Peter Thiel on The Portal

It is always mysterious as to why it feels like we are the outliers. Why are we among the very few people who have reached these conclusions about the relative stagnation in science and technology? [The conclusions about] The ways in which this stagnation is deranging our culture, politics, and society? [2:41] 

It is striking how out of sync they [these views on stagnation of science and technology] feel with so much of our society. [3:55]

The dominant narrative is something like: We are in a world of fast scientific and technological progress. [Peter believes the opposite of this.] Things are getting better all the time. There are some corner case problems. There is some dystopian risk because technology is so fast and so scary. It is a generally accelerating story. [5:33]

I date this era of relative stagnation and slowed progress back to the 1970s. I think it has been close to half a century of slowed progress. A big exception of this has been the world of bits: computers, internet, software. [8:48]

The world of atoms has been much slower for something like 50 years. [9:29]

Why do you think it is so hard to convince people of this [the relative stagnation of science and technology]? The direct scientific questions are very hard to get a handle on. The reason for this is in late modernity there is simply too much knowledge for any single human to understand all of itIn this world of hyper specialization you have narrow groups of experts policing themselves and talking about how great they are. [16:20]

If you were to say in these fields not much is happening — people just don’t have the authority for this. There is a very different feel for science today than you had in 1800 or 1900. Specialization makes it harder to get a handle on. [17:55]

Specialization should make you suspicious. If it has gotten harder to evaluate what is going on then it has gotten easier for people to lie and exaggerate. [18:32]

[On why lies go unchallenged: globalization, academia, trade etc..] If you pretend the system is working you are simultaneously signaling that you are one of the few people who should succeed in it. [25:42]

[The benefits of broad learning] The polymaths would be the people who could connect the dots. They could say there is not much [technological and scientific progress] going on in my department. There is not much going on in that department. There is not that much going on in that other department either. [Broad learning is a way to detect BS.] [40:48]

In a healthy system you could have wild dissent and it is not threatening because everyone knows the system is healthy. In an unhealthy system the dissent becomes much more dangerous. [46:04]

I don’t see younger professors who are deeply critical of the university structure. I think it is just nuts. What does the $1.6 trillion pay for? It pays for $1.6 trillion worth of lies about how great the system is. [46:35] 

The more the debt, the crazier the system becomes. The larger the debt the more you have to tell the lies. These things go together. At some point this will break. [47:08]

It is always dangerous to be burdened with too much debt. It does limit your freedom of action. It seems especially pernicious to do this super early in your career. If out of the gate you owe $100,000 it will demotivate you or push you into higher paying, very uncreative professions. [48:30]

If you get into an elite university it probably still makes sense to go. It probably doesn’t make sense to go to the 100th best university. There is a way it can work individually even if it doesn’t work for the country as a whole. [52:34] 

We have super strict zoning laws so house prices go up. We think about housing as a nest egg instead of a place to live. I would try to figure out ways to dial that back massively. [55:33]

When you are hiring for your company you’d want to hire people who went to a good college because you went to a good college. If you broadened the hiring maybe that would be self defeating for your own position. I think one should not underestimate how many people have a form of Stockholm Syndrome here. [57:14] 

I don’t see the automation [automating away all the jobs] happening at all. We have been automating for 200+ years since the industrial and agricultural revolution. Most jobs today are non-tradable service sector jobs that are not easily automated. [1:12:47] 

It’s very hard to see how societies in Western Europe or the United States can function without growth. . . When the pie stops growing it becomes a zero sum dynamic and the legislative process does not work. [Peter thinks we need at least 3% to 4% economic growth per year] [1:31:07]

I think a world without growth will be a much more violent or a much more deformed world. [1:32:38] 

People generally don’t think about the problem of violence as quite as central as I think it is. I think it is a deep problem on a human level. There is a lot of room for violent conflict in human societies. There are a lot of different traditions where human beings are, if not evil, they are dangerous. [1:34:02]

There is a bias in late modernity that humans are by nature good. They are by nature peaceful. That is not the norm. People don’t believe it [violence] is that deep of a problem. [1:35:06]

Peter on Rene Girard’s theory: It is a theory of human psychology as deeply mimetic. You copy other people. Book recommendation: Things Hidden Since The Foundation of The World by Rene Girard. [2:14:56]

You imitate people. It’s how you learned your parents language. You also imitate desire. There are all sorts of mimesis that can lead to mass violence and insanity. It’s both what enables human culture to function but it is quite dangerous. [2:15:20]

Peter realized how he was engaging in mimesis: I’ve been hyper tracked[Stanford Undergrad / Stanford Law / Manhattan Law Firm] Why am I at Stanford? Why am I doing all the things I am doing? It is a prism through which one can look at a lot of things that I have found to be quite helpful. [2:16:10]

One of the challenges in resetting science and technology in the 21st century is how do we tell a story that motivates sacrifice, incredibly hard work, deferred gratification? A story that is not intrinsically violent? [2:32:31]

Full video here.