What are the risks of centralizing information?

Venture Capitalist and Technology Entrepreneur

Peter Thiel is an American entrepreneur, hedge fund manager and venture capitalist.  He is Clarium’s President and the Chairman of the firm’s investment committee, which oversees the firm’s research, investment, and trading strategies. Before starting Clarium, Peter served as Chairman and CEO of PayPal, an Internet company he co-founded in December 1998 and was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in October 2002.

Prior to founding PayPal, Peter ran Thiel Capital Management , the predecessor to Clarium, which started with $1 million under management in 1996. Peter began his financial career as a derivatives trader at CS Financial Products, after practicing securities law at Sullivan & Cromwell.

In addition to managing Clarium, Peter is active in a variety of philanthropic and educational pursuits; he sits on the Board of Directors of the Pacific Research Institute, the Board of Visitors of Stanford Law School, and is an adviser to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Peter received a BA in Philosophy from Stanford University and a JD from Stanford Law School.   He is self-described libertarian and a minority investor in Big Think.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What are the risks of centralizing information?

Peter Thiel: Well you have Google.  You have Facebook, which has a directory of all different people.  There are all sorts of variations of these information technology companies with large databases basically where they have data on all sorts of stuff about people; what they’ve done and so on down the line.  There is obviously a lot of danger about that.  I guess, two thoughts on the current trajectory

Decentralization still has been outweighing the centralizing aspect.  So if you take Google as one instance, by enabling people to get access to information, it has created far more transparency.  You know there was an issue in the 2004 presidential race; the Dan Rather memo; technologies like Google enabled that get exposed far more quickly than it otherwise would have.  And so it’s probably had the effect of weakening some of these centralized, big media companies and creating a far more transparent world. 

So transparency can cut both ways.  On the one hand it makes things more transparent into people’s lives.  But maybe the transparency also goes the other way, and you have more transparency into the government or into other institutions.  And that is the positive spin on this increased transparency.  It can actually lead to more accountability rather than lust.

Now my other thought is that to the extent you do have this, I think one of the other trends that we are seeing that, you know, is definitely more disconcerting, but may not be unambiguously catastrophic, is we are headed towards a world with far less privacy, and where the notions of privacy are going to change quite a bit, where there simply will be far more information about you in the public domain. 

It seems to me that from a policy perspective, the correct approach should not be a sort of ________ type of approach which I think is championed by people like the ACLU and organizations like that where the way we deal with this is we just smash the computers, and break the databases, and turn everything off; but rather that we have to have a society that somehow becomes more tolerant.  And that’s what I hope, even if there’s less privacy, there will be more tolerance and it will sort of even out. 

The fear is, of course, that we will have maybe even less privacy, and maybe even less tolerance.  Because you know people will just use all sorts of details they find out about other people in all sorts of very distorted and bad ways.  But I think that certainly is one of the ways in which it’s been playing out so far.

Recorded on: Sep 05, 2007


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