Mike Solana is a vice president at Founders Fund, a venture capital firm that has invested in a number of businesses that you probably know well, from Airbnb to Stripe. He runs the firm’s branding, working to attract young investors and companies. He’s also an outspoken critic of moralizing, pessimistic tech journalism, a theme he hits frequently in Pirate Wires, his irreverent, pointed Substack.
And he hits bigger themes too. “This whole entire question of what is true has really animated me for the last few years,” he says. “High-level, I care about freedom.”
“Libertarianism was the animating political philosophy in my life, starting in high school,” says Solana. His political journey included a drift into “scary leftism” briefly during college and a brief embrace of anarcho-capitalism, which is how he met Peter Thiel, his now-boss who created Founders Fund.
With some areas, such as foreign policy and concern about China’s sometimes opaque influence on tech companies, Solana deviates from traditional libertarian thought. “I don’t want [the U.S.] being the police of the world, and yet there is this, I think, very important question of what happens when America does stop being the police of the world,” he says. “I think you’re going to see the destabilization of power globally, the rise of powers in places like Russia and China. I’m not convinced that’s a better world.”
He also recently organized and hosted Hereticon, a conference focused on ideas and arguments that have largely been shut out of mainstream discourse. Conceived of more than two years ago, the event was repeatedly postponed due to the pandemic, which Solana says further proved the value proposition. It finally took place in Miami Beach in January.
Solana’s interview with Peter Suderman appeared on The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie in March.
Reason: You’ve been writing Pirate Wires on Substack for several years now.
Solana: The real reason that I’m doing it is probably because I’m allowed to do it. I work for Peter Thiel and he is a little bit anarchist in this way—that’s how everything operates under him. He allows people to do weird shit.
I started the Substack as a monetization of my podcast, called Problematic, very much in the thick of the culture war stuff. I started doing a newsletter, just my cut on the tech press, and that got a lot more attention than my podcast did, which was weird, because I thought I was doing a good job with the podcast. The thing grew and grew. Now I consider myself one of many newly emergent countervoices in the tech/political press landscape.
In the world of tech, the whole environment is dominated by people who hate tech and really hate the people in tech. I wanted to be a part of the solution there.
On both your Substack and your Twitter feed, you display what I think is sort of a honed, crafted internet persona. It’s snarky and contrarian, perhaps trollish. What’s your vibe?
I just don’t ever want to be afraid to speak my mind ever again. I understand why you’re picking up on perhaps snark or [being] almost troll-adjacent. I don’t think I am a troll; what I am is willing to fight back. It’s just words on the internet, right? What do we have to be afraid of?
You described Hereticon as “a conference for thoughtcrime.” What are you talking about when you say thoughtcrime?
I’m talking about sharing either data—Charles Fort called it “damned data”—that is compelling but no one will look at, or an opinion that you are not supposed to share. We all have an intuitive sense of what the bounds of acceptable speech are, and increasingly in our culture there are consequences for [violating] that. People lose their jobs; people are deplatformed. There are a lot of things we don’t say because they’re actually bad or wrong. Most people are wrong about a lot of things. I’m wrong about a lot of things. However, all of the new, interesting things in the world throughout history start that way. So if you’re not living in a culture that has room for thoughtcrime, then you’re not living in a culture that is growing.
It was a celebration of engaging with ideas that make you uncomfortable. Things like geoengineering, which is pretty controversial in the world of science; UFOs; biohacking and your right to your own body; sex work; sorcery; antimaterialism; parapsychology.
That was taken and framed as a sort of Nazi conference by a bunch of crazy lunatics who two years ago had a lot more control of the internet conversation.
I expected it to happen, even though I said nothing about pure politics or all the things that they’re obsessed with. There’s nothing about race, right? They just see everything through that lens. Their concern is that there are people who don’t care about the sort of mainstream institutional narrative.
Hereticon was really explicitly not supposed to be a place where people complained about the lack of free speech. I think that conversation is boring. The idea at Hereticon was: People should just say the thing. If you have a thing that you’re afraid to say, just say it.
Hereticon was delayed because of the pandemic. You’ve also argued that the pandemic made the case for why something like Hereticon was essential, that our lives depend on our ability to communicate unpopular ideas.
There’s a broad cultural obsession with policing tone and thoughts. In public health, that’s really dangerous. COVID proved the case here, and that is true in two dimensions, one of which is the tech press dimension. When Silicon Valley took the virus seriously early on, they started advising really distancing [and] not shaking hands. They were made fun of in the press.
The bigger story there, I think, is the original doctor from Wuhan who tried to blow the whistle on what was -happening. He has since died. Who knows why or how? We’re told it’s COVID. That was a thoughtcriminal we should have listened to.
We’ve seen this play out again and again, everything from the efficacy of cloth masks to why we can’t walk around outside to why, when I’m on a plane, I have to mask up between sips of drinks. None of this stuff makes sense.
When Jack Dorsey [left Twitter], you wrote that the legacy of Twitter under Dorsey is a legacy of empowering heretical voices. On the right, they might disagree, citing various account bans, shadow bans, kicking [former President Donald] Trump off the platform, and the decision to not allow people to share the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Jack Dorsey specifically [has] just done a lot for free speech. He cares a lot about things like decentralization, things like bitcoin. He’s obsessed with individual liberty. I think that he did what he could at his company, but his company’s a lot bigger than him. And I believe that he was doing his best. He championed things like Bluesky, which is a decentralized social media protocol. His goal was to remove this question of who should be censored from these companies altogether, which was a really radical thing for someone who’s in charge to do.
I’ve been critiquing social media overreach forever. These powerful people who wield more power than any companies really in history, they absolutely are deserving of critique. I just think that the critique that you’re getting from most in media is cartoonish and almost beside the point.
A lot of what I talk about in the deplatforming conversation is: OK, if we exist online now, then can these people de facto circumvent our inalienable rights completely? If the internet is a new dimension of our reality that we spend most of our time inside that shapes the physical world, then what do your constitutional rights even matter if a few people in Silicon Valley can just do whatever they want to you and shape conversations like this?
It doesn’t seem to me that being deplatformed from any specific social media site is a violation of a constitutional right or anything like it. Deplatforming has led to the growth of alternatives—podcasts, Substack, to some extent Hereticon. You started that because you felt like people needed a place to say things. It seems like something that is solved through different people organizing themselves in different ways.
If you want to run for president right now, and you have tech companies inhibiting your ability to speak on any of the major social media networks or platforms, and even deplatforming [you] from payment processors like Stripe and whatnot, is it realistic that you could win? I think that it’s silly to pretend that you can without these tech platforms.
This is one of my problems with libertarians. They always go back to the rules. It’s very nitpicky. I totally agree with you that it’s not a violation of the Constitution that Twitter banned Trump from the platform. What I’m saying is it was really dangerous that happened, and we don’t want to live in a world where that happens.
Trump has started his own social media platform, Truth Social.
This is wrong for two reasons. First, in tech we see these companies all the time. There are endless companies that rise up and say, “we want to be the new free speech alternative to these platforms.” The problem is they become right-wing toxic dumps. The furthest extremes go there, because when you have a platform that is only popular for people who have been deplatformed, it just quickly becomes highly political, and there’s no network effects, ever. It can never grow. It can never actually be dominant and culturally relevant.
Second, when Trump was deplatformed, he wasn’t just kicked off Twitter. He was really frozen out of every single social media [and] payment platform. Amazon Web Services went after Parler [for hosting him].
Really you’re talking about maybe like 10 executives in Silicon Valley who worked together to erase a sitting president from the internet. That’s a huge, huge, huge problem. And your competitive alternative is also being shut down for not playing by these rules.
Do you really feel like Donald Trump, billionaire, former president of the United States, someone who has massive media access, who can call into any number of radio and television shows pretty much any time he wants and get his message out there, is not able to get his message out?
You’re talking about the world of today, not the world of what happened back in January 2021. Things have thawed quite a bit, but what was Trump’s reality directly following the industry-wide deplatforming? That was very different. Could he run again if he can’t raise funds [or] communicate on any of the major platforms?
Every single one of his surrogates was also deplatformed. He was completely blocked out of the mainstream. If tech chooses to act this way during the next Trump election, he will lose—and that’ll be true of any candidate.
Can any one of these people do it by themselves? No, it has to be this sort of confluence of deplatformings, but clearly the power is there. A very small handful of people [having] outsized influence over our elections is a serious problem.
One of your fundamental premises is that a lot of journalists have this idea that people in tech are bad or evil. What do you have against journalists?
I love journalists, honestly. Most journalists are amazing. I’m checking The New York Times every day. I think their coverage of Ukraine is admirable. Their coverage of China over the last two years has been fantastic.
But in this weird world that we live in now, where so much of the stories take place online first, that’s where the narratives are shaped, it only takes really a handful of journalists to distort reality. And that’s what we saw. Also I think the tech press, because the stories aren’t really huge, they’re not stories that everybody in the country is reading. They have to do a lot more, I think, to get attention. And so there is quality tech press, and there are quality tech journalists, but there are a lot of people who are just op-ed writers pretending to be journalists. That’s what I critique generally.
There are two tribes with two different ways of looking at the world; those tribes are going to be naturally suspicious of each other. Do you think it’s just mostly a misunderstanding?
No, I think the people who hate the tech industry are basically rational. They should hate the tech industry, because they’re coming from a position of pro-institutional sort of authoritarianism. They’re extremely woke. They are pro-authority. They are pro–Washington power. These are people who see, in the technology industry, a subversion of power that, in their mind, destabilizes the country. And I think that the steel man argument for them is that this could all lead to chaos, and from that chaos could come really bad things.
The technology industry is generally empowering of people who don’t have power. And so if you’re a person with power—and if you work for The New York Times, you have an extraordinary level of power—of course you’re going to be suspicious of things that subvert or circumvent that power.
Elon Musk is sending Starlink units to provide internet to the Ukrainian people right now. Microsoft is intervening against malware attacks that are presumed to have come from the Russian government. The tech industry is punishing Russia in a way that almost looks like a form of private economic warfare. How is the tech industry approaching this?
This is a really important question. I think it’s the most important question that we should be talking about in the tech industry right now, and probably even more broadly nationally, because this is a new front of war that we’ve never seen before. Tech companies have never been as influential in history. These tech companies, which are uniquely powerful [with] incredible instantaneous reach around the globe—they’ve never been tested by war before. I am very nervous about this.
I’m really eager to see whether these companies are talking to our government. We don’t actually know. There’s no precedent for this. They should not be acting unilaterally.
I don’t know actually what the libertarian position would be here. I’m sure it’s just sort of anything goes if you’re a private company. For me, I believe at a time of escalating war, [when] it could go south at any second, I think that we need to exercise extreme caution and act as one country with one strategy. These people could, worst-case, escalate things into this crazy cyberwar, which could drag us even further down the path of war.
If you’re talking about centralizing this through the federal government, doesn’t that pose a different risk? Additional federal control over the tech industry? You wrote something very interesting, which was that Russia’s governments cannot see private enterprise in the United States as truly private, because in Russia private enterprise isn’t private at all.
Americans fundamentally don’t understand autocracy. In Russia or China, companies are de facto arms of the state. So they see everything we do as state action, even when it’s not.
Your concerns are justified. What you’re really talking about is a very old question of how to engage in war in a manner that preserves liberty. This is why libertarians hate war, and [why] I hate war, because I think to win war, there is always going to be some subversion of liberty.
I think that, generally speaking, the government should have no relationship with our private companies when acting abroad. I think in a moment of real danger with nuclear bombs not only on the table, but at a moment when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is actually threatening to use them, you have to have a lot of coordination between Americans abroad and Americans at home.
This is a huge threat. That is how I think about it in terms of the war stuff. This is one of my departures from libertarianism. At moments of real existential risk, I’m willing to sacrifice liberty. I understand that that is, long-term, really hard to shake, that we could go down a terrible path. We saw this in a very, very small way under COVID—the moment the government [gets] a little bit of extra power, they never want to give it up. I understand all of those concerns, but I think that not being unified in the face of a real threat from a nuclear superpower is worse.
I use technology to get information about the weather, sports scores, and movie times. It helps me get across town, do my laundry, and get dog food delivered. But there’s also been this sense that our tech billionaires are actually going to solve all of our political problems. That they’re going to fix climate change and leapfrog all of the political dysfunction that has defined Western governance in recent decades.
With the war between Russia and Ukraine, tech companies seem to both be leapfrogging the government and inserting themselves directly in the middle of some serious geopolitical problems. The thing we’re circling around here is: What is tech here to do?
The role of technology is to aid human existence, right? It’s to do a lot more with less or almost no human labor. The idea is for us to be able to amplify our power with technology to do good things in the world.
It’s also something that can be used to apply new scientific knowledge to new purposes. So when you make breakthroughs in genetics, you can use technology to use those breakthroughs in a practical way—an mRNA vaccine.
You’re also now talking about people who have made money in the tech industry doing things. And that’s a separate question, I think, but they often get sort of jumbled. Because Elon Musk has made a lot of money doing one thing, now he has a lot of money and could start a company that fixes other problems. Right now, he could donate money. People sort of think that technology is there to solve problems via tools, but also to solve problems via the application of money and resources, which are heavily concentrated in the industry right now. Elon Musk is a really good example, because he’s the only person who is doing anything even close to the techno-utopian vision, right? And he’s succeeding at these things.
People are obsessed with demanding he do more. “You’re a billionaire. Solve world hunger. Solve climate change.” How many billionaires are in the world? I mean, when’s the last time any of them have been asked to solve world hunger? It almost never happens. I believe the reason people go after Musk is not because they hate him but because he’s the only person who’s even come close to proving that he’s capable of doing anything, of solving complex problems, of improving the world in very fundamental ways.
They’re not talking to our government, which has far more resources at its disposal, and they’re not talking to other rich people, because he’s the only one in the room who has done anything. And so they come at it in a sort of angry way, but I actually think he’s probably the most popular person in the country at the end of the day.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.