Other Than In Computers, civilisation Basically Stopped Progressing In The 1960s


Billionaire Facebook investor, former PayPal CEO, and Palantir cofounder Peter Thiel taught a class at Stanford this Spring.

We’re going through student Blake Masters’s notes today and posting the most interesting things we learn.

Here’s the latest.

Peter Thiel is very disappointed in the last 50 years of human development.

From Masters’s notes:

For most of recent human history—from the invention of the steam engine in the late 17thcentury through about the late 1960’s or so— technological process has been tremendous, perhaps even relentless. In most prior human societies, people made money by taking it from others. The industrial revolution wrought a paradigm shift in which people make money through trade, not plunder.

The importance of this shift is hard to overstate. Perhaps 100 billion people have ever lived on earth. Most of them lived in essentially stagnant societies; success involved claiming value, not creating it. So the massive technological acceleration of the past few hundred years is truly incredible.

The zenith of optimism about the future of technology might have been the 1960’s. People believed in the future. They thought about the future. Many were supremely confident that the next 50 years would be a half-century of unprecedented technological progress.

But with the exception of the computer industry, it wasn’t. Per capita incomes are still rising, but that rate is starkly decelerating. Median wages have been stagnant since 1973. People find themselves in an alarming Alice-in-Wonderland-style scenario in which they must run harder and harder—that is, work longer hours—just to stay in the same place. This deceleration is complex, and wage data alone don’t explain it. But they do support the general sense that the rapid progress of the last 200 years is slowing all too quickly.

The problem, Thiel argues, is that we’ve forgotten how to go from 0 to 1; because of globalization we’ve focused on copying the technologies we already have and moving them elsewhere. Thiel says this is going from 1 to n.

Progress comes in two flavours: horizontal/extensive and vertical/intensive. Horizontal or extensive progress basically means copying things that work. In one word, it means simply “globalization.” Consider what China will be like in 50 years. The safe bet is it will be a lot like the United States is now. Cities will be copied, cars will be copied, and rail systems will be copied. Maybe some steps will be skipped. But it’s copying all the same.

Vertical or intensive progress, by contrast, means doing new things. The single word for this is “technology.” Intensive progress involves going from 0 to 1 (not simply the 1 to n of globalization). We see much of our vertical progress come from places like California, and specifically Silicon Valley. But there is every reason to question whether we have enough of it. Indeed, most people seem to focus almost entirely on globalization instead of technology; speaking of “developed” versus “developing nations” is implicitly bearish about technology because it implies some convergence to the “developed” status quo. As a society, we seem to believe in a sort of technological end of history, almost by default.

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