Thiel on Progress and Stagnation

post by Richard_Ngo (ricraz) · 2020-07-20T20:27:59.112Z · score: 144 (63 votes) · LW · GW · 30 comments

This is a link post for https://docs.google.com/document/d/1zao_AyBhNb8TPWrQqgXn5NzNAgfEqzTIaFYos7wdqGI/edit?usp=sharing

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:

30 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by SamuelKnoche · 2020-07-28T12:45:48.553Z · score: 19 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Richard_Ngo (ricraz) · 2020-07-28T13:31:56.126Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by SamuelKnoche · 2020-07-28T13:50:16.887Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-22T10:07:42.125Z · score: 17 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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. 

comment by Owain_Evans · 2020-07-22T10:38:26.519Z · score: 16 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
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.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-07-22T18:48:57.032Z · score: 13 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-22T18:22:36.171Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-07-22T18:51:13.733Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-22T20:10:55.558Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 by ChristianKl · 2020-07-22T19:46:26.386Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-07-25T19:36:33.170Z · score: 15 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by orthonormal · 2020-07-30T01:06:37.002Z · score: 14 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by WannabeChthonic · 2020-08-12T11:57:24.891Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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".

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-08-25T23:19:52.622Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-20T22:34:27.178Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Two other talks that aren't in the list:

David Graeber vs Peter Thiel: Where Did the Future Go https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eF0cz9OmCGw and

American Democracy March 14, 2019 Lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2TrRWAkbr8

comment by AnthonyC · 2020-07-21T16:44:25.738Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-08-11T23:43:48.622Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by bgold · 2020-08-18T22:43:28.785Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by ioannes_shade · 2020-07-23T22:13:13.648Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A nice clip from the Thiel/Cowen interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCwXRlIb8c0

comment by Dustin · 2020-07-21T02:06:45.071Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Viliam · 2020-07-21T21:38:13.787Z · score: 15 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-22T09:08:16.941Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 by WannabeChthonic · 2020-08-12T12:04:03.649Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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".

comment by Dustin · 2020-08-13T22:52:40.145Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe!

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

comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-22T20:23:01.298Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Scott Shambaugh (scott-shambaugh) · 2020-08-13T02:26:32.346Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by wrq · 2020-08-12T19:24:57.295Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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!

comment by Willa (Eh_Yo_Lexa) · 2020-07-21T01:06:11.049Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by WannabeChthonic · 2020-08-12T12:01:38.481Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-08-12T20:47:28.771Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.