Peter Thiel on the great stagnation of technological progress

Peter Thiel on the great stagnation of technological progress. By Mary Harrington.

Material progress has objectively stalled while we remain collectively in denial about this fact.

In Thiel’s view, this has been the case since the mid-20th century, except in digital technologies. “We’ve had continued progress in the world of computers, bits, internet, mobile internet, but it’s a narrow zone of progress. And it’s been more interior, atomising and inward-focused.” Over the same period, he tells me, “there’s been limited progress in the world of atoms”.

Western civ peaked technologically at the time of the moon landings. Since then, the per-capita innovation rate has been descending remorselessly:

Thiel characterises this stagnation as a long, slow victory of the Club of Rome, a nonprofit founded in 1968 to drive political change premised on the belief that infinite growth is impossible. As Thiel sees it, this tacit postwar abandonment of the growth aspiration has resulted in “something like a societal and cultural lockdown; not just the last two years but in many ways the last 40 or 50”.

There’s “a cultural version, a demographic version, and a technological version of this stagnant or decadent society,” he suggests. And the upshot of this paralysis has been “a world of technological stagnation and demographic collapse”, along with “sclerosis in government and banal repetition in culture”.

He’s been making the case for real-terms tech stagnation for 15 years now, he tells me, against a mainstream Left and Right that doesn’t want to know … And against this backdrop of cross-party denial, institutions and the wider culture are increasingly shaped by real-terms stagnation.

In his view, much of what passes for “progress” is in truth more like “distraction”. As he puts it, “the iPhone that distracts us from our environment also distracts us from the ways our environment is unchanging and static.” And in this culture, economy and politics of chronic self-deception, as Thiel sees it, we tell ourselves that we’re advancing because “grandma gets an iPhone with a smooth surface,” but meanwhile she “gets to eat cat food because food prices have gone up.”

In this context, Thiel argues, much of what passes as “progress” in economic terms is actually an accounting trick. For example, much of what looks like GDP growth since the Fifties was simply a matter of changing how we measured the value bundled up in family life. If, he points out, “you shift an economy from a single-income household with a homemaker to one with two breadwinners and a third person who’s a child-carer, statistically you have three jobs instead of one and therefore you have more GDP, and you will exaggerate the amount of progress that’s happened”. …

Between 1880 and 1960 automation so far reduced working hours that analysts predicted by the year 2000 the average family would subsist happily on the wage of one worker putting in seven hours a day, four days a week, with 13 weeks’ paid holiday. But then “it somehow went really into reverse”.

Since then, many goods once common to America’s middle class have been cannibalised to preserve the illusion of progress. … Growing scarcity, coupled with denial of that scarcity, has profoundly corrupted once-trusted institutions. Even the Club of Rome was, in his view, “not pessimistic enough about how badly a zero-growth world would work, and how much it would derange our institutions”. For most of our institutions “depend on growth; and when the growth stops, they lie and they become sociopathic”.

In this context, what Thiel dismissively refers to as “the woke religion” is less a driving force in contemporary politics than part of this vast collective displacement activity. Notably, it’s often a delivery mechanism for resource competition, for example in universities where student numbers are ever-rising even as paid positions shrink, a pinch that “brings out the worst in people”. So much of what looks like an unhinged new ideology is actually the brutal office politics pursued by too many academics competing for too few paid positions? “Yes,” he says, “and maybe there’s some way to get people to be nicer to one another in a world of limited resources. But we never seem to be even able to talk about that.”

Thiel is a major investor in innovation in Silicon Valley (e.g. PayPal, Facebook):

Along with Thiel’s own investments, which include many futuristic projects such as biotech and space exploration, the principal vehicle for his efforts to drive this change is the nonprofit Thiel Foundation, which promotes science and innovation. Its programmes include the Thiel Fellowship, which gives 20-30 young people aged 22 or under $100,000 each, every year, to drop out of college and work on an urgent idea. Graduates include Austin Russell, who founded Luminar and is the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, and Vitalik Buterin, who co-founded the cryptocurrency Ethereum. …

Thiel doesn’t mention IQs, which peaked in western society around 1850 – 1900, after rising for 800 years under Darwinian selection during which more successful people tended to pass on their genes because more of their children survived past five years. Now average IQs have dropped back to the level of 1600, and are still dropping. Teachers in 1880 were as bright as medicos today (the average IQ has dropped about 15 points from peak).

Culture is changing in response:

What, then, does he see as driving the cultural side of stagnation? Thiel thinks the decline of Christianity is a major factor. To him “a more naturally Christian world” was “an expanding world, a progressing world” that hit its apogee in late Victorian Britain. “It felt very expansive, both in terms of the literal empire and also in terms of the progress of knowledge, of science, of technology, and somehow that was naturally consonant with a certain Christian eschatology — a Christian vision of history. Then somehow the stagnant ecological world that we’re in is one in which there’s been a collapse of religious belief. I want to say they’re somehow sociologically linked.” …

He sees a parallel process at work in the stalling and retreat of American empire: “I would map America in 2000 onto Britain in 1950, and America in 2020 onto somewhere like Britain in 1975 or 1980, where somehow the expansionary part of America has very much faded.” America has abandoned its mission of imperial evangelism: “in 1999 or 2005 there was still this sense that you were proselytising the world, and I think that has strangely collapsed. I’m not sure what the causation is, but there’s some way that the growth of Christianity was linked to it and when it stops expanding it’s in very serious trouble.” …

What’s missing from the world now is a clear vision of the future — or even any vision. …

Failing other options, Thiel thinks even bleak or apocalyptic visions are better than no vision at all. The picture of European climate catastrophe associated with Greta Thunberg is, as he sees it, one of only three realistic European futures; the other two are “Islamic sharia law”, and “Chinese Communist AI”. He views the social-democratic models typical of contemporary European politics as variations on the theme of stagnation: “a sort of eternal Groundhog Day”. And while Greta’s vision is “in some ways too apocalyptic, in some ways not apocalyptic enough”, it is at least “a very concrete picture”, and represents the least worst of the three alternatives to stagnation.

Strangled in bureaucracy, a swarm of mediocrities who have overrun the institutions and demand to be paid even while they prevent change and progress:

Failing a mass revival of Christianity, what political or material levers does Thiel think we should pull to restart some kind of future? “Zoning laws and the FDA,” he tells me. One of the biggest issues is housing, which he notes “is linked to family formation” — and, he suggests, another field in which scarcity and resource competition is fanning the flames of political derangement. “Real estate prices doubled and people got a lot crazier.” Fixing this would be a good route into addressing our sclerosis, because “it’s not pure technology. You’d think it would be easy to change the zoning laws, but in practice it’s extremely hard to do.”

As for the FDA, Thiel points out that even the pessimists in the Club of Rome thought healthcare could go on advancing. And again, as with zoning laws, he argues that if we’re stuck on this front it’s not because we’re running out of resources. “I’ve done some investing in biotech over the last 15-20 years. It’s very strange; my sense for the science is that we could be making a lot more progress, and then in practice it’s extraordinarily difficult because of regulatory constraints and other things. …

Why few today can really speak truth to power:

“Speaking truth to power” has always been, ambivalently at least, a fantasy of print-era writers; less acknowledged, though, is the fact that such pugnacious independence was always premised on the writers themselves being able to make a living direct from a paying audience. And in the digital era of information super-abundance and flimsy copyright, this is a luxury available to an ever-shrinking roster. …

Democracy is over, as culture and the population dumbs down too far to sustain it:

I’m coming to suspect the democratic era was a flash in the pan, and what’s now emerging is a 21st century variation on an ancient form of power, more monarchic or feudal in character than “populist”, let alone democratic.

And as I’ve argued, the alternative to such figures may not be democracy but governance by a decentralised post-democratic swarm (analogous, perhaps, to what Thiel calls “Chinese Communist AI”). Given these options, we may yet conclude that the political return of human lords and princes — however unnervingly untrammelled their power, or remorselessly tech-optimist their worldview — is far from the worst option currently on the table.

I’d rather be governed by a monarchy than the CCP.

Read it all.