data point, using inductive reasoning, it is possible to articulate an important lesson: to become a VC intellectual, try as much as possible to be male. This lesson can be represented graphically:

Paul Graham ∩ you ∩ Balaji Srinivasan

Note that there was no need to insert this graph into the text. But I did it anyway, and it’s exactly this kind of surprising and puckishly contrarian thinking you will need to master in order to prosper as a VC intellectual. At this point, of course, you may have questions. Let’s schematize them as follows:

  1. Aren’t all these people already hugely successful in Silicon Valley, with a string of investment successes to their name?
  2. Is it necessary to already be successful in order to become an influential VC intellectual?

Many people, reading these questions, will assume the answers are yes and yes. In fact, although it may seem counterintuitive, the answers are yes and no. Thiel’s Doctrine states that there are two types of progress: horizontal or extensive progress on the basis of existing achievements, or going from 1 to n; and vertical or intensive progress, which means doing new things and going from zero to one. Fortunately for you, wealth, success, and even intellect are no barriers to entry to the world of VC intellectualism. Indeed, the greatest VC intellectuals are those who have successfully gone not from 1 to n but from zero to one—and made a name for themselves as professional opinion-havers despite a resume containing no accomplishments.

Take, for instance, Ale Resnik, a bright young business failure who’s rapidly making waves as one of the pluckiest new voices on the VC intellectual scene. Resnik took $149 million in funding for Beepi, his car rental startup, ran the company into the ground, then failed up into a job as “founder in residence” at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, before tripping into the CEO’s seat at Belong, a company that is “hard at work making Renting Meet Love.” What does it mean to be “hard at work making Renting Meet Love”? Nothing, most people would assume, but the ostensible idiocy of this slogan is also its brilliance, since it acts as a signal to like-minded iconoclasts in the VC community that here, at Belong, truly revolutionary ideas are forming. No one wants to make Renting Meet Love! And this is precisely why we must, as a species, make Renting Meet Love. Resnik has leveraged this rich portfolio of inadequacy into a place at the top table of Silicon Valley philosophers. Go to his Twitter feed on any day and once you’ve navigated the

annoying,

LinkedIn-style line breaks

he favors to format his most pressing thoughts, you’ll find him performing the important, low-engagement work of questioning coronavirus “experts,” arguing that only corporations can create government jobs, and fanboying over Elon Musk and Margaret Thatcher. That’s vertical progress in action, and an example you should seek to emulate.

Cartesian Theater

René Girard, a French scholar of religion and literature influential among VC intellectuals, once argued that all human desire is mimetic—anything you desire is a mirror of another person’s desire for that same thing. Your success as a greenhorn Silicon Valley intellectual will rest on your ability to shoehorn Girard’s name and the “mimetic theory” with which he’s associated into as many blog posts, podcast interviews, and tweets as possible. Counterintuitive though it may sound, your task will be to establish yourself as a political contrarian while working hard to look and sound as much like your fellow VC philosophers as possible. Consider, for instance, replicating the font favored by Paul Graham or Sam Altman on your own blog; more than the actual content of your ideas, it’s your ability to push them out on a crap WordPress page in twelve-point Arial with square bracket-enclosed endnotes that will establish you as a real name among the Valley’s nouveaux Rousseaux. (Rousseau, for those unfamiliar with his work, was a radical eighteenth century blogger best remembered for his pro-innovation defense of private property.) For any post you publish, a lengthy acknowledgment should list the mentors and colleagues who’ve read over drafts of your work and contributed feedback, all of whom should be Silicon Valley intellectuals in their own right. Altman’s Ratio states that the amount of text in a blog post to the amount of text in the post’s acknowledgments section should be exactly 1:1.

Having figured out a font and mastered Altman’s Ratio, your next step is to find something to say. For outsiders this can seem daunting, but it’s very easy, since every one of Silicon Valley’s self-styled radicals thinks exactly the same way. In fact, when you study their output carefully, you’ll find endless variations on the same three ideas:

  1. Free speech is under attack.
  2. A wealth tax is a bad idea.
  3. To beat China, America must not become France.

Let’s consider free speech first. Genetic engineering, radical life extension, underwear encryption: many of the ideas that will drive the world forward and deliver us into the future seem problematic today. But if we are to progress as a society, we must give the dreamers and sociopaths of Silicon Valley the space to put received wisdom to the test; we must encourage them to discover fresh pastures for human life, fresh possibilities for underwear. Countless VC intellectuals have already made this argument and continue to make it every day—a powerful rebuttal of the idea that “wokes” and “political correctness” have curbed Silicon Valley’s freedom of speech, one that you will conveniently ignore when it comes time for you to make your own contribution to the genre. In every one of the approximately five thousand tweets and blog posts that you will devote to this subject over the course of your career as a VC intellectual, you will decry the effect of “cancel culture” on America’s innovative spirit, defend the importance of “heresy,” and openly compare the CEOs of today’s adtech behemoths (not to mention yourself) to Galileo, Darwin, and Newton. “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”), the line that Galileo allegedly spoke to explain the earth’s orbit around the sun after his trial for heresy, should feature prominently in your work, and can be inserted at the end of any paragraph, whenever you’ve run out of things to say, as follows: eppur si muove. And yet it moves.

Thiel wants to live to the age of 120 and is so far ahead of the curve he often looks as if he’s already reached triple digits, around fifty years early.

Next comes income inequality, an issue you will present yourself as deeply concerned by even as you advocate doing absolutely nothing to address it. Being poor, we can all agree, sucks; but you know what sucks even more? Losing the technology wars and becoming a dumping ground for the effluvia of the Asian hegemon, which is, you will argue, the only way any attempt to reduce income inequality will end. Redistributive measures like a wealth tax mean taking from the rich, which means reducing the business sector’s appetite for risk, which means eliminating startups, which means giving up on technology and growth. Paul Graham outlines the rest of the argument, which is now also your argument:

If you’re content to develop new technologies at a slower rate than the rest of the world, what happens is that you don’t invent anything at all. Anything you might discover has already been invented elsewhere. And the only thing you can offer in return is raw materials and cheap labor. Once you sink that low, other countries can do whatever they like with you: install puppet governments, siphon off your best workers, use your women as prostitutes, [and] dump their toxic waste on your territory.

Let’s summarize Graham’s Retrogression in a chart:

Income inequality —> Wealth tax —> More risk-averse society —> No startups —> China wins —> Surprise! Now you have been sold into sexual slavery

There was, again, no need for this argument to be represented visually. But from Thiel’s Axiom we know that the importance of a chart is inversely proportional to its necessity to the argument: the less necessary a chart is to make yourself understood, the more important it is to include that chart in your text. Let’s summarize that thought in a chart of its own:

The words “Radical” and “Conventional”, and, “Necessary” and “Unnecessary” are plotted opposite each other on a 2 dimensional x/y axis.

As an aspiring Silicon Valley intellectual, your most fertile hunting ground will lie in the first quadrant of this Cartesian system, where ideas, like the charts that illustrate them, are at once radical and unnecessary.

This segues nicely into your third and final theme: American greatness. Today the Silicon Valley elite is obscenely rich; with a wealth tax in place, it will become merely extremely rich. This fear will undergird all your work as a VC intellectual. You won’t admit this, of course; instead, you’ll sell yourself as singularly obsessed with maintaining American hegemony in business and technology. The challenge for America, you will argue, is to beat China. And the sternest cautionary tale for an America on the precipice of Sandersism is France: a living hell of high-speed trains, immaculate town centers, public health care, excellent higher education, five-week paid vacations, progressive taxation, and abundant, low-cost cheese. All of which sounds pretty good until you consider that up to a few years ago, the French had failed to produce a single startup unicorn this century—the result of a (thankfully now-abolished) wealth tax and decades of addiction to bureaucracy that have left the country’s business culture as clogged and unimaginative as the pores of its inhabitants are enragingly clear. What’s the point of taking long vacations if your society doesn’t have a retail economy built on Groupon vouchers? The French have developed no good answer to this question, but America must continue to ask it.

Walk like an Egyptian

You now have ideas, an all-purpose acknowledgments section, and a font. How should you present everything? “Write like you talk,” Paul Graham once said, but he forgot to add: “And talk like an asshole.” Your sentences should be short. And simple. And broken out. Into blocks. Like this. See? Not patronizing at all. Consider having a child, if only for the purpose of allowing you to brag about them online in the form of “wise child” tweets—one of the easiest ways to generate engagement and raise your profile in the VC world. Even if you don’t have a child, make one up: there’s no more dependable ally in the Silicon Valley intellectual’s quest to build the future than a precocious eight-year-old whose views on campus culture, secular stagnation, and American decline align exactly with their parents’ and arrive fully formed in perfect sentences of fewer than 280 characters.

If we are to progress as a society, we must give the dreamers and sociopaths of Silicon Valley the space to put received wisdom to the test.

Every interaction you have in the real world should be seen as an opportunity to burnish your credentials as an emerging tech intellectual. In conversation with strangers, let Thiel’s Question be your guide: ask them, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Or consider the Altman Alternative: don’t ask a new acquaintance what they do for a living; ask, “What are you interested in?” If they’re not interested in anything, say: “One thing most people don’t realize about the Vikings is how far inland their raids penetrated—it wasn’t just coastal areas,” or explain how we can unbundle the university. If they tell you to piss off or walk away with a funny look on their faces, don’t get upset; take it as proof that you’re finally starting to think non-mimetically.

Above all, don’t be afraid of failure—in business as in political debate. As Samuel Beckett once wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Beckett was a mid-twentieth century Jackie bag model and content marketer best remembered for his contributions to lean startup theory.) We live in a world that rewards conformists and scolds radicals. Your job is to be radical, even with the understanding that this will make you unpopular. Your job, in other words, is to question everything—and I mean everything. Consider the pyramids of Giza. On the one hand, they’re one of the wonders of the ancient world. On the other, barriers to entry for Egyptian pyramid construction have come down drastically since the twenty-sixth century BCE. If people in Egypt were to build the pyramids today, we’d look at them and say, “Cool?” They wouldn’t be impressive. But give me a human genomics pattern search engine that can generate predictive analytics modeling infectious disease growth through sub-Saharan Africa to help optimize ad targeting for end-of-life wearables, then yeah, okay, Egyptians: now we can talk.

Speaking uncomfortable truths such as these will not win you any friends. But it will win you the future. Every day you need to be out there, on the blogs and in the social media trenches, holding poor people to account, doing the work to make Renting Meet Love. Counterintuitive though it may sound, the fate that awaits you—online humiliation, cancellation, perhaps even death—can only be good for your personal brand. Sure, Galileo was found to be a heretic and died alone in jail. But he ended up doing huge numbers on the VC blog circuit four centuries later, and that’s a bigger risk-adjusted payoff than any seventeenth century heliocentrist could ask for.

Aaron Timms is a writer living in New York. His writing has appeared in publications including The New Republic, n+1, and Foreign Policy.

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