Monday, September 12, 2016

A Deep Dive Into Spooky City: Peter Thiel and Palantir

From the Baffler:

How Palantir has made corporate orthodoxy out of experimental theater
Palantir Technologies, the multi-billion-dollar Palo Alto–based data-analysis software company founded in 2004 with CIA seed money, gives its new employees a reading list. One assignment is Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which feeds directly into the company’s mythology. Rumor has it—though Palantir neither confirms nor denies the report—that the company’s software helped locate Osama bin Laden. This distinction has earned the private intel firm, as author Mark Bowden observes, a bad-ass literal claim to the industry’s highest term of praise: “Killer App.”

Another book on Palantir’s syllabus is, well, quite a bit different. It’s called Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, the 1979 classic on improvisational acting by Royal Court Theatre director-guru Keith Johnstone. The choice seems odd. True, improvisation happens to be a huge fad for the business-managerial class. Blue-chip companies such as PepsiCo, McKinsey, MetLife, and Google all have hosted improv seminars, while improv-themed courses are now entrenched at top business schools such as MIT, Duke, and Stanford, the alma mater of Palantir Technologies CEO Alex Karp and cofounder Peter Thiel.

Improv training supposedly boosts creativity, spontaneity, communication, teamwork, and a positive mental outlook. But what added value do Palantirians, as company employees call themselves, get from simply reading Impro as a sort of employee manual? Why should workers merely learn the rules of improvisation rather than train under them? Cui bono? As is so often the case in Silicon Valley, the benefits of the freedom- and productivity-enhancing product don’t go to the user, but to the boss.
In an industry filled with companies dedicated to “making the world a better place,” Palantir sees itself as the best and brightest: the company that hires the smartest engineers to solve the world’s biggest problems, such as fingering terrorists, spotting fraud, negotiating underwater mortgages, and distributing humanitarian relief. For today’s world-conquering technologists, all these problems have to do with Big Data—how to access its informational value for maximal human benefit. And if Big Data is the nail, Palantir is wielding Thor’s hammer. The company custom-builds software platforms for companies, government agencies, and the military to help them integrate their enormous, disparate sets of data into a searchable whole. The Palantirians carrying out this mission are known as “forward deployed engineers” or FDEs, who work on-site with clients to build the software platform through direct interaction—like a crack special-forces Geek Squad, but wearing black Palantir track jackets. The company’s high-priced contract work also follows a hard corporate-right profile, as when its FDEs infamously embarked on an elaborate data-driven bid to discredit WikiLeaks supporters and left-leaning critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s not for nothing that Peter Thiel has lately been in the news for bankrolling the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that sent Gawker Media into bankruptcy—and for attending the GOP convention in Cleveland as a speaker and Donald Trump delegate.

To Rule Them All
The first thing to understand about Palantir’s improv-inflected business model is that, like Thiel, it seeks to practice innovation and radical disruption in an ultra-controlled environment. Indeed, before we circle our way into the cult of Impro, let’s acknowledge another key literary touchstone, one that neatly distills these seemingly contradictory corporate impulses into a renowned geek fable of power won against remorselessly organized adversity. Thiel named his company after the magical seeing stones featured in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy—indispensable devices that allow users to view far and secret places without risk of detection. The idea for Palantir sprang from Thiel’s days at PayPal; there, he soon realized that building a program to spot fraud became an existential necessity for a company dependent on credit-card transactions. Readers of the LOTR trilogy may recall that the Palantíri had ambiguous value and actually enabled the evil Lord Sauron to view their users. But Thiel, a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast, argues for a more generous interpretation: the stones were “indisputably good” in the first two ages of Middle Earth, he insists, and though they were used for evil in the third, “that just reminds us that there’s great responsibility that comes with power and that anything can become corrupted if we’re not careful.” And sure enough, Palantir claims that it has embraced privacy and civil liberties protections as a “core engineering commitment” that is “baked in” to its platforms ab initio. Along with its “legal ninjas” and “philanthropic engineers,” the company has a cohort of workers it calls, with no apparent intended irony, “civil liberties engineers.”

Like Thiel, the company takes its Tolkien to heart: LOTR permeates its culture, and its offices around the world are named after Middle Earth locales: Palo Alto is the Shire, home of the humble hobbits; McLean, Virginia, where it does its government work for the national security state, is Rivendell, the glorious city of the Elven elites; Los Angeles is Gondor; Abu Dhabi is Osgiliath. And the company’s world-rescuing motto, emblazoned on hallway signs and company T-shirts, is “Save the Shire.”

Beyond such nerdy fandom, Palantir appears to surpass other tech companies in its zealous adoption of hacker culture, down to the cots in offices, special logos for all working groups, and its ball-pit conference room. It is a “mission-driven” enterprise in which employees are so committed that they are willing to work horrendously long hours for less pay than they could get at Facebook or Google—in the low six figures. (“We are a high-calorie, low-salary environment,” says the CEO.) Every summer the company schedules a “hack week”—its very own Burning Man, according to a former FDE—in which employees, freed from everyday Palantir obligations, spend their time coming up with a solution (a “hack”) to a problem of their choosing....MUCH MORE