Improv-da

How Palantir has made corporate orthodoxy out of experimental theater

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Palantir Technologies, the multi-billion-dollar Palo Alto–based data-analysis software company founded in 2004 with CIA seed money, gives its new employees a reading list. One assignment is Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which feeds directly into the company’s mythology. Rumor has it—though Palantir neither confirms nor denies the report—that the company’s software helped locate Osama bin Laden. This distinction has earned the private intel firm, as author Mark Bowden observes, a bad-ass literal claim to the industry’s highest term of praise: “Killer App.”

Another book on Palantir’s syllabus is, well, quite a bit different. It’s called Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, the 1979 classic on improvisational acting by Royal Court Theatre director-guru Keith Johnstone. The choice seems odd. True, improvisation happens to be a huge fad for the business-managerial class. Blue-chip companies such as PepsiCo, McKinsey, MetLife, and Google all have hosted improv seminars, while improv-themed courses are now entrenched at top business schools such as MIT, Duke, and Stanford, the alma mater of Palantir Technologies CEO Alex Karp and cofounder Peter Thiel.

Improv training supposedly boosts creativity, spontaneity, communication, teamwork, and a positive mental outlook. But what added value do Palantirians, as company employees call themselves, get from simply reading Impro as a sort of employee manual? Why should workers merely learn the rules of improvisation rather than train under them? Cui bono? As is so often the case in Silicon Valley, the benefits of the freedom- and productivity-enhancing product don’t go to the user, but to the boss.

In an industry filled with companies dedicated to “making the world a better place,” Palantir sees itself as the best and brightest: the company that hires the smartest engineers to solve the world’s biggest problems, such as fingering terrorists, spotting fraud, negotiating underwater mortgages, and distributing humanitarian relief. For today’s world-conquering technologists, all these problems have to do with Big Data—how to access its informational value for maximal human benefit. And if Big Data is the nail, Palantir is wielding Thor’s hammer. The company custom-builds software platforms for companies, government agencies, and the military to help them integrate their enormous, disparate sets of data into a searchable whole. The Palantirians carrying out this mission are known as “forward deployed engineers” or FDEs, who work on-site with clients to build the software platform through direct interaction—like a crack special-forces Geek Squad, but wearing black Palantir track jackets. The company’s high-priced contract work also follows a hard corporate-right profile, as when its FDEs infamously embarked on an elaborate data-driven bid to discredit WikiLeaks supporters and left-leaning critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s not for nothing that Peter Thiel has lately been in the news for bankrolling the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that sent Gawker Media into bankruptcy—and for attending the GOP convention in Cleveland as a speaker and Donald Trump delegate.

To Rule Them All

The first thing to understand about Palantir’s improv-inflected business model is that, like Thiel, it seeks to practice innovation and radical disruption in an ultra-controlled environment. Indeed, before we circle our way into the cult of Impro, let’s acknowledge another key literary touchstone, one that neatly distills these seemingly contradictory corporate impulses into a renowned geek fable of power won against remorselessly organized adversity. Thiel named his company after the magical seeing stones featured in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy—indispensable devices that allow users to view far and secret places without risk of detection. The idea for Palantir sprang from Thiel’s days at PayPal; there, he soon realized that building a program to spot fraud became an existential necessity for a company dependent on credit-card transactions. Readers of the LOTR trilogy may recall that the Palantíri had ambiguous value and actually enabled the evil Lord Sauron to view their users. But Thiel, a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast, argues for a more generous interpretation: the stones were “indisputably good” in the first two ages of Middle Earth, he insists, and though they were used for evil in the third, “that just reminds us that there’s great responsibility that comes with power and that anything can become corrupted if we’re not careful.” And sure enough, Palantir claims that it has embraced privacy and civil liberties protections as a “core engineering commitment” that is “baked in” to its platforms ab initio. Along with its “legal ninjas” and “philanthropic engineers,” the company has a cohort of workers it calls, with no apparent intended irony, “civil liberties engineers.”

And if Big Data is the nail, Palantir is wielding Thor’s hammer.

Like Thiel, the company takes its Tolkien to heart: LOTR permeates its culture, and its offices around the world are named after Middle Earth locales: Palo Alto is the Shire, home of the humble hobbits; McLean, Virginia, where it does its government work for the national security state, is Rivendell, the glorious city of the Elven elites; Los Angeles is Gondor; Abu Dhabi is Osgiliath. And the company’s world-rescuing motto, emblazoned on hallway signs and company T-shirts, is “Save the Shire.”

Beyond such nerdy fandom, Palantir appears to surpass other tech companies in its zealous adoption of hacker culture, down to the cots in offices, special logos for all working groups, and its ball-pit conference room. It is a “mission-driven” enterprise in which employees are so committed that they are willing to work horrendously long hours for less pay than they could get at Facebook or Google—in the low six figures. (“We are a high-calorie, low-salary environment,” says the CEO.) Every summer the company schedules a “hack week”—its very own Burning Man, according to a former FDE—in which employees, freed from everyday Palantir obligations, spend their time coming up with a solution (a “hack”) to a problem of their choosing.

The company also embraces its own version of the Valley’s fabled “flat hierarchy” workplace—meaning that, apart from a handful of founders and directors, it operates without the benefit of an org chart or a rigid management structure. “There are no leashes at Palantir,” says a company statement about its engineering culture. “We work on flat, decentralized teams, each with decision-making authority, and our people have the freedom to approach, own, and solve problems creatively.” Under this regime of rhetorical worker empowerment, forward-deployed teams act autonomously, and engineers are entrepreneurs who sell clients on the product (instead of relying on salespeople). The idea, according to the company’s managerial ethos, is for the “best idea,” rather than the most powerful person, to win.

“Zero title awareness also makes people more approachable,” Eliot Hodges, then a Palantir FDE, wrote in 2012 about the company culture. “I am as comfortable chatting with Dr. Karp, our CEO, as I am talking to the product dev team as I am with the awesome folks at kitchen ops who keep us well-fed and happy; We are all Palantirians, and we are in this mission together!”

Spontaneous Servility

Dr. Karp, as the CEO is known to all Palantirians in this “zero title awareness” company, is the figure most responsible for fostering this culture. He has no technical degree, and obtained his PhD from the University of Frankfurt under the supervision of communications philosopher Jürgen Habermas. He addresses employees on an internal video channel nicknamed “KarpTube” on subjects as varied as “greed, integrity, and Marxism.” He’s the one with books on improvisational theater in his office, and he spends a good deal of time fretting over the ways in which money—from an IPO, say, which Dr. Karp has resisted—could ruin the unique DNA of the company.

“The thing Alex worries about the most is they have a culture that’s hard to sustain as it grows,” James Carville, the Democratic consultant who’s also a company adviser, told the New York Times. “I take walks around Stanford with him, and he talks about it: ‘If we become something besides Palantir, what are we?’”

This is where the lessons of Impro would appear to come into play. Through much of the book, Johnstone reviews the formative experiences of his actor-training life and recounts in vivid detail the failures and successes of his long career in experimental theater. He also lays out the connections he has found between his work in the director’s chair and key insights gleaned from psychological and anthropological research.

In the first autobiographical chapter, and then repeatedly throughout the book, Johnstone rails against traditional education in a vein worthy of Thiel’s renowned dismissal of college degrees. Our compulsory school system produces rigid conformists who anxiously seek to behave according to scripts furnished by their social betters, Johnstone observes. Improvisational theater seeks to disrupt these schooling-bred rituals of deference to allow the creative genie within to emerge. “In a normal education, everything is designed to suppress spontaneity,” Johnstone writes, “but I wanted to develop it.”

Curiously, though, he’s not out to smash the underlying hierarchical system but to exploit it. In the following chapter, Johnstone explores how knowing one’s status relative to others is crucial to finding one’s character. Humans are “pecking-order animals” down to “the tiniest details of our behavior,” so it should come as no surprise that status awareness is crucial to acting, as in every other arena of life:

Although this short essay is no more than an introduction, by now it will be clear to you that status transactions aren’t only of interest to the improviser. Once you understand that every sound and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent.

In improvisation, Johnstone goes on to argue, the key to facilitating spontaneous and creative play is “saying yes” to those you’re working with. That is, when your acting partner “makes an offer” by asking a question or suggesting a line of conversation, you should follow. The rival impulse to say no is a nonstarter in a creative work setting; it either blocks the prospective opening or deflects it to some other, presumably safer, agenda item. The best improvisers “overaccept” and roll with it; the bad ones are “naysayers” and make other actors’ jobs harder. “Reading about spontaneity won’t make you more spontaneous,” Johnstone writes. “But it may at least stop you heading off in the opposite direction.”

© David Suter

Masks of Deference
In his final chapter, Johnstone turns to the use of masks. In the ideal acting situation, the personality of the performer fuses with the persona furnished by the mask, so that improvisers finally achieve a trance state and feel possessed, as if someone else is controlling them. When mask work succeeds, students “feel a decisionlessness and an inevitability,” while the instructor sees the “naturalness” of someone who doesn’t appear to be acting. “Good drama teaching,” Johnstone concludes, “threatens to alter the personality” and induces “feelings of ‘disintegration.’”

So here, in short, are the central takeaways of Impro for Palantir’s ambitious corps of FDEs:

• Your education and upbringing have ruined your genius.

• In every interaction, it’s crucial to know your status relative to others and embrace that role.

• The key to unleashing creativity is saying yes and overaccepting.

• You have attained true creative genius when your personality has been disrupted, you have a feeling of decisionlessness, and you are so absorbed in the work that you feel possessed.

In other words, to become a great Palantirian—a title-less, autonomous, creative Übermensch—you have to leave your prior self behind, embrace your role, know your status, and reconfigure your personality to the core dictates of your work. We can perhaps now understand the concern of the investor who reportedly asked Dr. Karp, “Is this a company or a cult?”

Insofar as Palantir is a cult like Scientology, Impro is its Dianetics. Only here, the famed character “audit” isn’t the recruitment tool that it is for L. Ron Hubbard’s devoted minions. No, the central inventory of your inner psychic assets comes later in Palantir’s improvisational odyssey. And in contrast to the Scientology-branded version, it doesn’t cost you money—except, that is, in foregone salary and stock windfalls.

David V. Johnson is senior editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. He has also written for The New York TimesUSA Today, AeonThe New RepublicBookforumJacobin, and Dissent, among other publications. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. You can find him on Twitter @contrarianp.

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