- Silicon Valley really loves “The Lord of the Rings,” in all its forms.
- Prominent startups like Palantir and Anduril take their names from the series, while Salesforce’s San Francisco headquarters has become the Eye of Sauron itself on Halloween night. Even Jeff Bezos is said to have gotten personally involved in the push to acquire the LOTR rights for Amazon Studios.
- Fans say that the tech industry sees a lot of itself in the story: “‘Lord of the Rings’ represents a group of people going out and doing something extraordinary.”
- But some critics say that Silicon Valley often misses the point of the series: Palantir’s motto is “Save The Shire,” but activists have protested the company and its work with ICE, amid the Trump administration’s harsh deportation policies.
- Visit Business Insider for more stories.
It was the end of 2019 and longtime Facebook exec Andrew Bosworth found himself grappling with one of the company’s most pressing dilemmas: its role in protecting the upcoming elections from outside interference.
As Bosworth wrestled to explain his logic to the rest of the company, he reached for an analogy that the entirety of Silicon Valley was sure to understand.
“I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment.” Bosworth wrote in a memo first leaked to the New York Times. “Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadriel and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her.”
Bosworth was trying to make a point about Facebook’s responsibility to stay away from influencing the presidential elections, but the memo also highlights another, simpler, fact: Silicon Valley just loves “The Lord of the Rings,” the classic story by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The series has enraptured high-ranking tech billionaires like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Facebook board member Peter Thiel. Bezos is even said to have gotten personally involved in Amazon Studios’ negotiations to secure the rights to make a TV show based on “Lord of the Rings,” in a deal that’s said to be valued at $250 million.
Salesforce Tower, the San Francisco skyscraper headquarters of the cloud software giant, has lit up the Eye of Sauron for the last two Halloween nights running, following a social media campaign from fans. Narya Capital, an Ohio-based venture fund named for the ring worn by the wizard Gandalf, launched earlier this year.
The tech industry’s fascination with the works of an English academic, written 66 years ago, is nothing new; it’s as embedded in Silicon Valley culture as fleece vests or hackathons. But what was once an endearing homage to a fable has become a literary battlefield, as some Tolkien fans take umbrage to the techies’ appropriation of their beloved work.
That’s particularly evident when it comes to Thiel, one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent supporters in the tech industry. Thiel is a cofounder of Palantir and, through his Founders Fund, a major investor in Anduril. Both startups are named in honor of LOTR — the Palantir is a powerful seeing stone, used by the wizard Saruman, while Anduril is named for the magical sword of series hero Aragorn.
That’s not all: Thiel has helped found venture firms like Valar Ventures and Mithril Capital Management, and used Rivendell One and Lembas as holding companies to handle his Facebook shares. All of these companies carry LOTR-inspired names.
At the same time, though, Palantir and Anduril are both known to have federal border authorities Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customers and Border Patrol (CBP) as customers, the agencies charged with enforcing the Trump administration’s harsher immigration and deportation policies.
That hasn’t sat well with many LOTR fans, who say that such startups are misappropriating Tolkien’s trilogy, which warns against the corrupting nature of power, and advocates for courage in the face of seemingly unstoppable fascism.
“Somebody f—— explain to me how both me and Peter Thiel read the same damn Lord of the Rings trilogy and my takeaway was ‘fascism is bad yo’ and his was ‘I can be Sauron 2.0.'” one fan tweeted in November.
Somebody fucking explain to me how both me and Peter Thiel read the same damn Lord of the Rings trilogy and my takeaway was “fascism is bad yo” and his was “I can be Sauron 2.0.” pic.twitter.com/EqJHcSiesb
— Nash Across the 8th Dimension (@Nash076) November 8, 2019
“It’s really not even close to the point, but between this and Anduril, wtf is up with tech bros using Lord of the Rings names for their big data services for the military?” another fan tweeted in July. “Did I miss some pro-war/surveillance message in Tolkien’s work?”
It’s really not even close to the point, but between this and Anduril, wtf is up with tech bros using Lord of the Rings names for their big data services for the military?
Did I miss some pro-war/surveillance message in Tolkien’s work? https://t.co/snYOAyw5Er
— Eric Ravenscraft (@LordRavenscraft) July 25, 2019
We took a dive down the Hobbit-hole that is the connection beween Silicon Valley and Middle Earth, trying to understand both sides of the conversation — why the tech industry loves LOTR, and why that rubs some fans the wrong way. Readers be warned: several LOTR references are about to be dropped.
Palantir did not return a request for an interview.
‘It represents a group of people going out and doing something extraordinary’
The logic behind naming your startup after Lord of the Rings seems fitting to Quinn Reilly, the longtime LOTR fan who helped organize the campaign that eventually led to Salesforce Tower projecting the Eye of Sauron on Halloween, thanks to the LED display that wraps its upper floors.
“‘Lord of the Rings’ represents a group of people going out and doing something extraordinary,” Reilly said. That’s not unlike the mission that most startups set out to go on, he said.
There’s also an intrinsic connection between magic and tech, his friend and fellow campaigner Megan Mackey told Business Insider.
“One thing for my friends who are in tech— who originally got into tech as a means of creation — is recreating that magic through technology,” Mackey said.
THEY DID IT.@salesforce tower is Eye of Sauron for Halloween 🎃. pic.twitter.com/mZ494EnsTG
— Mike Coutermarsh (@mscccc) November 1, 2018
They’re not the only ones who seem to think so. LOTR fans have said that they take joy and inspiration from the series.
When the Thiel-founded Mithril Capital Management launched back in 2012, its managing partner Ajay Royan told Fortune that the fund was named after LOTR’s elvish metal because it aimed to “protect” and be “transformative” at the same time. “We are big Tolkien fans,” Royan told the magazine.
‘The bigger warning’
Some fans, however, feel that when it comes to “Lord of the Rings,” Silicon Valley has missed the point.
Particularly, data analysis startup Palantir has positioned itself as a force for good in the world thanks to its counterterrorism work, with a motto of “Save The Shire” — a reference to the pastoral home of the peaceful Hobbits of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. However, its name is a reference to the powerful crystal ball that helped Saruman spy on events across Middle-Earth, but that eventually corrupted him into an agent of the evil Sauron.
The irony of a company named after something so evil billing itself as the good guy hasn’t been lost on critics and activists, who have protested Palantir’s work with ICE.
“There’s a reason why the primary users of the Palantiri were Sauron and Saruman, who used them to communicate and track those who opposed them…much like ICE now uses Palantir today,” one fan tweeted in October. “We must learn from our dear hobbit friend, Peregrin Took.”
There’s a reason why the primary users of the Palantiri were Sauron and Saruman, who used them to communicate and track those who opposed them…much like ICE now uses Palantir today.
We must learn from our dear hobbit friend, Peregrin Took.
— Miguel (@Migs3791) October 4, 2019
Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign director with immigrant activist group Mijente, says that Palantir’s name is right on the nose, but perhaps not in a flattering way. Mijente, and Gonzalez, have been a major driving force behind anti-ICE protests of companies like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Palantir.
.@PalantirTech contracts with ICE, profiting off the detention and deportation of immigrants.
Their company motto is #SaveTheShire. But you can’t save the shire if you work with Sauron. #DisarmICE #NoTech4ICE pic.twitter.com/PKjarkAJpj
— Sophie Ellman-Golan (@EgSophie) July 8, 2019
“In ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the Palantir’s all-seeing eye was definitely something already considered to be within the story something that was very dark,” Jacinta Gonzalez explained to Business Insider. “To me that’s a very clear parallel to what the products at Palantir are creating.”
Or, as a protester put it: “Their company motto is #SaveTheShire. But you can’t save the Shire if you work with Sauron.” Others also felt the same way, with Shadowproof reporting that signs at a July protest against Palantir said “You can’t save the Shire if you work for Sauron,” and “Choose Frodo! Not Sauron!”
Gonzalez — who says that she wasn’t initially a fan of the franchise, until the spotlight put on Palantir caused her to go back and get up to speed on LOTR — says that it’s indicative of a larger misunderstanding of the themes of the series, which emphasize the corrupting nature of power, and the importance of courage in the face of the rise of fascism.
“What I do think is really important is that there was an understanding in ‘Lord of the Rings’ that things like this could be incredibly dangerous, and the creators of these companies are actually embracing that. That, to me, is the bigger warning,” Gonzalez said.
‘People in tech like to play these games, but they were also the people who wrote them’
Alan Beatts, the owner of Borderlands Books — a shop specializing in science fiction and fantasy, which has operated out of San Francisco for the last 23 years — points out another likely factor here. The tech industry tends to attract a lot of the kinds of people who lose themselves in Tolkien-inspired fantasy universes anyway.
“You also have these ideas concentrated in genre fiction — like role-playing games and video games — which were informed by Tolkien’s work,” Beatts explained, pointing out role-playing mainstay “Dungeons & Dragons” as an example.
That makes the series’ enduring popularity in Silicon Valley especially understandable to Beats.
“People in tech like to play these games, but they were also the people who wrote them,” Beatts said.
SEE ALSO: Palantir workers are split over the company’s work with ICE, but CEO Alex Karp won’t budge despite concerned employees’ petitions
SEE ALSO: Here’s what you need to know about Palantir, the secretive $20 billion data-analysis company whose work with ICE is dragging Amazon into controversy
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