In the year 1517, a German Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther published a set of propositions that became known to the world as the Ninety-Five Theses. The publication of these ideas and the thinking behind them are credited by historians as an opening salvo in a civilizational battle of ideas called the Reformation. The Reformation was the people’s overthrow of the repressive and exploitative regime of the Catholic Church, and a major event on the path to the open society we enjoy in the West today.
Luther’s theses were directed against a particular Church institution called Indulgences. These were pieces of paper, sold at very high prices, which granted the purchaser relief from punishment for their sins and therefore entry into the kingdom of heaven, an important and demanding life objective for people at the time. The marketing campaign for these Indulgences was captured in the line, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs.”
The Catholic Church, the idea of redemption, and the subjection of the self to the mind control of the priesthood (a self-subjection which was easily extended to the sale of indulgences) constituted what George Gilder refers to in Life After Google as “the incumbent system of the world”: an imposed set of rules of conduct and of thinking with which everyone was expected to comply, and which no-one was permitted to challenge.
Mounting A Challenge At The Most Fundamental Level.
Martin Luther did challenge the incumbent system. He challenged it at its very fundamentals, and to its very core. He felt that the practice of selling indulgences was contrary to the basic precepts of Christianity: that individual merit was to be found in faith in Jesus Christ, and that it was this faith, not purchasing power, that would be rewarded in the afterlife.
Today, there is a venture capital fund – the 1517 Fund – that takes its name and its purpose from Martin Luther’s fundamental challenge to the incumbent system of the world. The system is the credentialism of higher education – the idea that by donating four years of youthful time and tens of thousands of dollars (which often take the form of debt) to the hallowed institutions of higher learning, you will receive a piece of paper, a credential, that will provide you with entry into the heavenly kingdom of lifetime employment in the divine corridors of the elite technology, banking and consulting companies. Layers and layers of government grants reinforce the stifling conformity of this single system. The debt load of $1.5 trillion or more that the system has heaped upon its penitents not only pays for a bloated academic establishment, it has also “driven whole generations out of the entrepreneurial economy that enriched their forebears and endowed the universities themselves”, Gilder writes.
Higher Ed Impoverishes; Entrepreneurship Enriches.
1517 Fund General Partner, Danielle Strachman, recognized the errors of the incumbent system very early in life. She is an advocate of a different and better form of learning: project-based learning. She started a charter school in San Diego, and believed that students could learn far moire starting their own businesses than sitting in classrooms. She then worked for the Thiel Fellowship “20 under 20” project, which plucked young people “from the cradle of credentialism” (another Gilder turn of phrase), and induced them to skip college, work on their own unique project, and receive assistance from the Thiel Foundation in the form of both dollars and the support of a network of founders, investors and scientists.
The Fund is quite explicit in its linkage to the Reformation. A section on the Fund website entitled “Thesis” spells it out:
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg to protest the sale of indulgences. These were pieces of paper the establishment church sold at great cost, telling people it would save their souls. The church made a fortune doing it. Likewise, universities today are selling a piece of paper at great cost and telling people that buying it is the only way they can save their souls. Universities call it a diploma, and they’re making a fortune doing it. Call us heretical if you like, but the 1517 Fund is dedicated to dispelling that paper illusion. Extraordinary careers are possible outside tracked institutions.
The goal is social transformation through technology allied to radical new thinking and, crucially, individuals who are willing to act to overthrow the incumbent systems of the world.
1517 marks a turning point in history where great social transformations were wrought by technology. Authority on questions of great importance no longer had to come from priests or royalty. It could come from books, and even more dangerously for the establishment, from an individual’s own judgment. Many current technological and social trends point to our future rhyming with this past. We intend to make it so.
A Little Goes A Long Way To Start Fundamental Challenges.
Strachman’s team is not out to flood the world with billion-dollar unicorns. Their funding is typically at the $250,000 level, and they even make individual grants of as little as $1000. The portfolio of projects is wide-ranging, from the future of transportation (new lidar chips that are orders of magnitude better than Google’s at providing the core vision systems for self-driving cars), to the future of hiring (deephire, a video platform for firms to quickly and collaboratively review candidates for employment without the productivity-sapping process of in-person interviewing).
The 1517 Fund website says that they are “less interested in things that are popular and more interested in ideas that are novel and have a contrarian edge”. Challenging the incumbent system is at the core of their thesis: “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for the known way is an impasse. (Heraclitus)”