Notes on “Does Palantir See Too Much?”

Just this past weekend, I finally got around to finally finishing The Lord of The Rings.

I know, I know. Spare me.

Worse, I finished the movies, not the book, and I do not have the faintest idea about when I’ll get around to reading it, but that is a story for another day. (Heh.)

Today’s notes, coincidentally, are about Palantir, but the new age one, not the panopticon from Tolkein’s universe. The new Palantir is a firm started by Peter Thiel, and is the subject of a rather long (and very nice) profile of the firm and it’s Chief Executive Officer, Alex Karp.

First, what is Palantir Technologies? Here’s Wikipedia – note that I have combined sentences across different paragraphs in this excerpt:

Palantir Technologies is a public American software company that specializes in big data analytics. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, it was founded by Peter Thiel, Nathan Gettings, Joe Lonsdale, Stephen Cohen, and Alex Karp.

The company is known for three projects in particular: Palantir Gotham, Palantir Metropolis and Palantir Foundry. Palantir Gotham is used by counter-terrorism analysts at offices in the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) and United States Department of Defense…

…Palantir Metropolis is used by hedge funds, banks, and financial services firms…

…Palantir Foundry is used by corporate clients such as Morgan Stanley, Merck KGaA, Airbus, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palantir_Technologies

… and here’s the NYT amgazine story:

Its two primary software programs, Gotham and Foundry, gather and process vast quantities of data in order to identify connections, patterns and trends that might elude human analysts. The stated goal of all this “data integration” is to help organizations make better decisions, and many of Palantir’s customers consider its technology to be transformative.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

But the story gets more interesting in the very next line in the article…

Karp claims a loftier ambition, however. “We built our company to support the West,” he says. To that end, Palantir says it does not do business in countries that it considers adversarial to the U.S. and its allies, namely China and Russia. In the company’s early days, Palantir employees, invoking Tolkien, described their mission as “saving the shire.”

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

There’s two questions at play here, really. First, what does Palantir Technologies do (that’s the first excerpt from the NYT story)? And second, why does it do what it does (and that’s the excerpt right above)?

Now, the reason I find this so interesting is that the instinctive argument that you might want to make against Palantir Technologies is “but privacy!”. And the second excerpt above is, in a sense, Palantir’s response.

Although Palantir claims it does not store or sell client data and has incorporated into its software what it insists are robust privacy controls, those who worry about the sanctity of personal information see Palantir as a particularly malignant avatar of the Big Data revolution. Karp himself doesn’t deny the risk. “Every technology is dangerous,” he says, “including ours.”

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

Technology is technology – what you do with it is what matters is a rather old argument, but that’s the argument that is being used here. There’s more though – if we don’t, somebody else will. Better the known devil, etc.

Once the data has been integrated, it can be presented in the form of tables, graphs, timelines, heat maps, artificial-intelligence models, histograms, spider diagrams and geospatial analysis. It is a digital panopticon, and having sat through several Palantir demos, I can report that the interface is impressive — the search results are strikingly elegant and easy to understand.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

Elsewhere in the article, the author speaks about how the work isn’t glamorous, and is really just glorified plumbing. Well, maybe – but as anybody who has lived in a house will tell you, it is plenty important. Good plumbing is plumbing you don’t notice, but reap the benefits of – and that seems to be Palantir’s USP.

While Thiel provided most of the early money, the start-up secured an estimated $2 million from In-Q-Tel, a venture-capital firm that finances the development of technologies that can help the C.I.A.
Karp says the real value of the In-Q-Tel investment was that it gave Palantir access to the C.I.A. analysts who were its intended clients.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

Did In-Q-Tel pay to help start Palantir, or did it hire consultants for 2 million dollars? Did Palantir agree to work for only 2 million dollars to get access to the CIA?

Bottom-line: the world is a non-zero sum game.

According to Thiel, their conversations generally took place late at night in the law-school dorm. “It sounds too self-aggrandizing, but I think we were both genuinely interested in ideas,” he says. “He was more the socialist, I was more the capitalist. He was always talking about Marxist theories of alienated labor and how this was true of all the people around us.”

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

This excerpt is from a section which is about Karp figuring out his education and career, and we learn about his Jewish, rebellious background as well. I found this clip interesting because from Peter Thiel’s viewpoint, succeeding in selling the idea behind Palantir to Karp is one of the biggest validations there could possibly be. If he bought into the story, well, there must be something to it. Second, what better way to maintain checks and balances than to have somebody like Karp running the show?

In fact, Thiel hiring Karp for this job becomes more and more interesting the more you learn about Karp. Thiel has a quote in the article about needing someone who was smart and scrappy, but left unsaid, perhaps, is someone who was very unlike Thiel. And not just unlike Thiel, also unlike the typical CEO. A person who worries about the alienation of labor, likes solitary pursuits, and dreams of being an intellectual in Europe isn’t the person you would have in mind as the typical CEO of a firm like Palantir. But that, it would seem, was the whole point. Well, that, and being a bachelor by choice wouldn’t hurt, given the traveling nature of the job.

(Although there is a section in the article in which Karp insists that he being who he is hasn’t helped him or Palantir.)

Karp and Thiel say they had two overarching ambitions for Palantir early on. The first was to make software that could help keep the country safe from terrorism. The second was to prove that there was a technological solution to the challenge of balancing public safety and civil liberties — a “Hegelian” aspiration, as Karp puts it.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

Karp and Thiel make for a Hegelian pair themselves!

When I asked Thiel about the risk of abuse with Palantir, he answered by referring to the company’s literary roots. “The Palantir device in the Tolkien books was a very ambiguous device in some ways,” he said. “There were a lot of people who looked into it and saw more than they should see, and things went badly wrong when they did.” But that didn’t mean the Palantir itself was flawed



He continued: “The plot action was driven by the Palantir being used for good, not for evil. This reflected Tolkien’s cosmology that something that was made by the good elves would ultimately be used for good.”



A moment later, he added: “That’s roughly how I see it, that it is ultimately good and still very dangerous. In some ways, I think that was reflected in the choice of the name.”

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

I found this fascinating, and I also found it useful to think about this from the Wikipedia article about the original Palantir:

A major theme of palantír usage is that while the stones show real objects or events, they are an unreliable guide to action, and it is often unclear whether events are past or future: what is not shown may be more important than what is selectively presented. Further, users with sufficient power can choose what to show and what to conceal

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palant%C3%ADr

The technology is what it is – and as Karp himself points out, it is susceptible to misuse. More importantly, the technology in combination with the person(s) who are using it is, at least potentially, an even more dangerous tool.

Karp made clear that he was opposed to Trump’s immigration policies: “There are lots of reasons I don’t support the president; this is actually also one of them.” He told me that he was “personally very OK with changing the demographics of our country” but that a secure border was something that progressives should embrace. “I’ve been a progressive my whole life,” he said. “My family’s progressive, and we were never in favor of open borders.” He said borders “ensure that wages increase. It’s a progressive position.” When the left refuses to seriously address border security and immigration, he said, the right inevitably wins. To the extent that Palantir was helping to preserve public order, it was “empirically keeping the West more center-left.”

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

To understand a big data firm started by one the world’s most successful VC’s, one should end up reading about a German philosopher from the 18th century – for what could possibly more Hegelian than that excerpt?

And finally, the last sentence in the article:

“Palantir,” he said, “is the convergence of software and difficult positions.”

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/21/magazine/palantir-alex-karp.html

That, it would seem, is a reasonably good way to understand Pater Thiel’s investment philosophy!

Read the whole NYT article yourself (at least twice, if you ask me).