Has Technological Progress Stalled?

Or Comments on the Thiel Thesis, Part I

Last week Mary Harrington published a long interview with Peter Thiel in the online magazine Unherd. Much of her article centers on Thiel’s conviction that meaningful technological progress stopped a good half century ago. This view is not unique to Thiel. In many ways it is the starting point for the entire “Progress Studies” movement. The Thielites and the Progress Studies folk take this shared premise to different end points, but both deem scientific inertia as the defining feature of the 21st century. Both also see technological and material stagnation as the root source of myriad ills tearing at America’s social fabric.

Here is Thiel’s description of the problem, as written up by Harrington:

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The World That Twitter Never Made

A few months ago Jonathan Haidt made waves with a big think-piece in the Atlantic arguing that most of the ills of the 2010s can be traced back to the invention of the retweet button. I read the essay and disagreed with it vociferously. Today City Journal published my critique. You can read my counter essay here. Below I would like to add some additional thoughts on social media and American politics that could not fit into that piece.

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A Guide Map for Reading the East Asian Canon

Readers may remember my stab at a global Great Books list. Recently a reader contacted me asking for guidance: they wanted to read through the books on the “East Asian” section of that list, but did not believe he had the proper historical knowledge to understand or contextualize what they were reading. What do I recommend they read to make sense of the list?

What follows will not make sense if you have not looked at that original post. Here is what I told him:

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Of Sanctions and Strategic Bombers

In the aftermath of the First World War, military theorists across the West were desperate to fashion a path around the next war’s trenches. Engineers and tacticians spent that war tinkering away on machines that promised an escape from attrition: the gas shell, the U-boat, and the armored tank were all deployed with these hopes. All were found wanting. The aeroplane was not expected to have quite the same impact. The flying contraptions of the First World War were feather-like: they were both too light for heavy ordinance and too slim for bulky fuel storage.  Few of these biplanes and triplanes could penetrate deep behind enemy lines. None carried a payload capable of making a serious dent in the nearer trench works. Thus the incipient air forces of the First World War were chiefly used to reconnoiter the static defense works of the enemy—or to shoot down the enemy’s reconnoiterers. But the airmen flying and dying in Europe’s gray skies dreamed of something more.

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Generational Churn and the CPC

You may remember a piece I wrote last summer. It was a review of Vladislav Zubok’s book, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev. Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union should be understood as a consequence of generational turnover. I was attracted to the idea; generational turnover is the very mechanism I had identify as the key to American history in my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars.”

A few weeks ago I came across an infographic that illustrates why the policies of the modern Chinese Communist Party are even more generationally bound than either the old CPSU or the current U.S. federal government:

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Why Chinese Culture Has Not Conquered Us All

Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well.”The slogan flows naturally from the operating assumptions of Party state strategists: in their telling, a central pillar of any nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力) is what these Chinese have labeled “discourse power” (话语权).

Discourse power is the ability to mold the assumptions, conceptions, and values of foreign princes and peoples. The concept sits midway between Beltway talk of “soft power” and the sort of influence leftists describe with the phrase “cultural hegemony.” Discourse mirrors the instrumentalism of the first term—discourse power is not just a set of static social relationships or societal norms, but a tool to be wielded—but is far less associated with happy-go-lucky rhetoric about admiration, emulation, and attraction so closely bound up in American conceptions of soft power.

Triumphant victors of the Cold War would conceptualize the issue in such terms:  the victors of any given cultural conflict always believe they have won through the wide appeal of their vision and the free choice of those attracted to it.

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Learning From Our Defeat: the Madrassas and the Modern

In all of my reading on Afghanistan, two books stand out. Both were highlighted in my list of the best 10 books I read in 2021: Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History and David Edwards’ Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Both authors are fluent in Pashto. Both draw plentifully from Taliban primary sources. Both have had hundreds of conversations with Afghans of all classes. Together they provide a powerful picture of the way the war has changed Afghan—especially Pashtun—society. The war in Afghanistan was first and foremost a war within that society. America chose to back one side of this civil war. These books lay out exactly what each side of this war was fighting for.

Or so I write in an essay published this weekend in Palladium. To understand the Taliban’s victory, I argue, you must understand what made the Taliban different from the wider Pashtun society from which they sprang.

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What is the end-game in Ukraine?

I have an op-ed out in the New York Times today arguing that we must intentionally ground our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in careful, cost-benefit calculation instead of emotional reaction or moral fervor. The piece is given the unfortunate title “Ukraine’s Cause is Righteous. That Shouldn’t Shape Policy.” My argument is not that the rightness of the Ukrainian cause does not matter, but that in moments of crisis it is easy to do things that feel right even if they do not help us achieve the right outcomes. The righteous demand to do the right thing—now!—unnaturally speeds the tempo of decision making and warps the policy review process. The end result are statesmen rushing into policies whose consequences they have not fully gamed out.

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Ukraine, China, and the Shadow of the ’90s

Several days ago the U.S.-China Perception Monitor published an essay in both English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a prominent think tanker in Shanghai. It argues that the war in Ukraine is bound to go poorly for Russia and thus China must moderate its support for Putin’s failing regime lest the post-Putin world turn against the PRC.

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