The ‘Don of the Paypal Mafia*’ aka. Peter Thiel, is a controversial figure – he’s a contrarian, who’s personal mantra is to ask ‘What’s something that is true that almost no one else will agree with you on?’
(This is one of his interview questions for new hires – and an interesting thought experiment in itself).
He’s courted a lot of press lately because of his support of Donald Trump. This in itself is an interesting topic (Thiel is an immigrant, openly gay and until his recent support of Trump was a self professed Libertarian – read into that what you like ).
Along with being an accomplished contrarian, Thiel is a successful investor (he has the status of first investor in Facebook), Chairman of Palantir (big data start-up) and partner/founder of Founder’s Fund in Silicon Valley (who have funded Spotify, AirBnB, SpaceX etc).
One of my favourite things about this business is their mantra ‘We were promised flying cars, and instead we got 140 characters’. According to Thiel this is not a dig at Twitter, but rather at the lack of progress technology has made. According to the ‘don’, we live in an age of globalisation – which relies on the act of copying and repeating for success; whereas technology is the act of creation or in Thiel’s language going from zero to one (check out the book here).
I’m sure there will be a lot of you that will read that last sentence and disagree but Thiel has a great point – we often lump globalisation and technology together and call it progress. However, they are not the same thing. Here’s why….
We’ve lived in a century dominated by globalisation (businesses, products and services expanding or managing efficiency by going off shore). Globalisation is built on the idea that the world is broken in two halves: developed and developing. This is a century that has been dedicated to getting the developing world to catch-up with the developed world. Essentially giving them the tools, brands, services etc from the developed world – aka. copying.
Here’s the lovely assumption in all of this that the developed world has finished ‘developing’. Globalisation favours the idea that has worked before not the idea that no one has ever seen. To quote Thiel, ‘this dichotomy is anti-technological’.
I like this thought. So often we see businesses going to places more advanced in thinking than themselves and then bringing those practices back to their home country and profiting off them (just look at how commoditised the retail experience in Australia is, as a great example – why do all supermarkets look the same?).
To quote Thiel ‘If you’re looking to copy something you’re already setting yourself up in a lesser way. Like being the Oxford of Iceland – it’s not quite Oxford’. That hits the issue on the head. Often we look at innovation or progressive in a globalised way not in a true technological innovation sense. A great example of this is Rocket Internet (founders of Zalando, The Iconic etc) – a tech incubator company – that takes ideas that have already worked elsewhere. Thiel classifies this business as a globalisation play not a technological play.
Here’s the final point on globalisation and maybe the most interesting to think through. Currently there’s lots of talk in the industry about the threat of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the fears that this advance will somehow, down the track, replace the need for humans. This is the Promethean myth that been spread again and again, that humans will create the technological advance that will kill us (this is definitely part of the human psyche). Thiel doesn’t see AI as our downfall but rather Globalisation. As the developing world copy skills from the developed world they become competition. Unlike computers (artificial intelligence), people can be replaced by other people. Labour in the developed world can be substituted by labour in the developing world. So if there’s anything to be worried about it’s probably our over focus on globalisation at the detriment of technological innovation.
To conclude, in the most contrarian way, with a quote from Thiel:
I’m not interested in globalisation I’m interested in technology
*The PayPal Mafia includes Elon Musk (now CEO of Space X, Tesla and Solar City), Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn), David Sacks (founder of Yammer), Jawed Karim (co-founder of Youtube)…the list goes on