Tag Archives: peter thiel

Peter Thiel’s Spy Connections Under Scrutiny in New Zealand After Secret Citizenship Revealed

The government of New Zealand released Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel’s citizenship paperwork, after it was revealed that he had become a citizen under unusual circumstances. But that paperwork only contains a single mention of Thiel’s global spy software company, Palantir. And New Zealand media are now…

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February’s Best Books, Gadgets, and VR Systems

This story appeared in the February Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

TO BE A MACHINE
Mark O'Connell
Doubleday

The central question posed by transhumanism, the scientific and philosophical movement entertainingly explored by Mark O'Connell in his new book, To Be a Machine, is "Do you want to live forever?" As in: Do you want to make use of technology to extend your natural life, either in your current body or in some other form? It's a practical question, but it's also a philosophical one. To answer it, you need to take a stand on what life, or consciousness, even entails, and whether that sense of life holds true absent death. It's even, frankly, a religious question—it is, after all, a bargain offered by both Jesus and Satan.

In O'Connell's book, it's asked by Roen Horn, a long-haired young documentarian who, in late 2015, accompanied transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan on a cross-country trip inside an RV built to look like a coffin. Horn dislikes the idea of death. ("I can't think of anything that would suck more than being dead," he tells O'Connell.) This isn't so odd, but where most of us accept death as a given, and address our distaste for it through healthy diets, seatbelts, and regular anxiety attacks, Horn and his fellow transhumanists look toward science and engineering to either put death off or eliminate it entirely. "I just want to have fun forever," says Horn, a strict vegetarian who abstains from alcohol. "I'm actually a total hedonist." 

Believe it or not, Horn isn't the only eccentric in the small but well-funded transhumanist movement, and O'Connell's book is at its best when he's rendering funny and sympathetic portraits of the would-be immortals and other quasi-religious oddballs he met and spent time with in the US and Europe. There's Max More, a musclebound redhead and early transhumanist who now runs Alcor, a cryopreservation facility in Scottsdale (sample lobby reading: "an illustrated children's book called Death Is Wrong") that contains the remains of his wife's ex-boyfriend (to read more about Alcor, see page 44). In Berkeley, O'Connell meets with Nate Soares, who left a cushy job at Google for Berkeley's Machine Intelligence Research Institute, to address what he calls out-of-control, potentially genocidal artificial intelligence. Soares, wearing a "Nate the Great" T-shirt, tells O'Connell that he is confident that "this"—that is, murderous superintelligence—"is the shit that's gonna kill me," so he's—well, it's not exactly clear what he does, but it seems to involve lots of giving apocalyptic quotes to reporters. And there's Horn and Istvan, whose road trip, which O'Connell joined between Las Cruces and Austin, forms the book's hugely enjoyable climax. ("What do you say to people who accuse you of trying to play God?" a local news anchor asks Istvan. "I would agree that we are, in fact, trying to play God," says Istvan.) 

The concerns transhumanists are attempting to address—the frailty of the body and the terror of death—are as old as humanity itself. 

O'Connell, a columnist for Slate, is a charming, funny tour guide. Writing on transhumanism often gets swept away by the inherent drama of its adherents' promises, but O'Connell's eye for small human details—the pistachio dropped down a smug businessman's shirt, "open to the ideally entrepreneurial three-to-four buttons"—keeps the narrative grounded in a way that rigorous scientific debunking wouldn't.

It's good that transhumanists are so interesting, because their ideas usually aren't. Transhumanist "solutions" or concepts—cryogenic freezing, mind uploading, cybernetic implants—often feel, not unsurprisingly, like a bland mixture of classic sci-fi, Silicon Valley positivism, and one too many message-board arguments. Take the millenarian prophets of AI omnicide (and its charitable corollary, "effective altruism"), which convinces the rich and silly that donating money toward the prevention of a hypothetical and unlikely future AI apocalypse is more valuable than helping actual living people. And it's hard to take monstrously bearded life-extension huckster Aubrey de Grey seriously when he exclaims, "For every day that I bring forward the defeat of aging, I'm saving a hundred thousand fucking lives! That's 30 September 11ths every week!" 

That so much of transhumanism has the scent of a grift (freeze your dead body at Alcor for only $200,000! Special $80,000 deal for decapitated heads!) is unsurprising. Many of the characters, dependent on private funding or business for their scientific research, ultimately sound less like visionaries than like salesmen. Transhumanism, considered broadly, is an increasingly big business; there are links to defense research and, of course, tech-industry wealth. If I have a complaint about O'Connell's book, it's that it doesn't turn its eye often enough toward money. 

Two names come up over and over in To Be a Machine: Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, and Peter Thiel, the Facebook investor. Both are billionaires and generous donors to the various transhumanist sects, and without their munificence, it seems unlikely the movement's priests would be so richly appointed. But neither Musk nor Thiel is given much more than a nod as a quiet, behind-the-scenes moneyman. It seems significant that a fringe movement has such wealthy and prominent backers, and worth exploring the philosophical and political precepts that led Musk and Thiel to transhumanism. As O'Connell writes, the concerns transhumanists are attempting to address—the frailty of the body and the terror of death—are as old as humanity itself. What's new here is the arrangement of capital that gives rise to this specific crusade, and these particular solutions. Since at least Gilgamesh, the human race has been trying to end suffering and solve death. We have the money to undertake the former. So why is it being spent on the impossible dream of the latter? —MAX READ

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EO2
Electric Objects

Chances are, if you're reading this, the closest you'll ever come to owning art is framing a poster. Here to save you from the banalities of the cheap water lilies that have been hanging on your wall since college is Electric Objects, a startup that produces the EO2, a high-definition 21-by-12-inch screen encased in simple wood frames that can hang on your wall or sit on a stand and, via a subscription service, display art from all corners of Earth and the internet. Thanks to a matte finish and a light sensor that imperceptibly dims and lightens the screen to match its surroundings, it all somehow looks intimate and lovely, and not—as one might fear—cheesy and horrible. Once you sign up for "Art Club" (free for this first month, $9.99 a month afterward), you can choose from thousands of images—you can even put artworks on a "playlist." Of course, there's a "social" aspect as well—you have a profile that looks like a mix of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But like a Spotify for art, this is much more about the access you suddenly have in the privacy of your home. Paintings and photographs from the Getty, LACMA, the National Gallery, the NYPL, and the Rijksmuseum are at your fingertips, but there are also works by new artists, commissioned specifically for Electric Objects, including pieces that take true advantage of the medium, like Hannah Perrine Mode's Landmarks, a series of blue, circular cutouts of watercolors depicting natural landscapes that turn against a white background, like dials moved by a mysterious wind or spun by an invisible finger. Another mesmerizing group is the Space Is the Place collection, a series of images collected from high-definition NASA telescopes and enhanced by the artist Adam Ferriss. 

Though it might seem like the video or animated art is the whole appeal here, on gray, winter days, I favored a cropped scene (if there's a major issue with this format, it's that due to the screen size being fixed, if an artwork does not fit the dimensions, you only get a piece of it) from Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters by Hendrick Avercamp, a Dutch painting from about 1608 that shows a canal freezing over, with children playing an early version of hockey, everyone going about their business, wrapped in dark coats, a warmth in the sky depicted by light traces of peach in the gray clouds. Because it literally is in this case, the painting seems lit from within, and with excuses to Walter Benjamin, though it is the ur of mechanical reproduction, it contains an unmistakable aura. —SOFIA GROOPMAN

What's the Best VR System?

Virtual reality has been in the realm of science fiction for decades, but in the last year or so, that's changed. Right this second, you can buy a headset that makes VR part of your living room. Whether you want to fly a spaceship to another planet, run through a haunted mansion, or simply watch a movie in your own private theater, VR is within reach for the average person. 

The biggest problem is choosing which headset to buy. Sony, HTC, and Oculus have all released headsets with their own strengths, weaknesses, and differences in price. That last one is a big one, too. Fortunately, they're all pretty good. (If you're interested in VR movies, though, the nicer-looking headsets on PC are your best bet.) 

The fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to jump into VR is Sony's PlayStation VR setup ($400), which requires a PlayStation 4 ($300) or a PlayStation 4 Pro ($400).

That being said, pricing on PS VR gets complicated. If you don't own a PlayStation Camera, required to use the headset, that's another $60. And if you want to play with motion controls, rather than the standard controller, it'll set you back another $100. It is worth paying the extra money for them, as motion controls are where VR games really shine. Save a few bucks and buy them used.  PATRICK KLEPEK

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The Rich and Ruthless Are Winning at Sundance

Hulk Hogan's penis is ten inches long, but Terry Bollea's is not. And Bollea, the man who has publicly performed the role of American Hero Hulk Hogan for decades, really wants to make sure that we're clear on that. Bollea's boasts to the media about his genitalia and sexual exploits were neither lies nor invasions of privacy because, according to Bollea's lawyers, they were all said by fictional character Hulk Hogan, who can have any size dick he wants because he isn't real and therefore is incapable of telling a lie or having his privacy violated. If the one-minute sex tape excerpt published by news blog Gawker in 2012 had featured Hulk Hogan, then there would have been no lawsuit at all, but what viewers in fact saw was private citizen Terry Bollea having sex with his best friend's wife, not Hogan; therefore, publishing the clip constituted not just a privacy violation, but also an intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Florida jury bought this argument over Gawker's claims that they had protection under the First Amendment, awarding Bollea/Hogan a settlement of more than $140 million in March 2016, effectively bankrupting Gawker, which closed its site by August of that year. Cut to Trump surrogate Katrina Pierson claiming that Trump's sexist remarks wouldn't stick because he'd made them as "a television character."

Brian Knappenberger's documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which was among the impressive number of Sundance documentaries picked up this week by Netflix, doesn't linger on the details of Bollea v. Gawker case, most of which are already well-known, nor does it tell us anything new about the necessity of a free press in a democracy. Instead, the documentary uses the trial as a sort of canary in the mine, warning us of the inevitability of further suppression of press freedom and how powerless we may be to stop it. The documentary has many scenes, all of which I'd seen before, featuring Trump's various condemnations of the press—including inciting his supporters to attack journalists covering his rallies and promising to "open up the libel laws" so that his administration could "sue [news organizations] like you've never got sued before." Also not new were the images of people in their MAGA hats wearing shirts that read: "Rope. Tree. Journalist." I'd seen all this when he was running for president, but the effect of re-seeing this footage days after Trump's inauguration—sitting in a press screening no less, surrounded by journalists from all over the country—was absolutely nauseating. 

While some have expressed moderate skepticism as to Trump's ability to devastatingly affect libel laws, Nobody Speak reminds us that the complicity of our government's executive branch is not required to destroy press outlets. All that's needed is a billionaire with a vendetta, as Gawker discovered when it was revealed that Silicon Valley impresario Peter Thiel was bankrolling Hogan's legal team. Thiel—whose contributions to society include investments in Paypal, Facebook, and the book The Diversity Myth, which argues that racism is a problem invented by people who are just looking to be offended and that democracy has been outmoded since women got the right to vote—has had a turbulent history with Gawker ever since they outed Thiel as gay in 2007. He justified his involvement in the destruction of Gawker by calling it journalism at its very worst. But, of course, it doesn't matter if Gawker was deplorable or not. What matters is that an offended billionaire has the power to shut down a news organization that he doesn't like, a point the film also drills home by presenting the story of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which was covertly purchased in 2015 by most-coveted Republican donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. After the sale, the Review-Journal saw its best investigative reporters fired or pushed out, was forbidden to write about the Adelson family and their business dealings in Nevada, and became the first newspaper to endorse Trump for president

Are you thoroughly depressed yet? If not, then go see Beatriz at Dinner, a not-at-all subtle film about capitalists and the people's lives they destroy in the pursuit of wealth and real estate. Salma Hayek stars as Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant massage therapist, who, after her car breaks down, is reluctantly invited to stay for a dinner party at the mansion of a wealthy client. Beatriz can claim the best ensemble cast at Sundance as Hayek is supported by Connie Britton, John Lithgow, Jay Duplass, Chloë Sevigny, and David Warhofsky who all turn in exemplary performances as horrible, rich white people. The casting of Hayek is brilliant, not just because of the grace and depth of character she brings to this role, making it easily one of the best of her career, but also because she is much shorter than the rest of cast, hammering home the obvious futility of the "little guy" against corporate giants. This particular visual is reinforced when Beatriz attempts small talk with real estate mogul, David, played by human giant John Lithgow who, at 6'4'', is over a foot taller than Hayek. David quickly asks where Beatriz is from. When she cites her neighborhood in Los Angeles, he looms over her like a lamppost and says, "No, where are you really from?"

Still from 'Beatriz at Dinner.' Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

The film delivers in many places on the kind of cringe-worthy dark humor that frequent collaborators Mike White and Miguel Arteta are known for, but ultimately it is a rather heavy-handed dose of despair for anyone left naïve enough to think a pleading voice for compassion matters in the face of profit. The impeccable acting and well-written dialogue make it a movie worth seeing, but maybe not until there's a class-conscious Democrat in office. 

Neither Nobody Speak nor Beatriz at Dinner offers much in terms of hope or possible solutions to the problems we, as a society, face. Instead they both seem to be saying little other than: Rich people win. And none of this is going to end well. 

Follow Chloé Cooper Jones on Twitter.

Trump Has Lots of Options for Inflicting ‘Consequences’ on the Press

President Donald Trump’s new press secretary, Sean Spicer, opened his relationship with the White House press corps over the weekend with a flurry of condemnations for the “deliberately false,” “reckless,” and “shameful and wrong” reporting on the president’s first 24 hours in office. “We’re going to hold the press…

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