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.

Sterling SXSW Rant 2007

In honor of the South-by-Southwest, aka SXSW, “Panel Picker” going live today (for those who are registered for the Interactive conference, please remember to cast a vote for my panel “Controlling Robots Through the Web!”), I dug up some raw notes from my trusty Dell laptop that I jotted down at SXSW 2007, as I recall, on my similarly trusty Palm Treo.
Anyone who has read my blog posts knows that I have admired the self-styled rants of Bruce Sterling over the years. In addition to catching his standing-room-only talk that Spring, I had the pleasure and good sport of hosting a panel with Bruce and Lux Research’s Matthew Nordan in the Fall of 2007 at the first annual Clean Energy Venture Summit. You can read more about that experience at my “Freshtech Friday” (formerly “Cleantech Friday”) guest blog on

Anyhow, I make no apologies for the outline form of the following, because it’s been more than two years since that session. But, just browsing them gives you a little insight to the unique, crazy quilt outline from which Mssr. Sterling delivers his rant. 

  • Henry Jenkins like das capital-enamored w/fandom (
  • Lev Manovich-cultural, legal – soft or creole media (
  • yogi ba/enkler-wiki?
  • Richard Stallman (
  • drm and broadband eats everything
  • no convergence
  • rfid-sxsw tag on all
  • first world is global-market
  • 2nd world is govts
  • 3rd world is common space peer prod
  • 4th world is disorder-tearing up world and abandoning the map
  • social networks-fragile or resilient
  • businesses stop being a business
  • global proletariat
  • laptop gypsies-very vulnerable
  • novelty mash-ups – not novel
  • “when you have a laser, everything looks laser-able” [<=SG comment: I love sound bites like this one!]
  • deviant art, not great-too easy, digital folk culture-don’t valorize
  • blog-gone by 2017, usefulness is as a platform for something-what?
  • turn on internet and leave the room- semiotic pollution…90 percent is spam and robbery
  • Reed Hundt-evil medium that debases impoverished (
  • broadcast is powerful-security services get broadband via channel
  • frontline…
  • trust construction
  • things that were formerly professionals are falling apart-lots of hungry polar bears
  • underworld news at digg,,
  • hw is radically unstable
  • al qaeda-they are the best at commons based peer production, military, religious, existence proof
  • well behaved appliance – not creative
  • Eastern European… gift-serenity

It’s sort of like reading the data stream from your REM sleep period, isn’t it? Anyhow, whether I am speaking at the SXSW Interactive festival or not, I find that the annual Sterling rant is just about worth the price of admission, on its own.

Hope to see you there in 2010!