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.

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I created a list of all of Thiel's online writings: List of Peter Thiel's Online Writings

These were not included in the document:
Spending the Future
Against Edenism
Back to the Future
You Should Run Your Startup Like a Cult. Here's How
The Optimistic Thought Experiment
The New Atomic Age We Need
Peter Thiel: The Online Privacy Debate Won’t End With Gawker
Good for Google, Bad for America

Some of these might not be directly relevant to "progress and stagnation," but most of them do seem like they are worth including.

Thanks, this is very useful! Agreed that they're worth including, we just decided to ship earlier at the cost of being more comprehensive. I'll add these over the next few weeks probably.

Awesome! Thank you for putting all this effort into creating this resource.

The life sciences are bottlenecked by the speed at which they can gather data. Progress will come from speeding the translation from atoms to bits and back again.

Atoms -> Bits

In the life sciences, one strategy is ground-up simulations. I hear that OpenWorm, the attempt to simulate the body and brain of C. elegans, is considered a notorious boondoggle. If so, it was an audacious boondoggle in exactly the right direction. The many AI-driven protein folding projects are another example. A third is the recent development of a programming language for biocircuits.

Bits -> Atoms

 Another strategy is bioprinting and high-throughput roboticized labs. Tissue culturing is a slow, tedious, and delicate process with a hard limit on what's technically achievable by hand. Automating much of that work will not only free up workers for other projects, it will massively increase the amount and speed of physical data collection. A second example are biobanks, which specialize in large-scale medical data collection and digitization. Being able to order detailed medical data on 500,000 subjects for a few thousand bucks is a great business model.

In my opinion, the problem starts with undergraduate education. We need better advice so that students can advocate for cross-disciplinary training and find some of these ideas for themselves. Right now, the old guard is capturing impressionable students and preparing them for 20th century science.

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 catastrophic fields to go into]

Where's his evidence on this? This data suggests average salaries for engineers outside software engineering were not much different from software engineering. I'd guess there's more exciting new companies in computing than in aerospace, but it doesn't mean it was a "catastrophic career move". US companies also sell a lot of products abroad and there's been huge growth in use of aircraft, cars, and other engineered products worldwide (due to catch up growth).

Why did all the rocket scientists go to work on Wall Street in the ‘90s to create new financial products?

Because the Cold War ended. There's no big mystery. If you weren't "allowed" to make rockets, how to explain SpaceX (started in 2002)? Not to say regulation doesn't limit innovation, but I'd want to see actual data on this and not just bluster.

This data suggests average salaries for engineers outside software engineering were not much different from software engineering.

Average salaries don't tell you about job prospects; I know several aerospace engineers who became software engineers because they couldn't find a job in aerospace, but don't know any with the reverse story. (Contrast to people moving between Texas and California, where I know several who moved in each direction, which tells you the two states are somewhat competitive, unlike Alaska and California, where I only know people who moved in one direction.)

As you bring up next, probably more importantly to Thiel's analysis are billionaire prospects. That is, a software engineer could reasonably expect to have a narrow shot at making a mountain of cash and a company with a global brand; the last time an aerospace engineer could have that expectation was probably 50 years ago.

SpaceX (and BlueOrigin) needed a lot of private capital to get started. A college graduate who wants to build rockets doesn't have that capital and in the '90 there was no companies where they could go to build innovative new rocktets.

So I just looked up Boeing because I wanted to say "there's an aerospace engineer who got filthy rich" but in fact Boeing was a timber magnate who bought a plane as a toy, and then when it broke said "well, I could probably make my own plane" and did. While "investor interest" is probably a factor here, it's probably a lagging indicator instead of a leading indicator; it's because investors aren't interested in funding nuclear power plants we can tell they were a bad idea 5 years ago, not 5 years from now.

There's technology that you can develop without much investor interest like most consumer internet companies. That's not true for SpaceX. 

When William E. Boeing founded Boeing Company in 1916 the amount of regulation in the space was a lot less then it's post-1970 and the amount of investment needed to start an airplane company was likely much lower then today. 

[+][comment deleted]4y20

Given that the book Zero to One came out of someone merging notes from Thiel's lecture together, there might be a change that Thiel would welcome if someone would do the ghost writing of merging all this content together in a book as well. 

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.

Contact, Interstellar, The Martian, Hidden Figures.

Technology does play the villain in a lot of movies, but you don't need a sinister reason for that: if you're writing a dramatic story that prominently features a nonhuman entity/force/environment, the most narratively convenient place to fit it in is as the antagonist. Most movies where people are in the wilderness end up being Man vs Nature, for the same reason.

Your argument is correct but the premise, that common media coverage on technology is black/white and that futuristic media is mostly dystopian still holds.

I haven't ran any studies on this but the relationship we have to technology is very important ("robot took my job so now I can be a writer, wohoo!"). When we have the impression that technology will further deepen the rifts in society, then we are unlikely to act on deepening rifts in society. When we assume that social progress needs to go hand in hand with technological progress then we are far more likely to act and say "AI can be really helpful but using it to identify non-productive employees can be very anti-social and discriminatory".

using it to identify non-productive employees can be very anti-social and discriminatory

I believe the opposite is true; Not rewarding the productive ones and punishing the unproductive workers is clearly discriminating against the good people. Sure, giving everyone a UBI that doesn't break the economy is a very humane thing to do, but forcefully making productive workers subsidize bad ones, without giving them social/economic credit, is plain evil.

Two other talks that aren't in the list:

David Graeber vs Peter Thiel: Where Did the Future Go and

American Democracy March 14, 2019 Lecture

Overall I mostly agree with all these points. Like @Dustin said, most of it isn't (trying to be) original, it just concatenates a lot of useful, sometimes contrarian ideas in one place.

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

This one I keep coming back to. I agree with it, for all the reasons Thiel lists and others. I also see that the people in my generation who I respect the most are often also the ones who take seriously the ideas you find in meditative traditions about accepting the present moment, whatever it is, and being at peace in it, or who point out that even still, my many metrics we are way better off than almost everyone who ever lived. Every December Nicholas Kristof publishes a NYT column on how it has been the best year ever for humanity, and it's really hard to disagree with that, too. There's a pure land/charnel ground kind of duality in how we choose to look at it.

But I'd still rather also have all the cool things I *know* we have the basic science knowledge necessary to invent, but don't direct resources into as a society. And, you know, live in a world where we don't waste so much of our life going through the motions of things that don't help or that actively harm people, including ourselves.

Promoted to curated: I have lots of disagreements with Thiel, but I've found his ideas true often enough that I definitely listen when he says something, and this allows me to see a lot of his writing in one spot. I found reading the excerpts quite valuable, and also found the spreadsheet useful for finding a source for a thing I remembered some other time. I also think in general collections like this are quite valuable, and I really appreciate people doing this kind of curatorial work.

Out of curiosity what's one of your more substantive disagreements with Thiel?

A nice clip from the Thiel/Cowen interview:

I think Thiel is correct about much (most? all?) of these things, but I'm also very suspicious of the idea that most of it is original thinking.

Then again, it's not important enough to me to do any of the work of tracing the history of these ideas. Hopefully someone else cares enough to educate me.

I think that Thiel's perspective on economy is fundamentally Marxist. Like, the rich getting richer by the power of compound interest, whether that means investing their money in business, buying political power to get unfair advantage over their competitors, etc. Simply said, if at the beginning of the year I am richer than you, then if everything else is equal, at the end of the year our difference in wealth should only be greater, because whatever you do, I can do too, and I do have a few extra options you don't have. But the same is true for the difference between the slightly rich and the extremely rich. And if we are competing for a share of the same cake, someone is going to starve, and later even more people are going to starve.

Except where Marx sees the light at the end of the tunnel in worldwide revolution which would make everything magically okay (and the history of communist countries so far proves him wrong), Thiel sees it in technological progress. Simply said, with enough progress we can outrun the otherwise inevitable corruption. Even if the wealth of rich people grows exponentially, if the world as a whole grows faster, everyone can get better, and no one needs to starve. But this remains true only as long as the world progresses fast enough, which is why Thiel is so worried about the idea that the progress may be slowing down. This is still mostly within Marxist mainstream: Marxists accept technological progress unforeseen by Marx as an explanation why the prophesied doom and the worldwide revolution haven't happened yet. But they still hope that it soon will happen. Thiel hopes that it won't.

Then there is the observation that although computer science made an extreme progress, other things are way slower. "We have the computers from Star Trek... but nothing else from Star Trek." No idea who noticed this first, but probably many people already did. Many also noticed how our ancestors could fly to the Moon, but we can't.

Criticism of academia as a pyramid scheme and gatekeeping institution, also nothing new. Brian Caplan wrote a book about it.

Complainst about regulation are also quite old.

From my perspective, although most of the ideas are already out there, it is still valuable that someone made a coherent picture out of it. Which in itself is another Thiel's topic, how increasing specialization makes it difficult to understand the big picture about technological growth (and specifically how even impressive progress in some parts of science often doesn't translate into useful technology: for example the knowledge of atoms gave us atomic bombs and nuclear power, but the knowledge of quarks gave us... nothing). Without this coherent picture, people could still admit the individual complaints, and yet deny the conclusion.

I think that Thiel's perspective on economy is fundamentally Marxist. Like, the rich getting richer by the power of compound interest, whether that means investing their money in business, buying political power to get unfair advantage over their competitors, etc.

I think Thiel's answer would be that in a world of 0 interests rates the rich don't really get richer by the power of compound interests. All the profits get competed away. 

Criticism of academia as a pyramid scheme and gatekeeping institution, also nothing new. Brian Caplan wrote a book about it.

The book was written after most of the talk, so it's not a basis for Thiels thoughts. 

[+][comment deleted]2y10

I'm also very suspicious of the idea that most of it is original thinking.

It's not important weather or not it's original or not.
In my opinion "I tell you something which make sense" is less important than "I tell you something AND show that this is a more accurate way of thinking than the alternative ideas".


But, to be clear, I was responding to the claim that it was original thinking.

Most or all of these ideas appear in other works, but many of them may still be original in the sense that he generated them largely from his own observations. A lot of it what someone with his intellect and personality would pick up on from personal experiences and by synthesizing wide reading. Few ideas haven't been independently reached by other people, whether or not they've been popularized or applied the same way. To pick one, "And if you don't say those things, well we know you're not the person to get tenure," is pretty much Chomsky's point about how journalists end up replicating the narratives of the system: "I don't say you're self-censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is that if you believed something different you wouldn't been sitting where you're sitting." And many others have said the same thing in other contexts.

I found the essay "Peter Thiel's Religion" to be very helpful in framing Thiel's worldview, and really in framing a lot of the worldview of Silicon Valley and the rat-adjacent community in general.


Reminds me of a talk I saw where they explored a thought experiment where one imagines being born in 1780 (or something) and within their lifetime they went from horse dominated transport to steam trains and boats, the harvesting of electricity and light bulbs and not having to rely on nature of light... And someone born a lifetime later would see these other significant shifts in technological innovation and impact on life. They went on to make the point that, aside from the internet and phones, there life now looks extremely similiar to life 20 and 30 years ago. Trains are still trains, cars are cars etc

Does anyone have the link as I forgot where I saw it!

This is great! Thank y'all for putting this document together, it's difficult to track down Peter Thiel's thoughts in one spot so this is an excellent resource, and I look forward to going through it.

I wonder if Andrew Yang is familiar with Thiel's writings / thoughts? While it seems they disagree about the impact and/or potential threat(s) posed by automation (Thiel isn't worried at the moment, Yang is), Yang's book "Smart People Should Build Things" seems to echo or at least be compatible with many of Thiel's thoughts regarding what types of work an enterprising individual should consider pursuing, the brokenness of current institutions, and the threat to "progress" when too many smart people funnel into law, finance, et alia instead of entrepreneurship, institution-building, hardware, space related things, etc.

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.

I highly question this. So apparently I have no say in a democracy but when I am an inventor then I can shape the world? So the activists who lobby for green energy are doing nothing? Governments spending money for research are doing nothing?

I highly doubt that this romantic "single genius" idea is ever so slightly accurate. Usually people create companys and NGOs and sportsteams because together you are stronger, no matter how smart some individual.

I think this misunderstands the point Peter is making. This paragraph is not about government research money being ineffective but about the fact that things don't happen simply because of natural progression without individuals pushing for change. 

While there are many people who contribute to SpaceX's success but without Elon Musk it wouldn't exist. There's a requirement for individuals to believe that they can create change for a company like SpaceX to exist.

Thanks. Re-reading the quote and reading your answer really made it understand better. I think a year ago I misinterpret this. It's more on line of the free software movement and people saying "this sucks I will write a {OpenPGP, mutt, Patreon, Gmail, ...} to make this better"