Peter Thiel and Eric Weinstein had a phenomenal, thought-provoking conversation on The Portal (a new podcast by Eric Weinstein). It was a free-ranging conversation that lasted almost 3 hours. The podcast contained some useful principles, which I will attempt to summarize in this post.
Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the podcast or its guests. Any errors or misrepresentations in this post are entirely my fault. This post is also not an exhaustive summary of the conversation, and only contains the points I found interesting (which is why you’ll find few references to politics in the post).
On Innovation (Nature vs Culture)
Innovation has continued and accelerated in the world of bits, but has plateaued in the world of stuff
Peter Thiel has been saying this for a while now. A newer point raised in the podcast was the Nature vs Culture argument. Are we hitting the limits in nature, where we just don’t find low hanging fruit anymore? Or do we have issues with a deranged culture — where smart people are’t incentivized to work on hard problems?
Moreover, are the institutions that do research fundamentally constrained by cultural forces/an overbearing regulatory environment? Weinstein has previously talked about how fundamentalists — both religious and “woke”— have been trying to extend their influence to the lab through the arms of culture and politics (most recently on Joe Rogan’s podcast).
If you go to a room and get rid of all the screens, how do you know you’re not in 1979?
There are maybe a few changes in design that show that we’re in the future. But otherwise, there aren’t that many clues.
How would one judge experts and innovation?
In late modernity (which we are living in), there’s simply too much knowledge for an individual to understand all of it. In 1800s, Goethe could understand all of everything. In 1900s, Hilbert could understand all of mathematics. But now, the kind of specialisation we have is much harder to get a handle on.
We live in a world of hyperspecialization, where a subset of micro-experts get among themselves to talk about progress in their fields. The String Theorists are talking about how close string theory is. The Cancer researchers are talking about the cure cancer is just a few years away. The Quantum Computing researchers are just about to have a breakthrough in quantum computing. So we can’t really say that there’s no innovation going on for sure. We just don’t know as we can’t judge specialists’ progress.
We don’t know if we’re in between revolutions, or if this is an extended drought of innovation.
Growth, Elitism, and Corrupt Institutions
In 1930s, the aviation industry got off. The talkies (the movies) started. You had the plastics industry. You had secondary oil recovery. Household appliances were developed. In 1939, there were 3 times as many people who had cars in the US compared to 1929. There was a crazy tailwind of scientific and technological progress that somehow got badly mismanaged — resulting in the Great Depression.
Since then, we’ve been managing economic metrics. But the tailwinds haven’t been there at all.
In a law firm, the partner would hire associates and the associates would hope to become partners who could then hire associates. In universities, every professor is trying to train graduate students to become research professors who can then train graduate students.
These are embedded growth obligations. We structured almost everything on an expectation of growth. And when the growth that was expected ran out, it had a pretty surprising implication — it feels like institutions are now pathological/sociopathic and are doing things just so they can continue existing instead of adding value (rent-seeking behaviour).
Right now, the elite pretend that the system is working. Because if they don’t say the right things, they don’t get ahead in their careers (you won’t get tenure in academic, be made partners in a law firm etc). You pretend that the system is working, while simultaneously signalling that you’re one of the few people who should succeed in it.
Academia is broken
The institutional rule in academia basically is “No polymaths allowed“. You can be narrowly specialised. If you’re interested in multiple things, you just aren’t taken as seriously.
There’s no level you can rise to in academia that allows you to question its dogmas.
In a healthy system, you can have wild dissent and it’s not threatening. Because everyone knows that the system is heathy. In an unhealthy system, the dissent becomes much more dangerous. There are very few people who openly criticise the unhealthy systems that they are part of
Other Interesting Principles
Power law distributions of talent: Power-law distributions with very thick tails — where a small number are responsible for almost all of the achievements — are ubiquitous in talent. These distributions are becoming even more skewed in modernity, where talented individuals can be paired up with machines and become even more productive
Preference Falsification. Timur Kuran’s little-read book “Private Truths, Public Lies” showed that people often mis-represent their private preferences in public. This was shown in practice in opinion polls before the 2016 US Presidential Elections — where Donald Trump’s voteshare was significantly under-represented.
When you start to believe that public preferences and private preferences are the same, you start formulating policies accordingly. This is why political correctness is a problem. How much pressure is there on people to say things that they don’t actually believe right now? How intense is the problem of political correctness?
Equality of outcome and meritocracy: If you believe that productivity and growth is over, and you don’t want to emphasise merit. Instead, you focus on simply making sure that each group has its share of slots on the table. It’s not about wealth creation, it’s about receiving the wealth that’s already there.
Institutional Betrayal: People who have been betrayed by institutions that they thought had a responsibility of care (like a hospital or a newspaper) face significant emotional trauma — and develop significant trust issues, as described in a concept by Jennifer Freyd. This might already have happened to most of the Western middle class, which feels betrayed by media pundits and by the political class.