Palmer Luckey did not start with nothing

Plutoculus myth

There are two Palmer Luckeys. I went back to read profiles of the now-24-year-old $700 millionaire who founded Oculus and became otherwordly-wealthy after reneging on keeping his company independent when Facebook came knocking with $2 billion in dollar-sign-emblazoned burlap sacks. There’s constant reference to his modesty and humility. That’s the Luckey he wants to present. That’s the goofy, affable wunderkind you want as the face of a massive consumer product. 

But the real Palmer Luckey, whose anonymous Reddit account was exposed along with his funding of a pro-Donald Trump super PAC that focuses on electing the Republican candidate through “shitposting” and “meme magic,” has a much more alarming personal narrative typical of the “I got mines, fuck all y’all” class. It’s not the face Facebook wants associated with the Rift, leading some developers (from Polytron to Insomniac) and consumers to drop Oculus support or speak out against Luckey’s political position. Others are anticipating the likely-incoming PR move of distancing Luckey from all the people doing good work at Oculus who aren’t funding neo-Nazi memes.

“America is the land of opportunity,” the white boy from Long Beach starts. “I made the most of that opportunity. I am a member of the 0.001%. I started with nothing and worked my way to the top.”

This kind of self-mythologizing fits neatly in line with the skewed rhetoric of “bootstraps” conservatives who ignore systemic oppression and discrimination. Luckey did not grow up, for example, in the Long Beach rapped about by Snoop Dogg, The Eastsidaz, or the rest of the largely black community of “Eastside” Long Beach that was perceptually besieged by the feds’ “War on Drugs” that made targets out of everyday citizens, as Richard Nixon’s policy advisor John Ehrlichman admitted.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

No, Luckey “grew up in sunny Long Beach, Calif., in a beach-front home on a narrow peninsula wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Alamitos Bay” and took sailing lessons as a kid at the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club.

There are currently eight for-sale listings on the peninsula on real-estate site Zillow. The cheapest is a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment for $1.25 million.

He had both parents, unlike many, and his father’s income alone was apparently enough to raise four kids. His mother didn’t have to work. She could homeschool her kids, which I imagine has a lot to do with all the “tinkering” and experiments Luckey had the free time for.

The problem with the self-starter narrative is both obvious and easy to ignore when you’re a self-mythologizing billionaire. A lot of people also think Donald Trump, incidentally, “worked his way up from nothing,” despite even more obvious evidence to the contrary: he received an entire company, a wealthy upbringing, and inheritance anywhere from $40 to $200 million, much of which is owed to the federal government. Luckey’s case is not so extreme, but the sort of person who funds a racist xenophobe’s presidential bid because he thinks it will be, “a real jolly good time,” was clearly never in tune with the concerns and living conditions of most American citizens, even before the dollar-sign sacks.

Luckey lives in a world where “working your way to the top” includes being fortunate enough that id’s John Carmack asks for a copy of your device, improves it, and sells folks on it at E3, the most important consumer video game show. 

“Carmack got to work on the machine, hot-gluing a motion sensor to it and duct-taping on a ski-goggle strap,” Wired recounted. “But his greatest contribution came in the code he wrote for it. The Rift’s biggest selling point was its 90-degree field of view, which Luckey accomplished by slapping a cheap magnifying lens on the display. The problem was, that lens distorted the image underneath, making it warped and uneven. So Carmack coded a version of Doom 3 that pre-­distorted the image, counteracting the effects of the magnifying lens and making the picture appear correct to the viewer. The result was a completely immersive gaming experience, the kind that would other­wise require $10,000 in high-end optics.” One of the smartest, most inquisitive minds on tech somehow found out about Luckey’s thing and, of his own volition,  made it so, “overnight, the Oculus Rift became the most hotly anticipated gaming device.”

Valve’s Gabe Newell appeared in the initial Oculus Rift Kickstarter video, lending credence to a campaign that would go on to make millions. Luckey himself knew why. Here’s what he told Eurogamer: “It’s funny because really the reason that they’re endorsing it, it’s not necessarily that they’re just endorsing me or saying my thing is great, it’s really a testament that the technology is finally ready.” Of course Valve would eagerly support this upstart taking the risk. That way it could produce its own better VR headset down the line.

Luckey hired CEO Brendan Iribe and chief software architect Mike Antonov, who “helped make it into something that was much bigger than a few kits,” Luckey said. “Nirav Patel, an Apple engineer who had been working on a motion tracker that used a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to sense players’ head motion…helped design the brain of the Rift.”

But you don’t even need these evident examples of how Luckey owes his success in part to many different people to bust the “bootstraps” narrative that conveniently ignores things like the publicly-funded roads used in the shipping and manufacturing of a product, et al. Even being “self-taught” ignores the resources others created that he used to teach himself. Yes, he worked hard. Most people do! My aunt works hard 40 hours a week as a varicose veined grocery store checker because she, like the rest of my family, actually “started with nothing.” Poor immigrants who didn’t speak English. Not upper-class white kids with beachfront property.

But is it any surprise? Luckey has enough money to ignore the real world and live in a carefully curated reality where he gets to write his own narrative. And he got that way because his own pristine, yacht-club life was so dissatisfying that he became obsessed with creating virtual realities, like the tiniest matryoshka retreating behind more and more shells.

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Steven Hansen
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