In staccato, stand-up comic style, Peter Thiel brought his version of libertarianism to Harvard, a notable cheering section for positive government. Last Wednesday, a packed lecture hall heard the investor and co-founder of PayPal and secretive data-analysis company Palantir Technologies say, “You can’t do it on a government scale. So I work on the business scale, the only level where new things can be launched.” Yet his audience seemed to be having a good time.
Racing through the last 40 years of technology in Harvard’s Science Center C, Thiel said that technology isn’t bringing much growth except in the electronic realm of “bits,” or binary digits. The rest of the innovative landscape, the domain of what he called “atoms,” is lagging, he indicated, because we’ve lost the necessary innovative focus.
Thiel’s talk title was, “Back to the Future: Will We Create Enough New Technology To Sustain Our Society?” It was the latest in a series on Science and Democracy staged by Kennedy School Professor Sheila Jasanoff, a leader of Harvard’s Science, Technology, and Society program. Co-sponsors are Harvard’s Center for the Environment and its Schools of Design and Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Among Thiel’s predecessors have been Anne Wojcicki, founder of genetic testing firm 23andMe; MIT Nobel Laureate Phil Sharp on the symbiosis between Kendall Square and MIT; Sir Paul Nurse, then president of the Royal Society in London; and Martin Rees, a Life Peer and member of the science committee of Britain’s House of Lords, speaking on “Catastrophic Risks, the Downsides of Advancing Technology.”
In Thiel’s view, the biggest risk is that “not much will happen at all.” In his quippy, standup-like manner, he posed questions almost like one-liners. He asked how the world will “converge living standards” between one billion people living in well-off countries and the other six billion. If people in China drove cars as in the U.S., “would you run out of oil before you ran out of environment?” Instead, said Thiel, “We must innovate in energy, food, and new living arrangements to do more with less.”
The U.S. is stagnating, Thiel declared. America, he said, is living in a climate of “shattered hopes. Not enough is going on.”
All the experts we have to rely on—professors or venture capitalists in Silicon Valley—push claims of “phenomenally transformative technology” and “runaway technical progress,” Thiel said, yet wages have stagnated over 40 years. With interest rates near zero percent, he continued, “striking amounts of cash” are building up in many corporations because “people have no idea what to do with all that money.” He derided Google’s search for the driverless car. It reminded him of Marx’s 19th century prediction that the capitalist firms would run out of new machines to invent.
Thiel got into deep water with medicine and biotechnology. Without mentioning a precise time frame, he claimed that life expectancies aren’t growing faster lately. (He didn’t mention that in many countries life expectancy at age 65 has increased four years over the last 20 years). He added, “It’s hard to found biotechnology companies.
There are no venture capitalists left in biotech,” cheerfully neglecting the recent role of firms like ARCH, Flagship, Polaris, and Third Rock in creating a slew of innovative new biotech companies. The liberal prescription of more science and technology education, Thiel said, won’t work because many STEM graduates will turn out as unemployable as humanities majors. After all, he said, the rocket scientists go to Wall Street because there aren’t enough rocket science jobs.
To get back to “building a dramatically better future,” Thiel prescribed thinking in “concrete terms” and “coordinating to make a particular technology real.” The world, including America, “must lose complacency and self-congratulation,” recognizing that they have been for the last 40 years “wandering in a desert and not an enchanted forest.”
Thiel’s three commentators were all from Harvard. Law professor Samuel Moyn questioned Thiel’s reliance on non-state actors, indicating he underestimated the importance of government. Engineering professor Margo Seltzer, defending a boost in emphasis on science, said that in an “anti-technology society it’s not cool to like science.” Unsure that Seltzer’s science push would necessarily boost innovation, Design professor Antoine Picon wondered how widespread scientific enthusiasm was in 18th century Britain when Watt and Boulton developed an efficient steam engine that could drive factories.
In reply, Thiel said government had proven effective in developing an atomic bomb, although thermonuclear war quickly became “inconceivable.” He said he preferred the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s to “a website that doesn’t work” (referring to Obamacare). Pushing science, he feared, would load the society with demands for “only successful experiments,” with non-top-rank scientists. He said, “Grantsmen would take over.”
To an audience questioner who referred to President Obama’s State of the Union call for several science-based projects, Thiel said government programs “don’t capture excitement. They are pale shadows of what went before.” The Space Shuttle program, he said, was a way to avoid admitting that we “didn’t have a space program at all,” and the National Security Administration seems like “runaway bureaucracy on autopilot.”
To another question, Thiel said he didn’t agree with futurist Ray Kurzweil that all we have to do is “sit back and watch” to reach a brighter future. This, he thought, “could converge to doing nothing. We need to think human agency. It’s all up to us.”
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