Peter Thiel and Bruce Sterling: Separated at Birth?

Sterling ThielI saw Peter Thiel and Bruce Sterling, back-to-back, on the closing day of Southby this year.

While on the surface, if you didn’t know much about either one, you might be convinced that it would be hard to find two people more different.

Yet, while the style and composition of their remarks was very different, I found the underlying convictions that they championed to be remarkably similar.

But, first the differences:

Thiel is a billionaire, Silicon Valley investor, best known for founding Paypal and later investing on Facebook, as was so notably highlighted in The Social Network.

Sterling is a non-billionaire writer and speaker, best known for co-founding the cyberpunk movement with novels like Islands in the Net and Heavy Weather.

Thiel is a halting, deliberate, monotone speaker, who has perfected the VC speaking style of stingily, slowly revealing information as he continuously repeats phrases like, phrases like, phrases like, phrases like… you get the idea.

Sterling is a free-flowing, highly descriptive, non-repetitive speaker who exhorts and yearns, chastises and cheerleads, complains and cozies up to the audience… all the while, making it clear that, if he thinks it needs to be said (‘sickness industry,’ ‘gangster bankers,’ et al), he won’t hesitate to say it.

Thiel is a white button-down shirt, rolled-up sleeves, khaki-slacks wearing guy.

Sterling is a long-haired, laser-cut hoodie, jeans and bolo-wearing guy.

Thiel uses slides.

Sterling doesn’t.

Here’s the thing, though. In the language of Thiel’s remarks, they are both advocates of “Determinate Optimism.”

2x2_peter_thielFor anyone that saw Thiel’s talk, do you remember the 2×2 matrix he used, with the industries/professions that fell into each of the quadrants?

“Engineering and Art” were in the Determinate Optimism quadrant (upper left).

To somewhat unfairly label for a moment, Thiel is an engineer, while Sterling, an artist.

Here are things that (I believe) they both believe:

  • Have a plan; plans matter.
  • The pursuit of truth matters.
  • Those who make their living on process and uncertainty do so for one reason: control. With control, they gain (or fight to retain) power. Their goal is for their orthodoxy to become ‘the religion.’
  • ‘The religion,’ by its very nature, fears and resists disruption —¬†often violently.

At least, these are some of the shared patterns that struck me, when I reflected on what they each said.

What does this mean?

My opinion:¬†while you can make a good living being an indeterminate pessimist, you’ll rarely change the world and you’ll never make history.

If you disagree or heard it differently, I’d love to know.