Book of the week: The Contrarian by Max Chafkin

Biography challenges the image of Silicon Valley as a hotbed of idealism and progressive liberalism

Mike Pence, Donald Trump and Peter Thiel
Mike Pence, Donald Trump and Peter Thiel during a meeting with technology executives at Trump Tower, New York City, in December 2016
(Image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Peter Thiel – the subject of this meticulous biography – is “Big Tech’s leading conservative”, said James Ball in The Spectator. The multibillionaire co-founded PayPal in the late 1990s, and has since invested in a string of “internet giants”, including Facebook, Spotify and the surveillance company Palantir.

A vociferous opponent of liberal culture, Thiel was a prominent Trump backer, and has been linked to some of Silicon Valley’s wackier concepts – including a drive to build autonomous sea-based communities, and the anti-ageing therapy parabiosis (“transfusions of blood from young people to older ones”).

Max Chafkin, a Bloomberg journalist, was not able to interview Thiel, and doesn’t entirely get to grips with his eccentric personality. Where The Contrarian excels, however, is as a “revisionist history of Silicon Valley”, one that challenges the popular image of the tech heartland as a hotbed of idealism and progressive liberalism.

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I’ve read lots of “origin stories” of Silicon Valley overlords, and in some ways Thiel’s upbringing perfectly fits the mould, said Hugo Rifkind in The Times. The son of German immigrants, he was a geeky child who excelled at chess, but his story soon “veers off” – most crucially in the fact that he “never seems into computers”.

At Stanford University, instead of spending his time coding, he founded a “magazine of right-wing provocation, which railed against what we would now call wokeism”. And though he presents himself as a “techno-evangelist”, his big successes have “essentially been ones of venture capitalism”: the early investments that he made in the likes of PayPal, Facebook, Airbnb and Spotify.

As presented by Chafkin, Thiel’s most striking trait is his “nihilistic desire to take down others”, said William Davies in the New Statesman. His business strategy is to drive “all competitors to the wall”, and he famously pursued a vendetta against the gossip website Gawker, which had outed him as gay. By covertly funding various lawsuits against the company – including one launched by the former wrestler Hulk Hogan – he drove it to ruin.

Chafkin is a brilliant chronicler of the “Thielverse” – the “weird personality cult” that surrounds Thiel, composed almost exclusively of young, right-wing men, said John Naughton in The Observer. Although his followers ascribe to him a “godlike prescience”, Chafkin’s account suggests that he isn’t a visionary at all, but someone defined only by what he’s against – notably liberal elites and multiculturalism. There’s only one thing that he has been consistently in favour of: “he’s for Peter Thiel”.

Bloomsbury 400pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

The Contrarian book cover

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