Thiel on Progress and Stagnation

by Richard_Ngo10 min read20th Jul 202020 comments


Progress StudiesWorld ModelingWorld Optimization

Peter Thiel is one of the most exciting and original thinkers of our era, but many of his opinions are scattered across a range of talks and articles. So Jeremy Nixon and I have put together an organised presentation of his views on progress and stagnation, in his own words. The full document, which is a little over 100 pages, is here; below I've listed some of his key quotes.

While I don't agree with all of his opinions, I've found many of them very insightful and valuable. I'm particularly interested in understanding how to reconcile his views on stagnation with the sort of accelerationist view of technological progress portrayed here and elsewhere.

Key quotes:

  • When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains.

  • When we talk about how fast science is progressing, we do it with little precision. Are we accelerating in scientific and technical fields? How fast is this? In response, we get fairly vague answers. I would submit that the consensus in both a Silicon Valley and academic context is that we are doing great and that everything is just moving super fast. All these forms of accelerations. And we can debate whether it’s utopian - Kurzweil with the singularity is near, where all you need to do is sit back and eat some popcorn and watch the movie of the future unfold, or this dystopia, all the science fiction movies from Hollywood and all the robots will kill you, or you’ll be in this matrix - we’re either accelerating to utopia or accelerating to dystopia. The somewhat contrarian thesis I have on this is that perhaps the progress is not as fast as advertised. Things have been slower and have been slower for quite some time.

  • The single most important economic development in recent times has been the broad stagnation of real wages and incomes since 1973, the year when oil prices quadrupled. To a first approximation, the progress in computers and the failure in energy appear to have roughly canceled each other out. Like Alice in the Red Queen’s race, we (and our computers) have been forced to run faster and faster to stay in the same place.

  • Probably the only engineering fields that are doing really well are computer science and maybe, at this point, petroleum engineering. And most other areas of engineering have been bad career decisions the last 40 years … Nuclear engineering, aerospace engineering, were really catastrophic decisions for very talented people to go into. So even though rhetorically we always say that we want more science and engineering people, in practice, these have been extremely tough fields.

  • You could say that all these gadgets and devices, they dazzle us but they also distract us from the ways in which our larger surroundings are strangely old. So we run cell phones while we’re riding in a 19th-century subway system in New York. San Francisco, the housing stock looks like it’s from the 50s and 60s, it’s mostly quite decrepit and incredibly hard to change these sort of things. So you have bits making progress, atoms are strangely very stuck.

  • On our website, we have this tagline – “They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters.” Which is a little bit of a dig at Twitter. But in some sense Twitter is probably a great business. The thousand people who work at Twitter are going to have well-paying jobs. I suspect it will last for decades. It’s probably not enough to take our civilization to the next level. But again it’s a mistake to blame Twitter for that. It’s more a problem with not enough happening elsewhere.

  • The story of specific success that masks generalized failure is one we find very hard to tell.

  • We live in a world where we've been working on the Star Trek computer in Silicon Valley, but we don't have anything else from Star Trek. We don't have the warp drive, we don't have the transporter, we can't re-engineer matter in this cornucopian world where there is no scarcity. And how good is a society where you have a well-functioning Star Trek computer, but nothing else from Star Trek?

  • If we have runaway automation, and if we're building robots that are smarter than humans and can do everything humans can do, then we probably have to have a serious conversation about a universal basic income or something like that, and you're going to end up with a very, very weird society. I don't see the automation happening at all, and I think the question of automation in my mind is identical to this question of productivity growth.

  • I would be very uncomfortable starting with the social programs without the growth. That's the sort of conversation that I often see happening in Silicon Valley, where we start with UBI, because we're lying about automation. If automation's happening, then we'll see in the productivity numbers, and then eventually, maybe we need something like UBI. If automation is not happening and you do UBI, then you just blow up the economy.

  • There have been periods of globalization and technology in the last two centuries, and they’re not synonymous. The 19th century, I think you had both. You had enormous globalization, enormous amounts of technological process, 1815 to 1914.

  • By 1971, Kissinger’s trip to China, is the point where I would say globalization starts again very much in earnest. But I think we’ve had, for much of the last 40 years, a somewhat more limited technological process, where the word technology has been narrowed to information technology. In the 50s and 60s, technology meant many other things. It meant biotech, medical devices. It meant nuclear power, new forms of energy, underwater cities, the green revolution in agriculture, space travel, supersonic aviation, flying cars, etc., etc. So there has been—so I would argue that the 19th century had both—the last 100 years had a period of technology without globalization, and then more recently, a period of globalization with somewhat more limited technological progress. A lot in computers and the world of bits. Not so much in the world of atoms.

  • If you ask “Why did all the rocket scientists go to work on Wall Street in the ‘90s to create new financial products?” and you say they were paid too much in finance and we need to beat up on the finance industry, that seems like that’s the wrong side to focus on. I think the answer was they couldn’t get jobs as rocket scientists any more because you couldn’t build rockets or supersonic airplanes or anything like that. It’s like, why did brilliant people in the Soviet Union become grandmaster chess players? It’s not that there’s anything deeply wrong with chess. It’s that they weren’t allowed to do anything else.

  • I think money and the nature of money is somehow much less important than all the microregulations that make up the economy. If you give me a choice of getting rid of the vast bulk of government regulations and keeping the Fed, I’d much rather do that than keeping all the other zoning laws and crazy rules we have and going with PayPal, Bitcoin, gold, any sort of alternate currency one could come up with.

  • Most of our political leaders are not engineers or scientists and do not listen to engineers or scientists. Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years.

  • This is a disturbing element in the history of innovation: A lot of innovators discovered things, but weren’t able to get anything. Tesla was out-competed by Edison, even though Edison had an inferior technology. The Wright brothers came up with the first airplane, but they didn’t get to be rich. Of course, in the sciences, it tends to be even worse. If you are Einstein, you come up with general relativity. You don’t get to be a billionaire; you don’t even get to be a millionaire. It’s always this question of how do you actually capture some of the value of what you create.

  • Name me one science fiction film that Hollywood produced in the last 25 years in which technology is portrayed in a positive light, in which it’s not dystopian, it doesn’t kill people, it doesn’t destroy the world, it doesn’t not work, etc., etc. Instead, we have one sort of catastrophic, anti-technological scenario after another, and the future is some combination of the Terminator movie, and Avatar, and Elysium, and you know, The Matrix. I watched the Gravity movie the other day. You would never want to go into outer space. I mean, you want to be back on a muddy island somewhere on this planet. And again, I think Hollywood is not the sole source of this. To some extent, it mostly just reflects the broader culture, which I think at this point, is very anti-technological. Which is why I think Silicon Valley is sort of the center of the counterculture in our society today.

  • Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. This describes Americans today. In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding “extracurricular activities.” In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready—for nothing in particular. A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive—to be a monopoly of one. This is not what young people do today, because everyone around them has long since lost faith in a definite world. No one gets into Stanford by excelling at just one thing, unless that thing happens to involve throwing or catching a leather ball.

  • In a definite world money is a means to an end because there are specific things you want to do with money. In an indefinite world you have no idea what to do with money and money simply becomes an end in itself, which seems always a little bit perverse. You just accumulate money and you have no idea what to do with it. You have no idea because nobody knows what to do with anything and so you give the money to a large bank to help you do something. What does the bank do? It has no idea so it gives the money to a portfolio of institutional investors. What does each institutional investor do? They have no idea and so they all just invest in a portfolio of stocks. Not too much in any single stock ever because that suggests you have opinions or you have ideas and that's very dangerous, because it suggests that you're somehow not with it. And then what do the companies do that get the money? They've been told that all they should do is generate free cash flows because if they were to actually invest the money in specific things that would suggest the companies had ideas about the future, and that would be very dangerous.

  • I think there is a big hysteresis part to this where success begets success and then failure begets failure, where if you haven’t had any major successes in a number of decades, it does induce a certain amount of learned helplessness, and then it shifts the way science gets done or the way innovation gets done in to a more bureaucratic, political structure where the people who get the research grants are more the politicians than the scientists. You’re rewarded for very small incremental progress, not for trying to take risks. It’s led over time to a more incrementalist, egalitarian, risk-adverse approach, which I think has not worked all that well.

  • There’s this very strange aspect in Silicon Valley where so many of the very successful entrepreneurs and innovators seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s or something like this. I always wonder whether this needs to be turned around into a critique of our society where if you don’t suffer Asperger’s, you get too distracted by the people around you. They tell you things, you listen to them, and somehow the wisdom of crowds is generally wrong.

  • Competition makes us better at that which we're competing on, but it narrows our focus to beating the people around us. It distracts us from things that are more valuable or more important or more meaningful.

  • What I think people like Zuckerburg or Musk or Jeff Bezos at Amazon have in common is that they’re relentless. They don’t stop. Every day, they start over, do more, get better at it. People often ask whether Facebook was just a fluke, in the right place at the right time. But I think the more you get to know Mark or founders like him, the less plausible it becomes. And that’s, in part, because you can see how hard he works, how much planning it was, how much of a vision there was from the very beginning.

  • I'm very sympathetic to this distraction theory that what's going on in our society is like a psychosocial, magic, hypnotic magic trick where we're being distracted from something very important and political correctness, identity politics and maybe American exceptionalism, these various ideological systems, are distracting us from things. The thing I keep thinking of, the main thing it's distracting us from, is the stagnation and it's that there are these problems that we don't want to talk about in our society.

  • The first and the hardest step is to see that we now find ourselves in a desert, and not in an enchanted forest.

  • My suspicion is that these are the ever-narrower communities of sub-experts, the string theorists, the cancer researchers, telling us how great the string theorists and the cancer researchers respectively are. It's a place where there's no outside check, no reality check, no ability to really keep score, and you are certainly not exceptional and you're not even great.

  • If you're a professor in academia, [you say]: the tenure system is great. It's just picking the most talented people. I don't think it's that hard at all. It's completely meritocratic. And if you don't say those things, well we know you're not the person to get tenure. So I think there’s this individual incentive where if you pretend the system is working, you're simultaneously signaling that you're one of the few people who should succeed in it.

  • The future of technology is not predetermined, and we must resist the temptation of technological utopianism — the notion that technology has a momentum or will of its own, that it will guarantee a more free future, and therefore that we can ignore the terrible arc of the political in our world.

  • A better metaphor is that we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed. We do not know exactly how close this race is, but I suspect that it may be very close, even down to the wire. Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology the choices of individuals may still be paramount. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

  • There’s nothing automatic about history. History is made up by the choices people make and it’s in our hands to decide.

  • If you define technology as doing more with less, education is perhaps the most anti-technological aspect of our society today where you’re getting the same at a higher and higher price. The real costs of higher education since 1980 have gone up about 400 percent, that’s after inflation. And it’s not clear the quality has gone up at all.

  • If you come back to something as reductionist as the ever escalating student debt, you can think: what is the 1.6 trillion, what does it pay for? And in a sense, it pays for $1.6 trillion worth of lies about how great the system is.

  • I don’t like the word education because it is such an extraordinary abstraction. I’m very much in favor of learning. I’m much more skeptical of credentialing or the abstraction called education. So there are all of these granular questions like what is it that we’re learning? Why are you learning it? Are you going to college because it’s a four year party? Is it a consumption decision? Is it an investment decision where you’re investing in your future? Is it insurance? Or is it a tournament where you’re just beating other people?

  • One of my friends suggested that we were at a point in education that’s like the place where the Catholic Church was on the eve of the reformation. It had become a very corrupt institution. It was charging more and more for indulgences. People thought they could only get saved by going to Catholic Church just like people today believe that salvation involves getting a college diploma. And if you don’t get a college diploma that you’re going to go to hell. I think my answer is, in some ways, like that of the formers in the 16th century. It is the same disturbing answer that you’re going to have to figure out your salvation on your own.

  • I believe they are inducing two perspectives on China in the West. One perspective is that China is very far behind us, that it's still a very poor backward country. Even in 2049, even on the 100-year anniversary, it will still only be a middle-income country, and it's so far behind that we don't need to worry about it and we can be in denial about China. And the other one is that it's so far ahead of us that there is no way that we can ever catch up. It works better, it can build skyscrapers super fast, it works so much better that we have to just accept that we are really far behind. Denial is extreme optimism, acceptance is extreme pessimism, but extreme optimism and extreme pessimism converge to doing nothing.