Back in September of 2014, as the alt-right began to bubble up from the cracks left by Gamergate, Peter Thiel published an article in Wired magazine. It was titled, “You Should Run Your Startup Like a Cult. Here’s How.” The article that followed was, mostly, quite milquetoast, a few thousand words on motivating tech workers excerpted from Peter’s recent book, ‘Zero to One’. There are however some noteworthy lines, like this one:
“In the most intense kind of organization, members abandon the outside world and hang out only with other members. We have a word for such organizations: cults. Cultures of total dedication look crazy from the outside. But entrepreneurs should take cultures of extreme dedication seriously.”
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Peter goes on to express his distaste for companies like Accenture, a consulting firm with a rapid turnover of employees who have “no long-term connection” to each other whatsoever. He then provides this…interesting graph:
It’s probably worth noting here that ‘Zero to One’ was co-written by Blake Masters, who this year ran for one of Arizona’s Senate seats backed by a pile of Thiel-bucks. He starred in a famously off-putting ad in which he fired a suppressed pistol into the water after repeatedly fawning about the fact that the firearm was made in Germany. Masters lost badly (by around 5%) to Mark Kelly, an actual astronaut.
Masters blamed gun violence on “black people, frankly” and expressed a belief that gay marriage should be banned (he attended his own boss, Peter’s, wedding). The fact that Thiel thought this serial-killer-ass-looking dude:
…could win an election, might suggest that he wasn’t entirely off base when he compared the working environment at his companies to a cult. You have to be living in a very specific reality tunnel, one far detached from your fellow man, to think Blake Masters was ever a good candidate. If Thiel is, in fact, a cult leader, this kind of detachment makes sense. A defining characteristic of cult leaders is that they all wind up floating in their own alternate reality.
There is one more line in that article I find interesting:
“The best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults. The biggest difference is that cults tend to be fanatically wrong about something important. People at a successful startup are fanatically right about something those outside it have missed.”
Peter Thiel is, of course, an avowed monarchist who spends oodles of cash bankrolling fascist causes. It would be foolish to assume this article expressed 100% of his honest feelings. But that paragraph above is interesting to me because it is basically never true. I want you to think through the great tech enterprises of our day and tell me how many fit that description.
When I look at the annals of successful tech unicorns, I don’t often see people who were “right” about something “those outside” missed. Instead, I see people who succeeded in building little cults around their products in the tech press, and out of their customers. When Google blew up, it’s not because they were “right” about the need for a search engine, something the rest of the world ignored. It’s because they were the first to do a good job of building something everyone knew was necessary. The ‘Don’t Be Evil’ stuff, the legendary perks and corporate culture (anyone remember ‘The Internship?’) that all came later, grafted onto the scaffolding of a bafflingly useful tool.
Speaking of tools!
You can see variations of the same story with Microsoft, with Apple, with Mozilla and Facebook and so on. This started to become much less true in the oughts, as the overnight start-up sensations became companies like Uber, Theranos, various Crypto scams or one of those services that littered downtown city streets with hundreds of rentable scooters. For these companies, the central service was either an outright con, or fundamentally unprofitable.
Everyone inside Uber knew they were running against the clock on whether or not they could get self-driving cars to work before the VC funding ran out. They were not, by and large, deluded about the reality of what it would actually take to make the company profitable. What mattered wasn’t so much whether or not they could get the tech to work, it was whether they could keep people convinced they could long enough to cash out.
‘Keep the con going long enough to cash out’ is the central operating tenet of Silicon Valley, and the best way to do that is to build a cult, a closed information loop that creates a separate reality tunnel so the people shoveling cash at the project never guess that failure is possible. Every collapsed Crypto exchange and shitcoin is a variation of this story.
But cults need cult leaders. And that’s where the billionaires come in.
Tesla brought Elon Musk the bulk of his fortune, and though the company was founded on the back of some very cool technology, it became a household name off the back of Elon Musk’s fame. It didn’t matter that Tesla, the company, only achieved profitability by selling carbon credits, a form of climate indulgence, to other car companies. Musk was going to save the world, or at least take us to Mars.
Elon Musk was a good enough confidence man that Tesla stock wound up overvalued by around $1 trillion. But along the way he made the calamitous mistake of believing in his own bullshit. Friends and business partners who knew him in more rational days will point out that he’s become surrounded by yes-men and sycophants, as his wealth has allowed him to gradually elide the discomfort of ever being challenged.
A version of this happens to every person who makes enough money. Wealth and power can impact the brain in ways that mirror brain damage, causing a loss of impulse control and compassion for other people. And that’s just the case for folks who wind up normal-ass rich, without millions of weirdos worshipping them as the techno-messiah.
The evidence is all there. Think of the time, in 2018, he tweeted himself into a $40 million dollar settlement with the SEC just so he could make a “420” joke. Or the time he grew so enraged that he couldn’t make himself the center of a story about a bunch of starving children stuck in a cave that he accused one of the rescuers of pedophilia. These are the actions of a man who has grown enraptured by the myth of his own importance.
When I read stories now, of Twitter employees shitcanned for criticizing Elon in private slack chats, I can’t help but think of L. Ron Hubbard living on the high seas in a fleet of cruise ships with his most dedicated followers. Whenever someone would ‘fail’ him, he’d have his other followers fling them over the side of the boat and into the ocean.
As I was writing this essay, a tweet from the ‘Whole Mars Catalog’ (a major Tesla stan) hit my timeline:
I finished Season 2 of The Vow recently, and it struck me that there’s at least a little Keith Raniere in Elon. The need for his followers to prove their devotion to the ‘smartest man on earth’ by taking on incredible risk is, at least, similar.
It’s possible that the cult of Elon Musk has been irreparably damaged by his acquisition of Twitter. The naked preference he’s showed members of the far-right, including unrepentant fascists and anti-Semites, has turned off a lot of former casual believers. Every cult leader has a point at which they fall too far into the reality tunnel they’ve carved for their cultists.. What happens after this point varies (L. Ron Hubbard disappeared to write incomprehensible books in the desert, Keith Raniere went to prison, etc) but there is always a moment of collapse.
This brings me to the story of perhaps the greatest billionaire cult leader in history: Steve Jobs. The co-founder of Apple had an enviable library of successes. His company invented the personal computer, and when he was eventually forced out as CEO, he helped found Pixar, then came back to Apple and presided over the release of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. All of these devices were built by other men, of course, but Jobs made them part of his vision of our future.
In books about Apple, a term you’ll here again and again is “reality distortion field”. Because I’m a lazy man, I’ll refer you to Wikipedia here:
This is interesting to me in part because Steve Jobs is still the most successful example of the “visionary tech founder” archetype. His ability to distort reality, manipulate geniuses like Wozniak, and convince investors and shareholders to believe in his vision of the future remains unequaled.
Steve, in the years where he was most powerful, had much more self-control and discipline than Elon Musk. He ran a famously tight shop. Leaks from Apple were rare, and he communicated with the public almost exclusively through speeches more choreographed than a musical from the 1950s. Yet Steve, too, fell victim to his reality distortion field.
In 2003, during a CT scan to check for kidney stones, doctors saw a “shadow” on Steve’s pancreas. Further tests showed that it was cancerous. The good news was that the specific kind of pancreatic cancer he had was rare, and treatable. Given that he could afford the very best doctors on earth, his prognosis was good (at least, ‘good’ for pancreatic cancer).
But Steve refused surgery. For nine months he resorted to his own concocted list of radical dietary changes and alternative medical treatments. He told his biographer, Walter Isaacson: “I didn’t want my body to be opened…I didn’t want to be violated in that way.”
The people who loved Jobs attempted to puncture his reality tunnel during this period, and convince him to treat his cancer. But he would not listen. As Walter Isaacson, later told CBS:
"I think that he kind of felt that if you ignore something, if you don't want something to exist, you can have magical thinking. And it had worked for him in the past.”
It remains a central tenet of my own personal belief system that there is no such thing as a genius. Tests that seek to show intelligence rarely show more than the skill at solve a particular kind of puzzle. But the grand mythology of the tech industry is built around a fantasy of hyper-competent, Randian gods and goddesses, holding up candles to light the way for us poor, blinkered fools stuck in the dark.
The reality is that billionaires are fools as often as the rest of us; nearly 100% of the time. A man like Elon Musk can throw away fortunes to fuel his ego, but eventually his flights of fantasy will lead him out into open sky, with no ground beneath him. Gravity will do the rest.
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the absolute arrogance to think "be ready for your car to try to kill you" is a normal statement, without even mentioning that in doing so, it will very likely kill other drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians... what a perfect metaphor for capital externalizing its risks and costs.
I think billionaires were a bad idea