The New York Times reported over the weekend that, despite a growing number of women who’ve come forward in the last week claiming that Donald Trump has groped or assaulted them, billionaire investor Peter Thiel will be making his first donation to the Republican Party candidate’s presidential campaign.
While some have scoffed that the size of the donation – $1.25 million – isn’t that significant, I think the timing of the donation is still notable for a number of reasons:
Well-known for his libertarian beliefs, Peter Thiel wrote in a 2009 article for the Cato Institute that “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” Giving women the right to vote, in other words, was a disaster. That sentiment was echoed this week in the hashtag #repealthe19th trended on Twitter, as Trump supporters responded to an image shared by poll analyst Nate Silver showing a landslide victory for Trump if only men voted this fall.
Thiel appeared on stage at the Republican Party convention this summer, perhaps the first time that most Americans had heard of the billionaire. But Thiel has been in the news quite frequently as of late for his bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, a suit that bankrupted the publication and has raised concerns about how this legal tactic will be used to curb free speech and free press. Thiel’s lawyers have threatened other lawsuits against the media – some on behalf of Melania Trump, Trump’s current wife – and Donald Trump himself regularly threatens and files lawsuits against news organizations who report damaging information about him.
Peter Thiel’s beliefs about free speech and the free press are particularly important as he sits on the Board of Directors of Facebook. (He was the first investor in the social media company in 2004.) 44% of US adults, according to Pew Research Center, get their news from Facebook.
Silicon Valley Ideology and the Future of Education
I’ve written extensively about “the Silicon Valley narrative” and the ideological underpinnings of the technology and education technology industries. Libertarianism. Individualism. Global capitalism. Empire.
Although many in these industries – pundits, entrepreneurs, and investors alike – try to paint Thiel as an anomaly, Thiel operates at the center, not at the margins. He operates at the center financially. He sits on boards. He shapes technology products and politics alike.
That matters for the future of democracy, clearly. It matters for the future of "diversity" in tech. It matters for the future of education.
Wait, Who Is Peter Thiel?
Peter Thiel’s entrepreneurial and investment history, in brief:
He co-founded the online payments company PayPal in 1998 with Max Levchin. PayPal merged with Elon Musk’s financial transaction company X.com the following year, going public in 2002 and then sold to eBay later that year.
In 2004, Thiel founded Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company funded in part by Q-Tel, the investment wing of the CIA.
In 2005, Thiel launched his investment firm Founders Fund. Other partners in the firm include Napster co-founder Sean Parker and PayPal execs Ken Howery and Luke Nosek.
Thiel joined the tech accelerator program Y Combinator as a partner in 2015.
A quick look at Thiel’s philosophies and philanthropy:
He is openly gay, and some contend that Gawker’s outing him in 2007 was part of Thiel’s rationale for supporting Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the publication.
He has supported other political campaigns, prior to becoming a pledged delegate for Trump this year. He endorsed Ron Paul for President in 2008.
Thiel believes in the singularity – the theory that artificial intelligence will reach a point where it far surpasses human intelligence, eventually bringing about the end of the Anthropocene. Thiel has funded the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. He’s also a financial backer of OpenAI (along with Elon Musk, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and Y Combinator president Sam Altman), a non-profit research organization that promises to develop “friendly” AI and, according to recent New Yorker profile of Altman, to “prevent artificial intelligence from accidentally wiping out humanity.” In that profile, Altman described himself as a survivalist of sorts and name-checked Thiel as his back-up plan if the end-of-the-world does come and Altman can’t make it to his bunker. Thiel has also pledged money to the Seasteading Institute, supporting its efforts to develop autonomous ocean-dwelling communities outside of current nation-states’ jurisdictions. And Thiel has supported anti-aging and life-extension research.
And then there’s his influence and investments in education…
Thiel and the Silicon Valley Narratives about Education
Thiel, a graduate from Stanford (with a BA in philosophy and a JD from its law school), pronounced in 2011 that we are in the midst of a bubble – not a real estate bubble but a higher education bubble. He told then Techcrunch editor Sarah Lacy, “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed. Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.” College just isn’t worth the price, Thiel argued.
Thiel had unveiled a “20 Under 20” contest at Techcrunch’s annual conference the previous year – a plan to offer twenty young people under the age of twenty $100,000 to drop out of school and pursue other work. Among the recipients of The Thiel Fellowship (which, now in its sixth iteration, has expanded to thirty recipients per year, all under the age of twenty-two): Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege, a startup that encourages young people to pursue a non-college path and sells “gap year” services; Vitalik Buterin, the co-creator of Ethereum, a blockchain service; Ben Yu, inventor of sprayable caffeine; and Laura Deming, who has founded a venture capital firm to invest in anti-aging and life extension technologies. (Deming is one of the few female recipients of the fellowship.)
Thiel is also the co-author of The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford, a book that argues that “political correctness,” restrictions on free speech, an “a curricular obsession with oppression theory and victimology” permeate higher education, lowering the quality of education at Stanford and undermining what he deems the most important type of diversity on campus – intellectual diversity.
Despite actively promoting a narrative that college isn’t worth it, Thiel remains heavily involved in education, teaching at Stanford and, of course, investing in education companies.
Thiel and his VC firm Founder’s Fund’s Education Technology Investments (since 2010)
- Knewton (adaptive teaching software)
- Declara (adaptive teaching software)
- AltSchool (private school that relies heavily on data surveillance and software)
- Thinkful (coding bootcamp)
- Clever (helps connect various software products for schools so that data can be more easily shared)
- Uversity (student engagement platform, formerly Inigral, acquired by TargetX)
- ResearchGate (social networking site for researchers)
- Lore (learning management system, formerly Coursekit, acquired by Noodle)
- If You Can (education game-maker, founded by Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts)
- SoFi (private loans)
- Upstart (private loans)
- Affirm (private loans)
This portfolio reflects some of the big stories Silicon Valley is selling via education technology – “personalized education,” data collection and analytics, private student loans, coding bootcamps.
Those last two are noteworthy, I’d contend, particularly considering Thiel’s claims about a “higher education bubble.” That is, he seems quite happy to profit from the growing cost of tuition via the booming private student loan market which is well-positioned to profit from the growth in coding bootcamps, whose students are not currently eligible for federal financial aid.
I track all ed-tech funding data at funding.hackeducation.com. The data is freely and openly available via the GitHub repository that powers the site. The data includes a list of all investors in ed-tech companies going back to 2010, as well as a more detailed look at individual investments, acquisitions, and mergers so far this year.
I track this data, in part, because it helps inform the criticism I write of the ideology of education technology – its business, its politics, its stories. It’s important to peel back the veneer of “progress” – technological progress, political progress – and scrutinize the message, not just the product, being sold. It’s worth scrutinizing the networks – powerful networks – behind education technology. Who is funding the technology makers? Who is funding the policy makers? Who is funding the storytellers? To what end?
At the core of the companies that Thiel has founded and funded is surveillance. Palantir. Facebook. AltSchool. The regime of data collection and analysis is framed as “personalization.” But that’s a cover for compliance and control.
"I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible" – Peter Thiel
What if, instead of wondering how on earth Thiel could support Trump or Trump support Thiel, we consider how they’re quite well-aligned and how the technologies we’re adopting in education are shot through with this very ideological affinity?