The Bluestocking, vol 203
a clown car that fell into a gold mine
Something of a tech theme this week. A happy accident, since I also wrote about how Facebook became Boomerbook for the Atlantic.
“But in the meantime, the links between Palantir and the US military deepened and grew. The company – in keeping with [Peter] Thiel’s favoured business strategy – believed that to overpromise and underdeliver was fine if it meant that other players got squeezed out of the market. There would be plenty of time to close the gap once the scale of the operation meant that its clients had no choice but to sign up for more. Just how big the gap was between promise and delivery is made clear by the fact that Palantir was very wary of any other company that claimed to do what it did – not because that meant they were a serious rival, but because it meant they didn’t have anything serious to sell. In 2016, executives at Palantir were particularly suspicious of a new outfit called Cambridge Analytica that purported to be doing for political intelligence what their business was doing for military intelligence. They didn’t believe it for a moment. Snake oil salesmen have a good eye for snake oil salesmen.
… Thiel remains sceptical of the true value of Facebook, even though it has exploited its near monopoly position to make obscene amounts of money. What it hasn’t done is make anything much worth having. In 2012, soon after its IPO and following the initial drop in its share price, Facebook invited Thiel to give a motivational talk to its employees, in the hope he might encourage them to take the long view. What he gave was a demotivational talk instead. ‘My generation was promised colonies on the moon,’ he said after being introduced by Zuckerberg. ‘Instead, we got Facebook.’ Zuckerberg had once called Twitter ‘a clown car that fell into a gold mine’. Thiel thought the same applied to the entire social media universe. What was it, after all, except a giant displacement activity?”
David Runciman (now a viscount!) is one of my favourite writers on technology, and his essay on Max Chafkin’s new biography of Peter Thiel is deeply pleasurable. Not least for the fact that Thiel—the “genius investor” who saw the early potential of Facebook—kept selling his stock throughout its ascent to hegemony because he thought the company was overvalued.
This book has an interesting theory of why Thiel was so unhappy at being outed as gay by Gawker—to the extent he secretly funded a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker—suggesting that he wanted to tap up sovereign wealth funds run by Arab governments which treat homosexuality as a crime.
Bluestocking Recommends. Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution. Come for Peter Mandelson’s moustache, stay for Tony Blair’s mom jeans.
The whole thing is a reminder that my memory has imbued 90s fashion with a hazy glamour it does not deserve.
File Not Found (The Verge)
“Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.
Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.”
Millennials and older generations are used to conceptualising computers storage as a filing cabinet—the thing you want lives in a specific folder, nested within other folders. But Generation Z have a) probably never seen a real-life filing cabinet, much less used one; b) have grown up using apps and Google search. Their conceptual model of storage is just totally different, according to the many STEM professors interviewed for this piece.
Favourite quote/Quote that makes me feel physically nauseous: ‘“Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganized,” he told The Verge, somewhat incredulously.’
The Cult of Virginity Just Won’t Let Go. Me on the upcoming vote on banning “virginity tests” and hymen repair surgery. (The Atlantic)
“I really can’t think of a more perfect encapsulation of the last 10 stupid and wasteful years of bloated VC-funded digital media than a constantly-pivoting digital publisher launched by two Goldman Sachs employees abusing underpaid staffers, dangling useless stock options in front of them, and possibly committing fraud to help prop up a weird and wildly unpopular YouTube talk show hosted by the site’s founder.” Ryan Broderick unpicks the impossible metrics of the now-defunct chimerical startup Ozy. As someone points out in the comments, when a person names their media business after a cautionary poem about megalomaniacal hubris, take the hint. (Garbage Day)
‘Film critic and novelist Anthony Quinn, a judge in 2006, picked up an endurance tip from novelist Sebastian Faulks—you read leaning on the kitchen counter, on which you have placed a knife pointing bumwards. If you drop off, the knife will stab you awake and you continue reading.’ Charlotte Higgins on the politics—identity and office—of the Booker Prize. (The Guardian)
“I have always imagined that beyond its pleasurable utility the penis must be an incomprehensible thing to most heterosexual women, like a walrus wearing a cape that shows up every once in a while to perform a quick round of gardening.” Gary Shteyngart’s piece on having his botched childhood circumcision fixed is both excruciating and excruciatingly funny. Strongly recommended reading. (New Yorker).
I am enjoying the random literary anecdotes on Salman Rushdie’s Substack.
“Especially now, especially working within the arts, especially in educated and liberal-leaning circles, there’s a certain cachet in having been wounded, wronged, injured in some way—not only a cachet, but a near-limitless license for aggression. What could never be justified as offense can easily be justified as self-defense.” Liz Bruenig on the NYT’s Bad Art Friend story (The Atlantic).
Things can only get better. See you next time!