Our team recently finished Peter Thiel’s new book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future, and has spent time debating and discussing some of the observations within. One major observation is Thiel’s belief that we must move from what he calls indefinite optimism to definite optimism. We have to be ready to find new technologies ourselves and create the future. To Thiel, we’re actually in a state of relative technological and intellectual stagnation, not one of amazing progress and innovation.
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
Not everybody has agreed with Thiel’s stances on innovation, though. At a recent forum covered by the New York Times, David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, agrees that we’re in a state of relative stagnation, but we don’t need the same kind of shift in thinking that Thiel describes. Where Thiel believes we don’t need a political shift, Graeber takes up the position that we need to change the very socio-economic system within which people operate. According to the Times:
“To Mr. Graeber, the key is replacing what currently passes for democracy with a genuinely participatory system of the sort prefigured by the Occupy movement. The problem isn’t a lack of good ideas, he said, but that “the overwhelming majority of people are constantly being told to shut up.””
Disagreements don’t come only from people with radically different socio-economic views than Thiel. Virginia Postrel, a columnist for Bloomberg and author, thinks Thiel may be on to a real problem, but his solution — a cultural revolution which brings more far-reaching projects like the Apollo Project — is wrong:
“[W]e have plenty of big projects. The human genome has been sequenced. Enormous libraries of books and collections of paintings and drawings have been scanned and made searchable online. James Turrell is making great monumental art in the Arizona desert. Three — three! — billionaires are running their own space programs. Space is so popular among his peers that Bill Gates, whose own modest goals run to conquering malaria and other tropical scourges, finds himself telling interviewers that “it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.” If there’s public malaise about progress, it isn’t because nobody is doing anything bold.”
Progress has been happening, says Postrel, so the malaise and cultural beliefs Thiel identifies are off-mark. Common medical procedures are now considered fairly safe, though they may have resulted in death a half-century ago. Life is getting better and better, though progress may not be in vogue like it was in the 60s and 70s.
Regardless of the truth or critiques of Thiel’s stance, his message is clear: we need to constantly think bigger and to challenge ourselves to bring these big dreams into reality. It is only through that mindset can we really unleash paradigm-shifting innovations.
To read more about the Thiel-Graeber discussion, click here.
To read more of Virginia Postrel’s critique, click here.