Jul 17, 2019

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

On Growth

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.

Ineffective Institutions

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.