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Let’s Evaluate Palantir’s Berkeley Dust-Up Through Tolkien’s Lens

The University of California, Berkeley has cut financial ties with Palantir, Peter Thiel’s Tolkien-inspired data company.


By causing a dust-up at the University of California, Berkeley, Palantir Technologies has earned the ultimate badge of honor. More than 140 “academics” have signed a statement asking the university to drop Palantir as the sponsor of the annual Privacy Law Scholars Conference, citing the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its alleged complicity in “family separation.” As of Wednesday, those efforts were successful.

Palantir, a Silicon Valley data analytics firm, is expected go public next year, and boasts one of the highest valuations in technology—as much as $40 billion by some estimates. Perhaps most fascinating is its connection to J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” the book from which Palantir derives its name. Indeed, Tolkien’s legacy may be far more powerful than any of his mystical creatures, as his influence lurks in our culture, politics, and even the realm of cyber security.

In the new film “Tolkien,” which chronicles the author’s formative years, we see how Tolkien’s friendship with a group of geeky lads in England inspired two of the most influential novels of the 20th century—and a new “Shire” of fierce political debate. On the frontlines of World War I, a young Tolkien summons the magic of his imagination to create the dragons and wizards of his fictional Middle-earth world.

Although Tolkien’s estate has disavowed the film, it has worked out a deal with Amazon to produce a “Lord of the Rings” television series, which may end up with a billion dollar budget.

Palantir was founded by Peter Thiel, a man viewed by many as a wizard for waging war against Gawker and political correctness. Thiel read Tolkien obsessively as a child, encountering the story of the Palantir through Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, as he embarks on his epic journey with help from Gandalf, a boss wizard, and Galadriel, a resolute lady elf.

The Palantir in “Lord of the Rings” is a crystal ball that can be used to see into the future or communicate through time and space. Tolkien characters and references run throughout the company: “Save the Shire” is an internal Palantir tagline, and the company’s annual gathering is called “HobbitCon.”

This may seem kooky, but the company’s work is deadly serious. Palantir counts some of the biggest government agencies and private companies as its customers with its team of the deftest engineers and data analysts in the world. Like the crystal ball, Palantir can not only track data, but use data to predict behavior, raising red flags among civil liberty watch dogs.

The enigma was heightened when it was reported that Palantir was used to hunt Osama Bin Laden.

“A palantir is a dangerous tool,” warns Gandalf. “Why? Why should we fear to use it?” he is asked. “They are not all accounted for, the lost Seeing-stones. We do not know who else may be watching.”

As illustrated by its enemies at Berkeley, Palantir’s “seeing stones” are perceived as evil by a wide variety of left-wing entities, especially as it is used by ICE to round up illegal immigrants at the border.

Who knows what Tolkien would have thought of his unlikely connection to politics in 2019, but his words ring truer than ever: “I should like to save the Shire, if I could – though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them.”