Thiel: The End of the Future

Peter Thiel waxing dystopic:

The state of true science is the key to knowing whether something is truly rotten in the United States. But any such assessment encounters an immediate and almost insuperable challenge. Who can speak about the true health of the ever-expanding universe of human knowledge, given how complex, esoteric, and specialized the many scientific and technological fields have become? When any given field takes half a lifetime of study to master, who can compare and contrast and properly weight the rate of progress in nanotechnology and cryptography and superstring theory and 610 other disciplines? Indeed, how do we even know whether the so-called scientists are not just lawmakers and politicians in disguise, as some conservatives suspect in fields as disparate as climate change, evolutionary biology, and embryonic-stem-cell research, and as I have come to suspect in almost all fields? For now, let us acknowledge this measurement problem — I will return to it later — but not let it stop our inquiry into modernity before it has even begun.


When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.

via The End of the Future – National Review Online.


  1. "While innovation in medicine and biotechnology has not stalled completely, here too signs of slowed progress and reduced expectations abound. " — remarkably ignorant, considering that the costs of gene sequencing are plummeting at faster-than-Moore's-law rates. Yes, it hasn't affected health care much yet, but a futurist has to look beyond the immediate moment.

    And we're supposed to be sad that we no longer have Robert Moses and Brasilia wreaking their authoritiarian havoc on cities? Really? This is a libertarian speaking?

  2. Wow, what made him ruin the essay with those last 3 paragraphs? Sad, really. I was all ready to recommend this to everybody I know and then he goes off on some misguided rant about hippies?

    What a strange thing to have done.

    • Paul Kedrosky says:

      Yeah, the ending was a little whack. Okay, seriously whack.

      • Really? A couple of paragraphs do not a rant make. It's pretty clear he's not specifically endorsing the legacy of Moses or Brasilia, but rather the intensity of their vision. As for the hippies, I imagine what he meant was that the baby boomer generation took progress for granted, whereas their parents had to fight for it. Furthermore, they defined progress to mean many things that no sane culture would (c.f. Ben and Jerry). This may or may not have been Thiel's point, which would take an entire essay to develop. Regardless, words like 'sad' and 'whack' do not a rebuttal make.

        • Paul Kedrosky says:

          Are you suggesting I am somehow not (mostly) agreeing with Thiel? Lest there be any confusion, I (mostly) do, as must be obvious from years of posts at this blog. And Thiel and I have talked about this stuff directly, and found immense common ground. My sole objection was to the intemperate closing, which I found out unsettling and unnecessary.

          • I inferred that you mostly agree with Thiel, possibly from years of reading your posts, and I certainly understand your objection as you've amplified it here. I'm sure I've said less pleasant things after attending one of his lectures. Someday for kicks I may write that nasty essay about the baby boomers–you're too young to be offended, right? On a serious note, to write anything at Thiel's level of ambition that's more than intellectual wallpaper (insert here your least favorite NYT columnist) requires offending someone (or everyone), and I'm always happy to irritate the wound in service of this philosophy.

  3. "We are no longer moving faster."

    Do we need to? I can quite happily VC conference call clients in Australia in HD/Dolby rather than taking 24 hours and a lot of jetfuel to get there. I can but groceries on my iPad in 15 minutes at lunchtime without leaving my computer. Whereas once when I lived in the north of scotland, buying a pair of Levi jeans meant a 120 mile round trip, I could now order Balenciaga gowns from the Faroe Islands (though not have many opportunities to wear them I'd imagine).

    Besides which, the US is currently testing (with not much luck) a Mach 5 scram jet. This chainclanking rubbish is just abysmal.

  4. I'm still trying to get over the fact that Paul linked to something on "National Review". :)

    • Not at all – but my own (unscientific) reading of your material over a long period made me think that you would not be a NR reader. Mea culpa.

  5. We are no longer moving faster? Who exactly is "we"? Here in Europe the rise of low-cost carriers and bullet trains made the non-rich people move faster (and more often). If, however, you look only at the rich, then yes, the disappearance of the Concorde has slowed you down just a little bit. Not many people were using it. And by the way: for me, not going to the moon anymore is not a sign that we are not moving as far.

  6. Given that the average 30 year old today is in much worse health than he was 30 years ago, it's not hard to argue that technological progress has let down the median person. Yes, we have iPhones and 42-in flat screens at home. But is talking on the phone between TV commercial breaks better than playing softball at the nearby park 30 years ago?

    Thiel's macro bets have been WAY off the mark. But he's correct in this piece.

  7. Tyler Cowen likes to jump on the lack of transportation innovation meme – and specifically speed – as a sign of decreasing scientific advancement and innovation as well. I still suspect that those who make this point are entirely misguided. The real innovation will occur when we change how we think about transportation. That is what happened in the early 20th century. It isn't that the railroad, the steam engine, the car and the airplane made transportation faster – it is that we figured out how to harness that speed and turn it into massive economic benefit.

    I would argue – that for many use cases – physically transporting the human is obsolete. We can now virtualize ourselves via Skype, Google Hangouts, Tango, etc. and be anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. We just haven't figured out how to harness that ability to derive massive economic benefit (yet).

    My hypothesis is that is due to more to generational and psychological barriers than to the ability of our science to develop breakthrough technologies.

  8. Valkenwold says:

    "I would argue – that for many use cases – physically transporting the human is obsolete. We can now virtualize ourselves via Skype, Google Hangouts, Tango, etc. and be anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds."

    The next step is to do away with our bodies. Such a hassle to take care of its intake and exhaust. And dragging them around. It is preferable to download the contents of the brain to Google+? then the corpus can be collected for composting.

  9. Ok, as a scientist, I can tell you that we are all politicians, because we've been forced to fight over the scraps of flat or declining budgets (in nominal terms, even worse in real terms). We do not WANT to be politicians, we want to tinker, invent, discover, dream, and create. Instead we spend all of our time making sure our paperwork is in compliance with federal oversight guidelines, chasing after a diminishing pool of money, and watching as most of that money flows to risk-averse research that produces a steady supply of non-revolutionary papers.

    If you want scientific progress, you need to throw money at laboratories and walk away, and accept that science has a much higher failure rate than other ventures. This may be politically impossible in our current climate, which I understand, but without tolerance for failure you will get nothing revolutionary.


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