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Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman talk political progressiveness, inequality in Silicon Valley

Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel at the first event in the Cardinal Conversations series (MICHAEL SPENCER/The Stanford Daily)

“Silicon Valley is a one-party state,” Palantir founder Peter Thiel ’89 said from the stage of Hauck Auditorium. “The other side doesn’t care for you, and your side doesn’t care for you because they don’t need to.”

Thiel spoke alongside LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman ’90 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. yesterday in the first event of the Cardinal Conversations series.

Hosted by the Hoover Institution, Stanford and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Cardinal Conversations aims to put two public intellectuals with differing opinions in conversation on various topics ranging from inequality to sexuality. Thiel and Hoffman spoke on the theme of “Technology and Politics,” with much of the discussion revolving around the economy and politics of Silicon Valley. Niall Ferguson, a Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and facilitator of the Cardinal Conversations initiative, moderated the discussion.

Thiel said Silicon Valley’s liberal progressiveness is actually hindering Silicon Valley’s progress. He stated that technology companies are “playing the political game,” and doing so very poorly.

“You’re really in trouble when you get liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to agree, and both parties start to come after you,” he said.

Hoffman did not disagree.

“Republicans […] think the tech industry is progressive and [are] going to fight them, regulate them,” he said. “That’s not an ‘America first,’ that’s an ‘America last.’”

Thiel and Hoffman’s reservations about Silicon Valley’s political homogeneity was part of what drew them to each other in the first place. The pair met in a philosophy class, and often engaged in discussion about their views.

“Broadening your thinking is very important,” Hoffman said. “What are the ways to try to get to the better version of ourselves, what is the way that we can evolve our humanity, is essentially a lot of the arguments we had.”

Facilitating open conversation is also one of the main aims behind Cardinal Conversations.

“Our goal is to broaden the minds of our students by letting them hear voices they might not otherwise hear,” Ferguson wrote in an email to The Daily.

The pair also spoke about Silicon Valley’s role in fake news and fact checking. Hoffman argued that attempting to develop a technology that fact-checks is unrealistic, but the focus should instead be on checking for reliable sources. Thiel argued that information systems are much too decentralized for this.

“I remain optimistic but not utopian in the technological possibilities,” Hoffman said. “You have to start thinking that there are criminals using it […] and you have to start building against that, start thinking about influence in political democracies.”

But Thiel argued that the decision to exclude certain news sources over others can be driven by partisan interests, complicating efforts to come to a consensus.

Ferguson also brought up the topic of economic inequality in Silicon Valley, which he described as a “winner takes all” system. Hoffman argued that the “losers” Ferguson refers to – the people who aren’t running fast-growing startups – aren’t losers after all because they are benefitting from the new information systems and technology produced.Hoffman also advocated for companies like AirBnB and eBay, in which users can “create their own economic opportunity” and become “micro-entrepreneurs.”

LikeHoffman, Thiel did not readily agree with the “winner takes all” argument, stating the inequality lies simply in real estate inequity, and people are only leaving Silicon Valley because of the cost of land.

The conversation wrapped up as Ferguson asked Thiel and Hoffman whether they think they would still be friends today if they hadn’t met at Stanford. Hoffman answered yes, and Thiel — though he said he can’t answer “such an insane counterfactual question” — acknowledged the value in hearing the other side’s argument and said Stanford is a unique opportunity to do so.  

Charles Murray and Francis Fukuyama will discuss the topic of “Inequality and Populism” in the next event of the Cardinal Conversations series on Feb. 22 in Hauck Auditorium at 7 p.m.

 

Contact Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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