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Thiel on Progress and Stagnation

Peter Thiel’s view on progress and stagnation in his own words, sourced from a number of his interviews and articles. This document consists only of direct quotes from Thiel, lightly edited for clarity (except for headings and where marked otherwise). Compiled by Richard Ngo (@richardmcngo) and Jeremy Nixon (@jvnixon). - Sourceful

technology, innovation, startup, Peter Thiel, quotes

Peter Thiel’s view on progress and stagnation in his own words, sourced from a number of his interviews and articles. This document consists only of direct quotes from Thiel, lightly edited for clarity (except for headings and where marked otherwise). Key quotes are in the summary. Compiled by Richard Ngo (@richardmcngo) and Jeremy Nixon (@jvnixon).




What’s going on?

We’re in an era of technological stagnation

We’ve fallen far short of past expectations

There’s been stagnation in wages

Internet progress masks other deterioration

AI is not making as much progress as people think

We’ve seen globalization rather than technological progress

What’s gone wrong?

What’s wrong with our institutions?


Dysfunctional governance

Short-sighted venture capital

Dysfunctional science

What’s wrong with our culture?

People underestimate the importance of culture

We lack positive visions of the future

We think about the future in indefinite ways

People are either in acceptance or denial

Our expectations are self-fulfilling

We’re too conformist

We think about risk in the wrong way

Left-wing ideology has become deranged

Are we just hitting natural limits?

What should we do?

Seize the opportunity to change people’s attitudes

Quantify the problem

Be more ambitious and agentic

Focus on stagnation over other problems

Improve governments and politics

Work around governments

Fix universities

Step up to the challenge of China

What is happening in different areas of technology?




Artificial intelligence

Key Quotes Summary


1. Founder’s Fund Manifesto [1][1]

2. The world according to Thiel [2]

3. [email protected] [3]

4. Masters of scale [4]

5. Conversations with Bill Kristol 1 [5]

6. Conversations with Bill Kristol 2 [6]

7. The end of the future [7]

8. The education of a libertarian [8]

9. Thiel at Yale (also covered here) [9]

10. The Straussian Moment [10]

11. Is the US losing its competitive edge? [11]

12. Conversations with Tyler [12]

13. Peter Thiel on “The Straussian Moment” [13]

14. Peter Thiel on leaving Silicon Valley for Los Angeles [14]

15. Thiel and Schmidt debate [15]

16. Zero to One [16]

17. Thiel and Weinstein [17]

18. Tim Ferriss show [18]

19. WBUR interview [19]

20. Republican National Convention speech [20]

21. Wriston lecture [21]

22. Ezra Klein interview [22]

23. Developing the developed world [23]

24. NY Times interview [24]

25. You are not a lottery ticket [25]

26. Peter Thiel on the Failures and “Self-Hatred” of Big-Tech [26]

What’s going on?

We’re in an era of technological stagnation

* In the last 40-50 years, we have had enormous innovation in the world of bits, and somewhat less in the world of atoms: clean tech, energy, more generally, transportation, biomedical. [3]

* When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age. [7]

* The official explanation for the slowdown in travel centers on the high cost of fuel, which points to the much larger failure in energy innovation. Real oil prices [in 2011] exceed those of the Carter catastrophe of 1979–80. Nixon’s 1974 call for full energy independence by 1980 has given way to Obama’s 2011 call for one-third oil independence by 2020. Even before Fukushima, the nuclear industry and its 1954 promise of “electrical energy too cheap to meter” had long since been defeated by environmentalism and nuclear-proliferation concerns. One cannot in good conscience encourage an undergraduate in 2011 to study nuclear engineering as a career. “Clean tech” has become a euphemism for “energy too expensive to afford,” and in Silicon Valley it has also become an increasingly toxic term for near-certain ways to lose money. Without dramatic breakthroughs, the alternative to more-expensive oil may turn out to be not cleaner and much-more-expensive wind, algae, or solar, but rather less-expensive and dirtier coal.

* Warren Buffett massively capitalized on both of these trends with his $44 billion investment, most made in late 2009, in BNSF Railway — making it the largest non-financial company in the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio. Understandably, the Oracle of Omaha proclaimed “an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States” and downplayed any doubts he might have harbored. For present purposes, it suffices to note that 40 percent of railroad freight involves the transport of coal, and that railroads will do especially well if the travel and energy consumption patterns of the 21st century involve a regression to the past.

* In the past decade, the unresolved energy challenges of the 1970s have broadened into a more general commodity shock, which has been greater in magnitude than the price spikes of the two world wars and has undone the price improvements of the previous century. In the case of agriculture, at least, technological famine may lead to real old-fashioned famine. The fading of the true Green Revolution — which increased grain yields by 126 percent from 1950 to 1980, but has improved them by only 47 percent in the years since, barely keeping pace with global population growth — has encouraged another, more highly publicized “green revolution” of a more political and less certain character. We may embellish the 2011 Arab Spring as the hopeful by-product of the information age, but we should not downplay the primary role of runaway food prices and of the many desperate people who became more hungry than scared.

* While innovation in medicine and biotechnology has not stalled completely, here too signs of slowed progress and reduced expectations abound. In 1970, Congress promised victory over cancer in six years’ time; four decades later, we may be 41 years closer, but victory remains elusive and appears much farther away. Today’s politicians would find it much harder to persuade a more skeptical public to start a comparably serious war on Alzheimer’s disease — even though nearly a third of America’s 85-year-olds suffer from some form of dementia. The cruder measure of U.S. life expectancy continues to rise, but with some deceleration, from 67.1 years for men in 1970 to 71.8 years in 1990 to 75.6 years in 2010. Looking forward, we see far fewer blockbuster drugs in the pipeline — perhaps because of the intransigence of the FDA, perhaps because of the fecklessness of today’s biological scientists, and perhaps because of the incredible complexity of human biology. In the next three years, the large pharmaceutical companies will lose approximately one-third of their current revenue stream as patents expire, so, in a perverse yet understandable response, they have begun the wholesale liquidation of the research departments that have borne so little fruit in the last decade and a half.

* The things that do work are often on a scale that’s incredibly modest. There is often a way in which humor is used to hide disturbing truths from ourselves. People made fun of technology in the early 20th century; the humor was to disguise how scary it was, how much it had changed, how drastic it was. Today, it’s like people throwing virtual cats at each other on the Internet or something like that. The humor, we make fun of technology to hide from ourselves the disturbing fact of how trivial it is, how small it is. People are still worried about what’s going on, but I think it has a very different feel from what it did 100 years ago. [6]

* There is a Marxist theory that the time for Communism would come when interest rates went to zero because the zero percent interest rate was a sign that capitalists no longer had any idea what to do with their money. And there were no good investments left, which is why the interest rates went to zero, and therefore the only thing to do at that point was re-distribute the capital. It doesn’t mean that zero-percent rates lead us to socialism, but I find it alarming that rates are as low as they are. [13]

* You have Moore’s law on the one hand. If I had to simplify it, we’ve had incremental but relentless progress on the computer side. And on the other hand, we’ve had basically no progress on energy. And if you think about where oil prices were in 1973 - it was $2 a barrel - it is now [in 2012] at north of $100 a barrel. And so you’ve had catastrophic failure of energy innovation, and it’s basically been offset by computer innovation. I think that’s a simplified account of what’s happened in the last 40 years. [15]

* Google also has $50 billion in cash. It has no idea how to invest that money in technology effectively ... if we're living in an accelerating technological world, and you have zero percent interest rates, you should be able to invest all of your money in things that will return it many times over. The fact is you're out of ideas.

* I'd say 1968, the narrative progress seemed intact. By '73, it was somehow over. So somewhere in that five-year period. The 1969 version was: we landed on the moon in July of 1969 and Woodstock starts three weeks later. And maybe that's one way you could describe the cultural shift. You can describe it in terms of the oil shocks in 1973 at the back en

Thiel on Progress and Stagnation
Tags Technology, Innovation, Startup, Peter Thiel, Quotes
Type Google Doc
Published 23/07/2020, 18:57:35


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