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:
Thiel… offers a strikingly different framing [from Patrick Deneen’s diatribes against growth]: we’re consuming ourselves not because the fixation on progress is inevitably self-destructive beyond a certain threshold, but because material progress has objectively stalled while we remain collectively in denial about this fact.
In Thiel’s view, this has been the case since the mid-20th century, except in digital technologies. “We’ve had continued progress in the world of computers, bits, internet, mobile internet, but it’s a narrow zone of progress. And it’s been more interior, atomising and inward-focused.” Over the same period, he tells me, “there’s been limited progress in the world of atoms.”
He’s been making the case for real-terms tech stagnation for 15 years now, he tells me, against a mainstream Left and Right that doesn’t want to know: “it was always striking how much it went against the stated ideology of the regime.” Perpetuating the fantasy of progress, against a backdrop of its actual stagnation, is at the heart of delusions on both Left and Right, he argues: “the Silicon Valley liberals don’t like it, because they think they’re driving this great engine of progress”, while social conservatives “have conceded the ground to the liberals, because they believe the Left-wing propaganda about how much science and technology are progressing”. And against this backdrop of cross-party denial, institutions and the wider culture are increasingly shaped by real-terms stagnation.
In his view, much of what passes for “progress” is in truth more like “distraction”. As he puts it, “the iPhone that distracts us from our environment also distracts us from the ways our environment is unchanging and static.” And in this culture, economy and politics of chronic self-deception, as Thiel sees it, we tell ourselves that we’re advancing because “grandma gets an iPhone with a smooth surface,” but meanwhile she “gets to eat cat food because food prices have gone up.”1
Mary Harrington, “Peter Thiel on the Dangers of Progress,” Unherd (25 July 2022).
There are three arguments here. Each deserves independent comment. Thiel’s first claim is that scientific and technological progress has stagnated since at least the ‘70s. His second claim, which is explored in greater depth in the rest of Harrington’s interview, is that this stagnation is the root cause of most American social strife. Finally, he argues that the central reason we do not recognize all of this is because progress (similar to words like “freedom” or “equality”) is a notion so fundamental to our culture that we cannot admit its erosion.
Here I focus on the first of these claims. This post is about technology, innovation, and scientific advance. My main criticism of Thiel’s view is that he is not pessimistic enough in his account of scientific achievement. Part two of this series will comment on Thiel’s second and third claims, and offer some observations on the changing place of science in American culture.
I came to my pessimistic understanding of information age technology a little over a decade ago. Vaclav Smil, not Peter Thiel, was the prophet who baptized me into the cult of stagnation. Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, more encyclopedia than argument, introduced the notion that all human activity—indeed, all human civilization—can be seen in energetic terms. Joules are the language of the universe. Everything we grow, build, illuminate, or set in motion can be measured by the energetic costs of doing so. This includes the narrow corner of the universe we call economics. “Economic activity” is just a fancy way to say “energy put to human use.” From this perspective fantastical wealth of the last two centuries was not caused or enabled by humanity’s expanding energy consumption—wealth is our energy consumption, just packaged in goods and services.
The first long essay I wrote for the Scholar’s Stage explored what this fact meant for the study of humankind’s “big history.”2 But until today I have not written an essay on the next two books of Smil’s that I picked up: Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact and Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences.3
Tanner Greer, “Notes on the Dynamics of Human Civilization: The Growth Revolution,” The Scholar’s Stage (4 August 2010).
Vaclav Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867–1914 and Their Lasting Impact (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
In Creating the Twentieth Century and Transforming the Twentieth Century Smil argues that the last few decades of the 1800s formed a unique moment in the history of the human species. He calls these decades “history’s most remarkable discontinuity.”4 Smil drives the point home through a thought experiment. Imagine alien beings observing the Earth at great remove. Our artistic, religious, and aesthetic achievements are unlikely to carry meaning across species; these aliens would witness the rise and fall of empires with the same indifference we view struggles for dominance among the chimpanzees. For these onlookers, the measure of our civilization would be material.5 The Neolithic revolution would be legible to these aliens: it reshaped landscapes, ballooned the human population, harnessed non-human energy sources for human uses, and was the prerequisite for both polis and empire. The Columbian Exchange is another possible “discontinuity” on this scale: it was a shock to the biosphere of geological significance and the first step in knitting all of humanity into a common complex system.
Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century, 6.
But the Neolithic Revolution took centuries to invent and millennia to spread. The technical innovations that went to market in the late 19th century were different. They brought about changes equally epochal—but the innovations behind them were invented in the course of one human lifespan. These devices powered a planetary transition. For the first time our imaginary observers in orbit would see the dark side of Earth twinkle with light. On the light side of the Earth, they would see an equally astonishing transformation as many brown and green surfaces of our planet were replaced by gray. The composition of the atmosphere shifted; the balance of the Earth’s mammalian biomass tipped towards human flesh and human food. The animals humans once harnessed for work were replaced by machines humans built. The physical materials that sheltered and warmed us were transformed entirely. For the first time it was possible for millions—and soon billions—of us to spend our entire lives in essentially artificial environments. The amount of energy we consume and the mass of physical material we manipulate began an exponential journey skyward.
Because of technical advances that occurred between 1867 and 1914, the modes of human travel, the mediums of human communication, the methods by which humans heated, formed, and shaped their environment, and the source of the energy flows that powered all these wonders all changed. Two generations of scientists and inventors birthed a new form of human civilization. It is the civilization we still live in today.
The list of technical inventions that made this new world possible is fairly small. Smil focuses on steam turbines, internal combustion engines, electric motors, alternators, transformers and rectifiers, incandescent light, electromagnetic waves, recorded sound, linotype machines, sulfate pulp, photographic film, aluminum smelting, dephosphorised steel and steel alloys, reinforced concrete, nitroglycerin, and synthesized ammonia. Most of these inventions had commercial applications before the First World War. Very few inventions from the 20th century have had equal impact. Smil believes that nuclear fission, rocketry, and solid-state electronics are the only 20th century technical advances of equal import. He concedes that public radio, television, plastics, and gas turbines are also contenders, but these inventions straddle the centuries, more commercial applications of scientific principles that developed in the pre-WWI era than pure creations of the period that followed. Most other great 20th century innovations were not “zero to one” inventions of this sort, but qualitative refinements of the Gilded Age technology.
In his second volume Smil makes this point with another thought experiment:
Even the most accomplished engineers and scientists who were alive in 1800 would face, if translocated a century into the future, the electric system of the year 1900 with astonishment and near utter incomprehension. In 1900, less than two decades after the system’s tentative beginnings, the world had a completely unprecedented and highly elaborate means of producing a new form of energy (by using larger steam turbogenerators), changing its voltage and transmitting it with minimized losses across longer distance (by using transformers and high-voltage conduits) and converting it with increasing efficiencies with new ingenious prime movers (electric motors), new sources of light (incandescent bulbs), and new industrial processes (electric arc furnaces).
In contrast, if the brilliant creators of this system, men including Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Charles Parsons (figure 1.4), could see the electric networks of the late 20th century, they would be very familiar with nearly all of their major components, as the fundamentals of their grand designs fashioned before 1900 remained unchanged. The same lack of shocked incomprehension would be experienced by the best pre-WWI engineers able to behold our automobile engines (still conceptually the same four- stroke Otto-cycle machines or inherently more efficient diesel engines), our skyscrapers (still built with structural steel and reinforced concrete), our wireless traffic (still carried by hertzian waves), or printed images (still produced by the halftone technique)…
Our quotidian debt to great innovators of the two pre-WWI generations thus remains immense, and even if you have no intent to find out the actual extent of this technical inheritance by reading Creating the Twentieth Century, you can begin to realize it just by listing the devices, machines, and processes that you rely on every day and then trying to find their origins: the share that goes back to the 1867– 1914 period is stunning. Some of these inventions—mostly such simple metallic items as paperclips, crimped caps on beer bottles, barbed wires, or spring mouse traps—remain exactly as they were at the time of their commercialization more than a century ago, but most of them were transformed into qualitatively superior products.6
Smil, Transforming the Twentieth Century, 14-15.
The transition from an animal-powered, low-mass civilization to an electrified, mechanical, high-mass civilization accounts for the lion’s share of global economic growth. It has allowed our species to replace villages of mud with cities of steel. This transition accounts for the boom years of American, European, and Japanese expansion in the 20th century, as well as the growth of China in the 21st. If, as a recent study in Nature tells us, “human made mass” now exceeds all the biomass on our planet, Smil would remind us that most of this mass is made of materials invented between 1867 and 1914.7
Emily Elhacham et al., “Global Human-Made Mass Exceeds All Living Biomass,” Nature 588, no. 7838 (December 2020): 442–44.
Many of my readers may have come across the website “WTF Happened in 1971?” The website displays dozens of graphics tracking numerous aspects of American economics and social life: inflation, income inequality, fertility, political polarization, and much more besides. It is hard to scroll through these graphics and not conclude something fundamental to American life broke in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Three graphs, in particular, seem to tell a story germane to the problem of stalled science:
Perhaps the problem is that brilliant minds who once would have aspired to physics are instead drawn to careers in parasitic professions like law and finance?
This is probably the argument of the Andreessen acolytes, ready to blame everything evil on the ascendance of “wordcels” over “shape rotators.” Thiel seems to take a different position. The syllabus Thiel prepared for a class at Stanford (titled “Progress or Stagnation”) is an interesting window into his personal narrative of decline. He seems to locate the turning point in the 1960s, with the rise of the anti-nuclear movement and the flowering of the ‘60s counterculture. His review of Douthat’s book on stagnation for First Things echoes this theme, singling out the boomers as a particularly self-deceptive and complacent generation.8 This is plausible as far as these things go. If American culture has turned away from the material, if it has truly turned its back on innovation, then the boomer’s countercultural cul-de-sac is a sensible moment to place the blame.
Pablo Pineche, “Peter Thiel “Stagnation or Progress” Syllabus, Stanford 2020 Course (German 277),” Hacker News (27 September 2020); Peter Thiel, “Back to the Future,” First Things (March 2020).
But do these hypotheses square with the evidence laid out by Vaclav Smil?
Economic historians sometimes speak of three industrial revolutions. The first, from approximately 1760 to 1820, saw the introduction of factory manufacturing powered by steam or water into textile production and other fields of “light industry.” This is often described as a transition point in human history equal in weight to the invention of the plow or the domestication of crops. The second industrial revolution is summarized above, as it is the main subject of Smil’s two volumes. The third industrial revolution, often dated from 1970 to 2000, marks the transition from mechanical and analogue electronics to digital electronics. It is also known as the “Digital Revolution.” We are intimately familiar with the effects of this revolution on modern life.
To successfully stake his claim, the stagnationist must discredit the achievements of the Third Industrial Revolution. The stagnationist argues that when placed next to the whole-sale transformation of human society wrought by automobiles, electrification, steel beams, and so forth, there is nothing revolutionary about the “digital revolution.” Information is powerful but incorporeal; information age technologies can make civilizational systems work more efficiently, but do not reshape the material or energetic basis of civilization itself. When we measure progress in material terms the accomplishments of the digital revolution wisp away. (Thus Thiel begins his piece in First Things by asking whether airliners go any faster now than they did in the 1950s. The information age has made it easier to buy your ticket; the plane itself travels slower).
Smil’s view of the digital is almost as dismal as Thiel’s (“commonly held perceptions of accelerating innovation,” he writes, “are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by the zealots of electronic faith”).9 But his presentation of the past differs from the Thielites in a key verdict: he devalues not only the third industrial revolution, but the first. His great “discontinuity” starts with electricity, not steam power. The technical advances of the 1700s did not result in a revolutionary transition in energy or material regimes. The everyday life of the median Englishman living in 1820 had more in common with that of an English peasant living in 1500 than with an English worker living in 1900. At the end of the first industrial revolution the most advanced nations in the world were still reliant on animal power for the majority of their economic activity; most buildings were made of the same materials, and heated with the same fuel, that had been used for centuries. As Smil sees it, the main significance of the First Industrial Revolution is that it provided the technical foundation for the Second.
Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century, 5.
The Thielite vision of history is more compact. Oswald Spengler—whose book Decline of the West is the second item on Thiel’s syllabus—identified the “restless thrust toward the infinite and unattainable” as the native impulse of the Western man.10 The Thielite version is similar, defining Western civilization by its history of discovery, exploration, and progress. The West’s endless pursuit of the frontier had blessed the masses with technological marvels and unparalleled prosperity. But sometime in the 20th century America was knocked off of this upward course. The test of our times is thus the challenge of return.
The phrase is Annie Pfieffer’s evocative gloss of Spengler’s beliefs, not his own words. Annie Pfieffer, “Oswald Spengler,” Modernism Lab (accessed July 2022). For my take on Spengler, see Tanner Greer, “Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human Culture,” Scholar’s Stage (14 December 2020).
Smil’s vision of progress is different. In his schema, technological advance is the exception, not the rule. The remarkable trajectory of the 20th century was not the culmination of a civilization, but the product of a singular discontinuity in human history. Eventually all gains to be had from that unique period of discovery would be realized.
From this perspective the 1950s was less an age of novel technological wonder than the period in which advances made generations before were finally democratized. What the 21st century is to large parts of China, Africa, and India, the post-war decades were to the United States. But by the 1970s, the main gains had all been realized. The fruits of innovation were not ended so much as expended.
This leaves us with few escape hatches from pessimism. The dates no longer align with the ’60s counterculture argument. If we cannot blame the counterculture for stagnation, we might be able to blame academia: the great inventions and discoveries of Smil’s narrative all occurred before the advent of academic science. The American university has failed to foster technological advance. The American university system may well be the cause of this stagnation. I have argued that in the world of letters intellectual sterility is the main legacy of the tenure track.11 Many of my arguments could also apply to science.
Tanner Greer, “Where Have All the Great Works Gone?,” Scholar’s Stage (30 January 2021).
That would be the optimistic conclusion. But the truth might simply be that the years between 1867 and 1914 were an extraordinary moment in human history. This moment is unlikely to be repeated and should not be taken as a baseline for the future. It is not realistic to expect a Neolithic Revolution every generation.
But if we do insist on taking the 20th century boom years as our template for the future, Smil’s narrative describes what would be required. Silicon Valley dreams of an algorithmic revolution. This will not be sufficient. Thiel’s First Things essay talks of faster jet planes and cures for cancer. These are also insufficient.
Double-digit GDP growth means transforming the physical basis of an entire society. It means mud to concrete. Wood to steel. Sweat to dynamos. Shovels to dynamite. Wicks to lightbulbs. Carts to cars to areoplanes.
A future boom will not come from improvements in organization and information. It will be from inventing new materials to build from, new ways to move what we build, or new sources of energy to power our building. This is my yardstick for evaluating the “revolutionary” potential of new technologies. For this reason I am bearish on the long run economic impact of supercomputers. Like other information age technologies, all they do is coordinate, organize, and calibrate existing modes of production. Something like nanotechnology or bioengineered materials are more promising, for they promise to reshape the physical basis of our built environments.
Unfortunately I do not have the technical proficiency to judge whether or not we are close to real breakthroughs in these technologies. But it is not until I see breakthroughs of this class that I will comfortably predict a return to progress.
If this post on historical trends in progress caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on similar problems: “For God and Progress: Notes on the Training of the Medical Mind,” “On Living in the Shadow of the Boomers,” “Where have all the Great Works Gone?,” ” Book Notes: On Strategy, a History,” “On Adding Phrase to the Language,” “On Cultures That Build,” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.