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Automatic for the Sheeple

Old-world vengeance in the new


How to react to a nuclear explosion, from EPA.gov

The famed venture capitalist Peter Thiel further sealed his identity as a Silicon Valley supervillain by revealing that, yes, as had been reported, he funded the lawsuit that wrestler Hulk Hogan successfully pursued against media company Gawker. Thiel reportedly invested about $10 million in the case, in the hopes of bankrupting Gawker — at least in part as revenge for the time that Valleywag, a Gawker property, outed Thiel as gay. A jury awarded Hogan $140 million in damages. A pretty good multiple.

This being about sexual politics, the law, Hulk Hogan, VC culture, and Gawker, there is no shortage of opinions. The Hacker News community in general sees Gawker as nefarious and Thiel as righteous. Media people, after issuing their standard statements of disgust with Gawker, are rightfully freaked out that someone who has no regard for their industry could so…legally…push a media company towards bankruptcy. Wired published a funny piece in which they completely submit to Thiel. At this moment you can see the immune system of the media kicking in, reacting to a situation it finds intolerable. The media doesn’t have infinite access to capital but it is the court of public opinion.

Elizabeth Spiers, who was the first editor of Gawker, pointed out that Thiel’s behavior should give anyone doing business with him pause:

But there’s interesting-fun-mercurial and there’s the kind of mercurial where you start to worry about being anywhere near the blast radius when the person blows up, for of being completely incinerated — maybe even unintentionally. And that’s where I wonder what he’s like as an investor in situations where he’s actively involved. If you have a disagreement with him, is the result a reasonable adjudication of the conflict, or is there always a possibility that even small things could result in total annihilation?

Which, yeah, my God. Although it’s probably kind of fun sometimes, too. Nuclear explosions are terrifying, but also interesting.

What strikes me though is just how non-disruptive, how old-world and uninspired, this whole thing is. Destroying Gawker through the courts is basically a Dickensian move, something that gets revealed in chapter 34 of a 50-chapter novel. It’s so old-world. He didn’t create a think-tank that would lobby to get legislation passed to fight invasion of privacy (or legally define “newsworthiness,” etc.), nor did he create a new kind of media company to compete. He just wrote a big check to make a big lawsuit even larger.

What would have been really disruptive is to automate the persecution of a media organization. In some ways, the Gamergate fiasco did that—also with Gawker, by creating simple templates that people could use to complain to Gawker’s advertisers. As Gawker wrote: (“Gamergaters were passing around a sample letter (“DO NOT COPY AND PASTE”) and list of advertiser contacts to coordinate the campaign.”) And with the rise of legal automation and e-discovery, along with enormous amounts of licensable big data, it’s possible to imagine a world where not just one person, but everyone can sue Gawker and ruin its relationship with advertisers—a world that is right around the corner. As the Wall Street Journal wrote:

There are a variety of other intelligent systems that can take over other chunks of legal work. One system extracts key provisions from contracts. Another decides how likely your intellectual property case is to succeed. Others predict judicial decisions, recommend tax strategies, resolve matrimonial property disputes, and recommend sentences for capital crimes. No one system does it all, of course, but together they are chipping away at what humans have done in the courtroom and law office. Robert Weber, IBM’s outgoing general counsel, recently stated that the company’s Watson “cognitive computing” system could take over a substantial portion of the work done for IBM by external lawyers.

Disruption, Dickens-Style

(Five years ago I wrote something about a future of nanolaw, if you have a few minutes to kill.)

When Silicon Valley people talk about disruption there’s a sort of implicit understanding that it will be transparent: That the consumer will understand what she is buying, the trade being made. That the jobs going to job heaven will not go in vain, but rather will be sacrificed meaningfully, on the altar of progress and 20x returns.

Gawker employs a lot of people. Through its complex history it has shepherded a tremendous amount of talent and its alumni form a network throughout the media companies of the world. Ultimately Thiel’s revenge puts hundreds of jobs—careers, really—at risk. Gawker is now exploring a sale.

If you’ve read Thiel’s sad, dark-enlightenment-style lectures on startup orthodoxy (he taught a class at Stanford), you know that he draws a lot of grisly scenarios where technology leaves us with an inequitable, secret, non-transparent society. You should read them, by the way—dude is pretty brilliant. His writing (teaching?) style is almost hilariously bleak and contemptuous: like J.G. Ballard and George Bataille collaborating with Geoffrey Moore. He’s preparing us for a future where a few people ride in spaceships and the rest of us live in Sea Oak.

The thing I’ve taken away from Thiel is: After you figure out how to cross the chasm, blow up the bridge. This lawsuit is Thiel waving back at us from the other side of a really huge chasm. Except it’s not a future with flying cars and open APIs. It’s a world where revenge is served ice cold, in secret, using legal machinery hundreds of years old, with hundreds of jobs at risk.

Disruption and universal basic income and creeping VCs aside, we don’t have to build a future that sucks. We probably won’t. As a friend of mine once said: “There are good surprises, too.”