If you’ve only heard one thing about Peter Thiel (and many have heard nothing at all) it is that he is a believer in the power of young blood. The tech multibillionaire and founding investor of the surveillance company Palantir is a public advocate of parabiosis, an experimental field of biology investigating whether transfusions of blood from young people to older ones can stall or even reverse ageing. Rumours that Thiel himself has received such transfusions have persisted for years. When asked about them directly in a rare interview, he replied simply: ‘I’m not a vampire.’
Max Chafkin’s The Contrarian makes for deeply uncomfortable reading. This meticulous biography of big tech’s leading conservative figure (Thiel was a prominent Trump backer, and spoke at the 2016 Republican convention) is full of moments that would startle those with the hardiest constitutions. He emerges as a man feared not only by his enemies but by his close associates. Time and again Chafkin was asked by a potential source: ‘Aren’t you worried he’ll come after you?’
Such anxieties would not be unfounded: Thiel famously funded lawsuit after lawsuit (including one with the wrestler Hulk Hogan) in a bid to revenge himself on Gawker, a network of sites that had run critical coverage of him. His efforts succeeded, eventually bankrupting Gawker and its founder, the former Financial Times journalist Nick Denton.
But it’s the tales of Thiel’s early days that really shock. In a move which seems ironic given his later suppression of media outlets, during his time at Stanford in the late 1980s he actually founded a publication, the Stanford Review, and served as its editor for several years. The content was both reactionary and ahead of its time. One cover story was titled ‘Western Culture in the Balance’. Another piece accused faculty members of being closet Marxists. Keith Rabois, a contributor and a friend of Thiel’s, carried out an attention-seeking stunt outside one home on campus, shouting ‘Faggot! You’re going to die of Aids. You’re going to get what’s coming to you!’ in a demonstration of free speech.
Thiel supported this outburst, along with numerous homophobic articles in his paper — surprisingly, given that both men are gay, though neither were openly so at the time. He showed little interest in technology then, but published a book called The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus and pursued a career in corporate law.
He ended up in tech because of his right-wing politics and disdain of government, Chafkin suggests. In the time of Palm Pilot handhelds, Thiel saw the possibility of wiring digital money outside government control — an idea that became Pay-Pal. Rather than challenging governments, the service proved valuable to eBay sellers — to the point that eBay bought the company, though not before various boardroom shenanigans saw Thiel bring Elon Musk into PayPal, only to knife him as CEO.
From here, the story involves ever more familiar names. Thiel was one of Facebook’s earliest investors and a mentor to Mark Zuckerberg right through to the Trump era. He started a venture capital fund, hiring Rabois and other Stanford conservative allies, which helped establish SpaceX, Palantir, Airbnb, Lyft, Spotify and similar internet giants.
The Contrarian is more successful as a revisionist history of Silicon Valley than as the biography of an eccentric billionaire. Instead of cute stories about idealistic liberal founders in their garages, we see Thiel and his cohorts, admirers of Silicon Valley’s military-industrial complex era, engaging in something much more like capitalism-as-usual. But we get little impression of Thiel as a person, and there is no on-the- record interview with him. We are told that he has been with his husband for decades, but not what their relationship is like. We hear about his many properties, but only that most of them are as unadorned as show homes.
Perhaps this is not Chafkin’s failing; rather an indication that Thiel is someone who cannot be profiled. He is the supposed libertarian who built Palantir, which sells surveillance software to governments; the gay man who published homophobic articles; the free speecher who silenced a major US blog. Like those around him, we are left wondering which of his beliefs, if any, are sincere — including his alleged support of parabiosis. By the book’s end that too seems highly doubtful.
So this is a man who would like the world to believe he desires the blood of the young even though he probably doesn’t. What could be more sinister than that?