The Coolest Executive in America: An Interview with Mike Solana
The future of social technologies, the origins of wokism, optimism and opportunity, venture capital’s role in making a better future, and more!
Mike Solana is the future mayor of San Francisco, creator of the inimitable Pirate Wires media empire, billionaire prince of twitter (like Bruce Wayne except real), the Vice President of legendary venture capital firm Founders Fund, and creator of Anatomy of Next. You won’t find a better thinker online so subscribe to his substack for all things relevant, perspicacious, and revelatory, and follow him on twitter to find the same.
In a time hostile to the free exchange of ideas you stand apart as a beacon of truth and sincere curiosity, which is unusual as far as Silicon Valley billionaires go since many now blame Big Tech for illiberal trends (like now rampant censorship) we see mutilating once cherished Enlightenment values. Do you see yourself as or feel like an outsider in The Valley (you seem like a literal rebel relative to other executives), and are you optimistic about the future of social technology even in the face of cancellation from its lamest participants? Are uncool people a problem technology can solve? How would you handle wokism online and in our schools as the future mayor of San Francisco, and can you appoint me to some sick public office?
Hey, Sotonye, thanks for the kind words. First, just high-level, I think we're in agreement the country is on an alarming, illiberal trend. But I go back and forth on why, or how many people even support the craziest stuff we're seeing. Is it a majority pushing us off the cliff, or is it a small, vocal minority that most people are too scared to stand up to?
To your questions, I think it's probably fair to say I'm one of a handful of industry execs willing to call bullshit on things like "moderation" (censorship), bad faith reporting, and the sort of unhinged local government stuff that tends to hide itself in identity politics. But I'm honestly not sure how many people disagree with me. I get more support than I do hate, and the hate rarely comes from the tech industry (mostly it comes from literal, hammer-and-sickle-in-bio Communists). My sense is, ideologically, most founders tend toward some mix of classical liberalism and common sense, which is pretty much the ground I occupy, but they have a lot more to lose from speaking up than I do, and much less to gain. For sure a lot of mentally unhinged HR execs though, and there are probably more of them than there are of us...
In any case, yes, I am pretty optimistic about the future of social technology. I can't say I believe any of the new companies or technologies are totally free of their own sort of risk, but our present social media environment is sufficiently toxic that I really do just want a total reset, and from virtual worlds and private chat communities to successful new tools for broadcast and distribution it does seem like that's what we're approaching.
To the rest: nothing will ever solve consensus mediocrity (or, nothing short of AGI), separation of Church and State should simply be upheld in schools, crazy people online should be laughed at and never invited to parties, and how do you feel about Chief Chaos Magician?
You bring up an important point about the unknown number of people who are actually insane outside of what we see online. While we’re in the thick of it it’s hard to remember that twitter is not real life, most Americans probably don’t know anything about Ebay and Amazon censoring Dr. Seuss, and considering this makes me feel more hopeful about the mental welfare of other people. But Taleb wrote a piece not too long ago which i think about often in this context, he goes on in detail about how a very small but intolerant minority (I think like 4% of total population is the requisite threshold) is all it really takes to make the majority bend in a direction unsuited to itself as long as the changes demanded aren’t costly, citing religious dietary practices as an example, and this does make me weary and even a bit misanthropic. But even despite this and despite the influence online bubbles can have on much more traditional media, you strike me as supremely hopeful about other people, a strong believer in the ubiquity of human decency. Is that an accurate read? What makes you this way and how can we all be more charitable in our view of others?
And really it’s incredible to know you receive more support than hate, that will probably be the most refreshing thing people will read in a while. Hate and intolerance seem so pervasive and so valuable as a kind of online currency (with people like Ibram X. Kendi receiving 10$ MM from Jack Dorsey) that even bitcoin seems like it may have a run for its money; so it feels like a massive W to hear any way that the reverse is true, that a lot of people out there are actually with us, that we aren’t alone. But what would it take to get founders to call out bullshit the way you do? Most criticism of illiberal rhetoric and policies is taken as some extension of conservatism and it would be extremely cool to have a new vocal anti-lunatic minority unaffiliated with dusty and sclerotic political parties.
And about your optimism for social tech, does clubhouse have a chance to improve some of the pitfalls of text and image-based platforms? Are you expecting changes like the ones you’re describing to affect things like dating in any interesting ways? Does Mike Solana believe in the power of love?
Lastly i tried to actually join a secret magical society one time but didn’t go to the first initiation, I thought they’d make me eat manure or something. But this reminds me of something i think you said in one of your earlier substack posts, I think you mentioned researching the occult during your time as an editor? I have to ask, have you ever had a supernatural experience? And how are you so good at writing? What is your secret?
I think one interesting thing you're picking up on here, which I agree with, is there's really nothing on the other side of wokeness. That's why everyone clocks criticism of unhinged regressive leftist stuff as conservative, even though it's not. There's just nothing else. There's no other ascendant philosophical, cultural, or spiritual movement. Americans don't believe in much anymore. We haven't had to believe in much since the fall of the Soviet Union, an apathy interrupted only briefly after 9/11, and in that kind of spiritual vacuum sprouted up the critical lens, which led, ultimately, to our present culture war. To most reasonable people, all the woke stuff is I think self-evidently insane. But how do you fight an idea with the absence of an idea? This is broadly the problem of freedom, by the way. Communism, for example, is a very specific prescription for force bound up in an ideology, and an identity. Freedom, which we frame as antithetical to communism, is simply the absence of coercion. Head-to-head it will never win. It actually can't win. To stop communism, we need more than freedom. We need more than capitalism, which is really just the economic word for freedom. To break the Soviet Union America needed family, God, aspirational technology (the moon was more than rocketry, it was a direction), and a kind of philosophical love of our own country. Almost all of these narratives are broken right now.
You're right, by the way, I do believe people are almost all generally good, or truly want to be — which for me has always been enough — and I think that probably comes from my family. Because, to your next question, I do believe in love. Everything I do I do for love. When I write, I think about my parents, my siblings, and now, most importantly, my nieces and nephew. Why would any of us do anything if not for love? What would be the point?
Though... no, I don't really believe Clubhouse is going to alter our romantic lives, and I'm pretty skeptical of tech's impact on dating and intimate love broadly. I think relationships and community are inextricably linked, and engaging with our community, with the real world all around us, is the path to growing the kind of family structure into our lives that humans are built for, and need. I don't mean to sound like a luddite about this, but maybe — on just this question — I really am :)
Magic though — I did work in a pretty strange and exciting publishing imprint in my early 20s! I wrote about it in 'Fire in the Sky,' and about my introduction to occult ideas, which was really just an outlet for exploring the forbidden, or the "weird." But in terms of my own experience, I'm still waiting for the little green men to take me the fuck away already. I keep asking!
Writing — first of all, thank you! The best writing advice I ever received was "just go for it." Get into a flow state and say the damn thing, and don't ever leave the good stuff for later. Oh, and get a journal! I've been journaling since I was a teenager. Nothing has been more helpful in learning how to organize my experiences in the world, and feelings, into words.
It’s interesting to consider the point made most often about the ascendancy of woke theology, that it occupies the place where Christian theology used to be, but since there are many western nations (like say the Netherlands and Germany) which have been more secular than the US for a little while now, and since those nations haven’t succumbed to mind viruses similar to our own (at least within the last few decades), I wonder if our culture war has come to be not through the absence of belief but through something else, which you suggest by pointing to the fact that the wokes often identify with the communism. One explanation I find compelling is that wokism more than anything else is economic. With declines in opportunities for status and the milestones that demarcate adulthood from adolescence, really weird and infantile ideas maybe start to develop, and new behavioral technologies for advancement grow like a fungus in the dark. Wokism never seems far off from social-climbing and I wonder if it’s mostly a response to increasingly fierce competition for an increasingly small pool of chances to make something of ourselves. Life delayed by crippling student-loan debt, real wages outstripped by increases in cost of living, and dwindling demand for labor in a service and information-based economy sound like a recipe to go completely nuts, really off the wall insane. And this might sound like a stretch, but are these some things that the venture capital world considers, and can VC provide a fix? Will Founders Fund save the nation?
And I really want to narrow the conversation down for a second to delve more into what makes you who you are. Firstly, you are the VP of an insanely powerful company and that’s so sick, I would love for you to share the story of your path to Founders Fund and what it’s like there!
But also, I have literally never seen an exec with more warmth so I’m trying to figure out what the hell is going on. I feel whatever it is may have something to do with writing and literature, I imagine a young Solana perched in a tree with a novel that changes the course of his destiny. Was there a watershed moment that defined you early on?
In part, I agree with you on the status stuff, though I'm not convinced status games and genuine belief are mutually exclusive. Honestly, as with most really electric cultural phenomena the culture war stuff is likely a mix of many things including, as you mention, economics. I agree things are worse for younger people today than they were for our parents in two really serious ways: first, college debt is now crippling. Second, housing costs are absolutely batshit insane. But young people also have opportunity our parents couldn't fathom. For example, and maybe most importantly, it's now actually very easy to connect with people across class and social strata, which brings me to your question about my journey to Founders Fund.
I met Peter after reading an essay of his back in 2008 or so. I reached out and said "thanks," basically, "and what you're doing (investing in science fiction-esque technology) is really cool and important." He responded, we chatted a bit, ultimately met up in New York, and became friends. Eventually, he offered me a job. I come from a pretty modest background. I had no connections. I had no background in science or business. I was making 30,000 dollars a year at Penguin. How did I befriend one of the most brilliant men on the planet? I sent him a nice note. That's the internet, and the internet is fucking insane. It is terrifying and amazing and dangerous and beautiful. The Twentieth-Century is finally collapsing. Today, for better and for worse, anything is possible.
In terms of increasing economic opportunity, that's the whole game at Founders Fund. By their nature, new technology companies increase global wealth and opportunity. The question is just can folks in tech innovate faster than the machinery and culture of the last great generation rusts. I believe in the power of technological innovation, and in the power of business, but one very important thing I learned from Peter is positive change doesn't just happen. We have to plan for a better world, and work towards it.
Thanks again for the kind words. I'm not sure how warm I am, but frankly everything for me began in comic books and Star Trek. I never took cues on what was possible from real-life people. It was the Starship Enterprise for me or nothing else. From there I just kind of followed my dreams, and none of my dreams were realistic. I'm not sure if that's something everyone should do, or if it's even all that healthy, but it worked for me. I love my life, and I regret nothing. :)
Two questions come to mind now, both inspired by the fact that you are outstandingly future-oriented. The first is one I posed in another interview I’m conducting with Ben Horowitz (and I’m interested to see how your answers differ since I’ll learn more that way), which is: Where are the flying cars? As someone involved deeply in venture capital you stand at the forefront of innovation, but to someone on the outside like myself it seems that financial and intellectual resources like the ones VCs command are pooled now mostly into computing, into the world of bits, when in the not too distant past there were revolutions in things like energy and aerospace, the world of atoms. Are investments still being made now in things similar to what initially inspired you to reach out to Peter? Are there any investments Founders Fund is making that may utterly revolutionize our lives offline? I want to feel excited about the future but have trouble since every new innovation seems to be an app as opposed to a warp-drive or a time machine!
The second question is: The thing I enjoy most about really smart people is how willing they are to change their minds, so I’m sure in your case that the early conversations with Thiel shifted some fundamental assumptions about the world in big and unexpected ways. Can you share some certainties you had that were shaken to their core, and are there any ideas about the world you’re starting to question now? (Miami becoming the new Silicon Valley comes to mind—before the pandemic it seemed like everyone in tech expected it to be everlasting).
Oh, for sure people are still working on ambitious companies in science and technology. Two of my colleagues are working on pretty cool stuff themselves — Trae Stephens co-founded Anduril, a company in defense technology, and Delian Asparouhov just co-founded Varda, a company working on space factories. I think we probably all just tend to get distracted by the flashy consumer and media stuff, myself included (especially throughout the pandemic). But the technology industry is huge, and people are working on all kinds of incredible things, from wild projects in synthetic biology to artificial intelligence. Moderna designed it's Covid-19 vaccine in 2 days. There's a lot to be optimistic about. In terms of "where are the flying cars," a refrain popularized by Founders Fund about a decade back, I think it's a combination of 1) yes, there's a bit of stagnation, but more importantly 2) maybe flying cars aren't really that desirable?
I think flying cars work best as a metaphor. A world with flying cars is a very ambitious future world we all used to be working toward. It was something we really believed would exist. Now, to a certain extent, many or possibly even most people have internalized the sense that the future will be roughly the same as the present, or in some dimensions worse. Sure, computers may be faster and smaller, and we may cure a few diseases, but things won't really look THAT different. Back in the 1960s Americans really thought we'd all be living on different planets by now. Bernie Sanders, who actually watched the original moon landing live and somehow walked away from that experience unimpressed, just came out with the ridiculous position that an ambition for Mars, while things are not yet "perfect" on Earth ("perfect" here defined as communist, one presumes), is selfish. I think this is truly a cancerous way of thinking.
Everything that matters in this world lives downstream of the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are, and what we'll be. Right now, our stories are all pretty broken. I really do think this is our highest-level problem. Americans don't believe in much right now.
Without drifting too tangentially back into the conversations I shared with Peter in those early days, I will say absolutely, I change my mind all the time, and certainly Peter’s been a huge influence. But mostly what I’ve learned from Peter is to trust myself, and to be courageous in my thinking. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to speculate. It’s okay to try a crazy or forbidden thought out loud, and then to change your mind. The important thing is just to never stop thinking about the world.
Focusing on the mention of Bernie (who I think is a scam artist) for a moment: I understand skepticism about space colonization, but only insofar as it ignores doing anything about the ocean, which I think is a big interest of yours? Are you interested in things like seasteading? How sick would it be to live on a floating city? And is the name of your substack, Pirate Wires, inspired by something related?
If I'm being totally honest I'm not really that interested in the ocean, I've just always been interested in the concept of starting over — new cities, new countries, new worlds. The allure of seasteading to me, and the Seasteading Institute, was never about the landscape so much as it was about the idea that someone could just pick their life up, literally right now, and build something new. We're talking about artificial island nations populated by anarchists and communists and techno utopian monarchists or whatever, and that's just cool as hell. I've been obsessed with space since I was a little kid, and a lot of that was Star Trek, but the fantasy really came to life once I learned about terraforming. Again, to be honest, I've never really cared that much about rocket ships. Emotionally, I mean. I understand rocket ships and launches are critical, these miraculous leaps through space. I think the people working on this stuff are truly doing some of the most important work in human history. But the aspect of space that has always captured me has been the concept of literally building new worlds. For me, the interesting question is not so much about getting to Mars, it's about what we build once we land.
Then, listen, I do love a frosty, rum-based beverage on the Carribean. But picking up the pirate monicker was mostly just an exercise in leaning into a reputation I feared for myself. Growing up, it was very important to me that I did good, and that I was seen as a good person. As an adult, I realized many of the things I believed in, and knew to be good, were pegged by the dominant cultural gatekeepers as suspect, or downright nefarious — I'm talking about real freedom here, technology, capitalism, industry, a belief in the goodness of our country, and a pride in our country's history. I'm also just interested in a lot of weird shit you're never going to read about in the New York Times or whatever. So where's the pirate signal? I realized I was probably never going to be treated as "the good guy," and if I were, at least today — by the sort of people I myself find morally suspect — I wouldn't even be happy about the fact. So I finally just thought fuck it, I'll try on their outlaw costume for a while and see how it feels.
The final question I have for you is: What are some things you’d like to say to your critics? What would you like those idiots to know?
That I don’t care about my critics, or what they think. I care about people who want to make the world a better place.