Peter Thiel thinks tech innovation has 'stalled'

Prominent investor says don't be fooled by hardware and software advances: overall technological progress has stagnated in the last few decades.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
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Peter Thiel says the United States no longer cares much about science or technology
Peter Thiel says the United States no longer cares much about science or technology Declan McCullagh/CNET

ASPEN, Colo.--One of the Internet's most influential investors and entrepreneurs is offering a dire prediction: the pace of technological change is stagnating.

Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, warned that--despite spectacular advances in computer-related fields over the last few decades--technological progress overall is actually "stalled out."

"There's been insane progress in computers, Internet, and all things related to it," Thiel told a conference here organized by the Technology Policy Institute last night. "It's been offset by incredible failure in energy. To a first order, the two things have cancelled each other out."

Among his examples: With the Concorde's last flight in 2003, the top speed at which people can travel has ceased to improve. Real oil prices are higher than during the Carter administration. Median wages in the United States have increased by only 10 percent since 1973 using government inflation data, and not at all using alternate calculations.

"We're no longer living in a society that cares much about science or technology," Thiel said.

Our lofty expectations from half a century ago about the ever-increasing pace of technological change have given way to more modest aspirations, he said: "Anybody today who talks about space jets and lunar vacations and flying cars is someone who's probably coming from another planet."

Thiel has placed his money where his beliefs are. In May, the Thiel Foundation announced the first 24 recipients of a fellowship that awards $100,000 each to youth under 20 years old--essentially encouraging them to drop out of college to become entrepreneurs. The Founders Fund, where he's a managing partner, has invested in aerospace, robotics, and biotechnology in addition to consumer Internet companies including Slide and Spotify.

In December, he organized a "Breakthrough Philanthropy" event at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts that allowed tech-oriented nonprofit groups to present brief pitches on why members of the audience should support potentially world-changing ideas like life extension. Thiel also has donated more than $1 million to the Seasteading Institute, which would like to see the world's oceans colonized (see related CNET article).

We're "making less progress than is generally advertised," Thiel said at this week's conference. That means "less progress than people were expecting."

If Thiel is correct, his claims have political implications: instead of experiencing economic growth driven by technological improvements, the United States would start to look more like Greece, which is expected to see its economy shrink by about 5 percent this year. Promises to fund Social Security or Medicare (or the cost of government regulations) through economic growth turn out to be wildly optimistic.

"You basically end up with politics becoming increasingly nasty and zero-sum," he says. "I think we're starting to see this shift in the political sphere in the U.S. and western Europe."