Peter Thiel/Eric Weinstein Transcript on Growth, Violence, and Stories
I’ve recently been through a spate of listening to podcasts. When I listened to the first ninety minutes of a three-hour conversation between Eric Weinstein and Peter Thiel, I was surprised to hear echoed a lot of ideas we’ve discussed on LessWrong about stagnation in academia and scientific discourse more generally (e.g. here and here). I realised there was no good online transcript for people to read, discuss, and link to, so in my off-work hours as a hopefully useful public service, I thought I’d try my hand at making one, and used a format inspired by other podcasts who do the same (in this case, the often brilliant 80,000 Hours Podcast).
I’ve split it into five posts for readability. (Further notes on editing are in this comment.) I’ll post them every couple of days for the next week or so. The posts are: this introduction, Stories About Academia, Stories About Education, Political Violence and Distraction Theories, and Stories About Progress.
I’ve finished listening to the podcast, and found it to contain a very interesting alternative worldview, that I’ve since come back to many times in conversation.
So without further ado.
Some of the topics discussed
What stories institutions tell when growth has stopped.
The argument that the physics community is the most important community on Earth.
Why we’re losing polymaths.
Why it can be bad to train too many people.
The relationship between automation and redistribution.
The theory that a great deal of political discourse is a distraction from not having solutions to the lack of innovation/growth.
How the theories of Rene Girard are an antidote to strong libertarian impulses.
The importance of a society not disillusioned about growth, but excited about growth.
Whether scientific progress can be a motivating story for society.
Peter Thiel: The direct scientific questions, I think, are very hard to get a handle on. And the reason for this is that in late modernity, which we are living in, there’s simply too much knowledge for any individual human to understand all of it. And so in this world of extreme hyper specialization, where it’s narrower and narrower subsets of experts policing themselves and talking about how great they are, the string theorists talking about how great string theory is, the cancer researchers talking about how they’re just about to cure cancer, the quantum computer researchers are just about to build a quantum computer, there’ll be a massive breakthrough. And then if you were to say that all these fields, not much is happening, people just don’t have the authority for this. And this is somehow a very different feel for science or knowledge than you would’ve had in 1800 or even in 1900. In 1800, Goethe could still understand just about everything. 1900, Hilbert could still understand just about all of mathematics and so this sort of specialization, I think, has made it a much harder question to get a handle on.
Peter Thiel: The political cut I have on the specialization is always that if you analyze the politics of science, the specializations should make you suspicious, because if it’s gotten harder to evaluate what’s going on, then it’s presumably gotten easier for people to lie and to exaggerate, and then one should be a little bit suspicious. And that’s sort of my starting bias.
Eric Weinstein: So, let me focus you on two subjects that are important for trying to figure out the economy going forward. I’m very fond of perhaps over-claiming, but making a strong claim for physics. That physics gave us atomic devices and nuclear power, and it ended World War II definitively. It gave us the semiconductor, the worldwide web, theoretical physicists invented molecular biology, the communications revolution. All of these things came out of physics, and you could make the argument that physics has been really underrated as powering the world economy.
Eric Weinstein: On the other hand, it’s very strange to me that we had the three-dimensional structure of DNA in ’53, we had the genetic code 10 years later, and we’ve had very little in the way of, let’s say, gene therapy to show for all of our newfound knowledge. Now, I have no doubt that we are learning all sorts of new things—to your point about specialization—in biology, but the translation hasn’t been anything like what I would have imagined for physics.
Eric Weinstein: So, it feels like somehow we’re in a new orchard, and we’re spending a lot of time exploring it, but we haven’t found the low hanging fruit in biology, and we’ve kind of exhausted the physics orchard, because what we’ve found is so exotic that, you know, whether it’s two black holes colliding, or a third generation of matter, or quark substructure, we haven’t been able to use these things. Are we somehow between revolutions?
On increasing the number of students with a higher education:
Peter Thiel: One of my friends is a professor in the Stanford economics department, and the way he describes it to me is they have about 30 graduate students starting PhDs in economics at Stanford every year. It’s six to eight years to get a PhD. At the end of the first year, the faculty has an implicit ranking of the students, where they’ve sort of agreed who the top three or four are. The ranking never changes. The top three or four have, are able to get a good position in academia, the others not so much.
Peter Thiel: And, you know, we’re pretending to be kind to people, and we’re actually being cruel.
Peter Thiel: Amazon is the most threatening of the big tech companies in that it’s threatening a lot of other companies elsewhere in the industry and disrupting them and making things more efficient, but probably with a lot of sheer forces at work in that process. So, I agree that that’s a candidate for automation or productivity improvements or things like that. I’m still not convinced that it’s in the aggregate shifting things that much, and then you can go through all sorts of individual job descriptions where people used to have secretaries because typing was a skill, and with a word processor you don’t quite need this. You can do short emails. You don’t quite need a secretary. People still have executive assistants that sort of somehow do slightly different set of responsibilities, but it’s not clear we have fewer executive assistants than we used to have secretaries.
Peter Thiel: So, when one actually concretizes it, it’s not quite clear how disruptive the automation that’s happening really is. Again, it’s a version of the tech stagnation thing. It’s always the last 40, 50 years, things have been slow. We’re always told it’s about to accelerate like crazy. That may be true. In some ways, I hope that’s true, but if one was simply extrapolating from the last 40 to 50 years, perhaps the default is that we should be more worried about the lack of automation than excess automation.
Eric Weinstein: Something that sort of fits in here is that, in part I’ve learned from you, and you can tell me whether you recognize this formulation or not, is start with any appealing social idea. That’s step one. Step two, ask what is the absolute minimal level of violence and coercion that would be necessary to accomplish that idea. Now add that to the original idea. Do you still find your original idea attractive? This flips many of these propositions into territory where I suddenly realized that something that people see as being very attractive actually can only be accomplished with so much misery, even if it’s done maximally efficiently, that it’s no longer a good idea. This has been very influential in my thinking.
Peter Thiel: Well, I think that it’s very hard to see how anything like the kinds of societies we have in Western Europe, the United States, could function without growth. I think the way sort of a parliamentary republican democracy works is you have a group of people sitting around the table, they craft complicated legislation, and there’s a lot of horse trading, and as long as the pie’s growing, you can give something to everybody. When the pie stops growing, it becomes a zero sum dynamic, and the legislative process does not work. So, the sort of democratic types of parliamentary systems we’ve had for the last 200, 250 years have mapped on to this period of rapid growth. We had sort of a very bad experiment in the 1930s where the growth stopped, at least from the economic sense, and the systems became fascist or communist. It doesn’t actually work.
Peter Thiel: So, I suspect that if we’re in for a period of long growth [Ben: I think Peter here means “a period where growth is a long way away”], I don’t think our kind of government can work. I think there is a prospect of all sorts of forms of violence, more violence by the state against its citizens. There may be more zero sum wars globally, or there may be other ways things are super deformed to pacify people. So, maybe everyone just smokes marijuana all day, but that’s also kind of deformed. But I think a world without growth is either going to be a much more violent or a much more deformed world. And again, it’s not the case that growth simply solves all problems. So, you can have very rapid growth, and you can still have the problem of violence. You can still have bad things that can happen, but that’s our only chance. Without growth, I think it’s very hard to see how you have a good future.
Eric Weinstein: Let me take a slightly different tack. Two statements that I found later in life unfortunately, but have both been meaningful to me. One is Weber’s definition that a government is a monopoly on violence. And the other one, it’s a guy I can never remember who said, I think it was a French political philosopher who said, “A nation is a group of people who have agreed to forget something in common.” If you put these things together, if you imagine that somehow we’ve now gone in for the belief that transparency is almost always a good thing and that what we need is greater transparency to control the badness in our society, we probably won’t be able to forget anything in common. Therefore, we may not be able to have a nation, and therefore the nation may not be able to monopolize violence, which is a very disturbing but interesting causal chain. Can we explore the idea of transparency, given that people seem to now associate certain words with positivity, even though normally we would have thought about privacy, transparency, trade-offs, let’s say?
Eric Weinstein: It’s interesting, in a moment where I wanted to make sure that my son didn’t misbehave, I toured him around our neighborhood and pointed out all of the cameras that would track anybody on the street where we live. I had never noticed them before, but sure enough there they were in every nook and cranny that we don’t realize that if it has to be stitched together, there’s an incredible web of surveillance tools that are surrounding us at all time.
Peter Thiel: It strikes me that there are ways we don’t want to wake up. We don’t want to wake up in a way where it de-energizes us and demotivates. I think one of the ways I think these institutions worked was they took care of people, but it was also motivational. You study. You get good grades. You’ll succeed in our system. One way, when you deconstruct these institutions, there’s one direction that I think is always very dangerous, that it just shifts people into a much more nihilistic, very low energy mode where it’s just, “Well, there’s no point. Nothing can be done.” That’s the way that I definitively do not want to wake people up.
Links to Things Discussed in the Podcast
Paul Krugman’s Essay “A Protectionist Moment”
Eric Weinstein’s 2011 Edge Essay Kayfabe
Contrarian Physicist Julian Schwinger
Seeking Arrangements, Website for Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies to meet
Thiel Fellowship, Offering $100k to undergrads to drop out of university
Power Laws, (not discussed but related: Anders Sandberg talking about heavy-tailed distributions)
Historian and Philosopher of Social Science Rene Girard
Jennifer Freyd’s theory of Institutional Betrayal
Aubrey de Grey proves The Chromatic Number of the Plane is At Least 5
Links not explicitly referred to but that (I think) give strong arguments for positions discussed and are perhaps implicitly referred to:
Other Discussion on the Web
(Let me know about more, either in the comments or via PM.)
Eric Weinstein: Hello and welcome to The Portal’s first episode. Today, I’ll be sitting down with Peter Thiel. Now, if you’ve been following me on Twitter, or perhaps as a podcast guest on other podcasts, you may know that I work for Thiel Capital. But one of the things that people ask me most frequently is, given that you are so different than your boss and friend Peter Thiel, how is it the two of you get along? What is it that you talk about? Where do you agree and disagree? Now, oddly, Peter and I both do a fair amount of public speaking. But I don’t believe that we’ve ever appeared in public together and very few people have heard our conversations. What’s more, he almost never mentions me, and I almost never mentioned him in our public lives.
Eric Weinstein: So hopefully this podcast will give some indication of what a conversation is like with somebody who I find one of the most interesting and influential teachers of our time; somebody who has influenced all sorts of people in Silicon Valley involved with technology and inventing tomorrow, and who is often not seen accurately, in my opinion, by the commentariat and the regular people who opine as pundits in the world of science and technology.
Eric Weinstein: I hope you’ll find Peter as fascinating as I do. Without further ado, this is the first episode of The Portal. Thanks for joining us.
Eric Weinstein: Hello and welcome. You found The Portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein, and I think this is our first interview show to debut, and I’m here with my good friend and employer, Mr. Peter Thiel. Peter, welcome to The Portal.
Peter Thiel: Well, Eric, thanks for having me on your program.
Eric Weinstein: No, this is a great honor. One of the things I think is kind of odd is that lots of people know that I work for you and many people know that we’re friends, but even though we both do a fair amount of public speaking, I don’t think we’ve ever appeared any place in public together. Is that your recollection as well?
Peter Thiel: I can’t think of a single occasion. So this proves we’re not the same person.
Eric Weinstein: We’re not the same person, yeah. You are not my alter ego. But on that front, I think it is kind of an odd thing for me. I mean, we met each other, I think when I was in my late 40s, and if you’d ever told me that the person who would be most likely to complete my thoughts accurately would be you, I never would have believed it, never having met you. We have somewhat opposite politics. We have very different life histories. How do you think it is that we’ve come to share such a lot of thinking? I mean, I have to say that a lot of my ideas are cross pollinated with yours. So you occur in a lot of my standard riffs. How do you think it is that we came to different conclusions, but share so much of a body of thought?
Peter Thiel: So I’m always hard pressed to answer that, since the conclusions all seem correct to me. And it’s always mysterious why it feels like we’re the outliers and we’re among the very few people that reach some of these conclusions about the relative stagnation in science and technology, the ways in which this is deranging or culture, our politics, our society, and then how we need to try to find some bold ways out; some bold ways to find a new portal to a different world.
Peter Thiel: And I think there are different ways the two of us came at this. I feel like you got to some of these perspectives at a very early point, sort of the mid 1980s, that something was incredibly off. I probably got there in the early, mid-90s, when I was from this track law firm job in New York city. And somehow everything felt like it was more like a Ponzi scheme. It wasn’t really going towards the future everyone had promised you, in the elite undergraduate and law school education I had gone through.
Peter Thiel: And so, yeah. So I think there was sort of a point, we got to these insights. But it’s still striking how out of sync they feel with so much of our society, even in 2019.
Eric Weinstein: Yeah, I mean, that’s a very striking thing for me. And it’s also something that’s frustrated me. Sometimes, when I look forward to you being interviewed, it often feels to me that so much time is spent on the initial question,”Are we somewhat stagnating in science and technology,” that rather than assuming that as a conclusion—which I think we can make a pretty convincing argument that there has been a lot of stagnation—it seems to me that a lot of these conversations hang at an earlier level. And so one of the things that I was hoping to do in this, which is, I think, your second long form podcast. You did Dave Rubin’s show sometime ago … Is to sort of presuppose some of the basics that people will be familiar with who’ve been following either one of us, or both of us, and to get to the part of the conversation that I think never gets explained and discussed, because people are always so hung up at the initial frame issue.
What is the dominant narrative?
Eric Weinstein: So with your indulgence, let’s talk a little bit about what you and I see, and any differences that we might have, about this period of time that we find ourselves in, in 2019. What would you say is the dominant narrative before we get to what might be our shared counter narrative?
Peter Thiel: Well, you know, the dominant narrative is probably fraying and has been fraying for some time, but it is something like we’re in a world of generally fast scientific and technological progress. Things are getting better all the time. There’s some imbalances that maybe need to be smoothed out. There’s some corner case problems. Maybe there’s some dystopian risks, because the technology is so fast and so scary that it might be destructive. But it’s a generally accelerationist story. And then there’s some sort of micro-adjustments within that, that one would have to make.
Peter Thiel: There’s are all sorts of ways that I think it’s fraying. I think 2008 was a big watershed moment, but that still what’s largely been holding together. And then there’s sort of different institutions. You can look at the universities where there’s a tracked thing. It’s costing more every year, but it’s still worth it. It’s still an investment in the future. And this was probably already questionable in the 1980s, 1990s. College debt in the United States in 2000 was $300 billion. Now it’s around in $1.6 trillion, $1.7 trillion. And so there’s a way in which the story was shaky 20 years ago and today is much shakier. It’s still sort of holding together somehow.
Eric Weinstein: So in this story, in essence, the great dream is that your children will become educated, they will receive a college education, they will find careers. And in this bright and dynamic society, they can look forward to a future that is brighter than the future that previous generations look forward to.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, so I think … Now again, I think people are hesitant to actually articulate it quite that way, because that already sounds not quite true to-
Eric Weinstein: Well, to your point, they’ve been adding epicycles for some time.
Peter Thiel: And so it’s a … Maybe it’s a bright future, but it’s really different from the parents, because we can’t quite know. And they have all these new devices. They have an iPhone and they can text really fast on the iPhone. We can’t even understand what the younger generation is doing. So maybe it’s better on … But “better” has sort of an objective scale. Maybe it’s just different and unmeasurable, but better in sort of an unmeasurable way.
Peter Thiel: So there sort of are ways it’s gotten modified but, that would still be a very powerfully intact narrative. And then that there are sort of straight forward things we can be doing. The system’s basically working, and it’s basically going to continue to work. And they’re sort of a global version of this. There’s a US version. There’s an upper middle class US version. There’s a lot of different variations on this.
Eric Weinstein: So it always strikes me that one of the things that you do very well is that you’re willing—and you know, you’re famously a chess player—you’re willing to make certain sacrifices in order to advance a point. And in this case, I think you and I would both agree that there’s certain areas that have continued to follow the growth story more than the general economy, and that you have to kind of give those stories their due before you get to see this new picture. Where do you think the future has been relatively more bright in recent years?
Peter Thiel: Well, again I sort of date this era of relative stagnation and slowed progress all the way back to the 1970s, so I think it’s been close to half a century that we’ve been in this era of seriously slowed progress. Obviously, a very big exception to this has been the world of bits: Computers, internet, mobile internet, software. And so Silicon Valley has somehow been this dramatic exception. Whereas the world of atoms has been much slower for something like 50 years.
Peter Thiel: And you know, when I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the late 1980s, almost all engineering disciplines, in retrospect, were really bad fields to go into. People already knew, at the time, you shouldn’t go into nuclear engineering. AeroAstro was a bad idea. but you know, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, all these things were bad fields. Computer science would’ve been a very good field to go into. And that’s been sort of an area where there’s been tremendous growth.
Peter Thiel: So that’s sort of the signature one that I would cite. There are questions about how healthy it is, at this point, even within that field. So, you know, the iPhone is now looking the same as it did seven, eight years ago. So that’s the iconic invention. Not quite so sure. And so there’s been sort of a definitely a change in the tone even within Silicon Valley in the last five, six years on this. But that had been one that was very, very decoupled.
Peter Thiel: The decoupling itself had some odd effects, where if you have sort of a narrow cone of progress around this world of bits, then the people who are in those parts of the economy that have more to do with atoms will feel like they’re being left behind. And so there was something, there was something about the tech narrative that had this very … Didn’t necessarily feel inclusive, didn’t feel like everybody was getting ahead. And one of the ways I’ve described it is that we live in a world where we’ve been working on the Star Trek computer in Silicon Valley, but we don’t have anything else from Star Trek. We don’t have the warp drive, we don’t have the transporter, we can’t re-engineer matter in sort of this cornucopian world where there is no scarcity. And how good is a society where you have a well-functioning Star Trek computer, but nothing else from Star Trek?
Eric Weinstein: Yeah, that’s incredibly juicy. I mean, one of the ways that I attempted to encode something, which, in part I got from you, was to say, “Of course your iPhone is amazing. It’s all that’s left of your once limitless future,” because it’s the collision of the communications and the semiconductor revolutions that did seem to continue. And I date the sort of break in the economy to something like 1972, ’73, ’74. It’s really quite sharp in my mind. Is it that way in yours?
Peter Thiel: Yes. I’d say 1968, people still … The narrative progress seemed intact. By ’73, it was somehow over. So somewhere in that five-year period. The 1969 version was we landed on the moon in July of 1969 and you know, Woodstock starts three weeks later. And maybe that’s one way you could describe the cultural shift. You can describe it in terms of the oil shocks in 1973 at the back end. With the benefit of hindsight, there were things that were already fraying by the late 1960s, so the environment was getting dramatically worse.
Eric Weinstein: Right.
Peter Thiel: You have the graduate movies, you should go into plastics. I think that was 1968 or ’69. So there were sort of things where the story was fraying, but I think it was still broadly intact in 1968, and somehow seemed very off by ’73.