Why we live in an anti-tech age

Complex planning -- and true innovation -- is out of fashion, argues PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel

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ORLANDO -- Though it seems as if we're surrounded by innovative products, services and technologies, there's a growing counter argument that we're living in a dismal era. Science is hated. Real technological progress has stalled. And what we call innovation today really isn't very innovative.

Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, billionaire investor and author, is among those challenging the notion of innovation and progress. Thiel, who earned undergraduate and law degrees at Stanford University, spoke at the Gartner Symposium/IT this week about why the march of progress seems to have stalled.

"We live in a financial, capitalistic age, we do not live in a scientific or technological age," said Thiel. "We live in a period were people generally dislike science and technology. Our culture dislikes it, our government dislikes it."

The easiest way to see "how hostile our society is to technology" is to look at Hollywood. Movies "all show technology that doesn't work, that ... kills people, that it is bad for the world," said Thiel.

Peter Thiel REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Peter Thiel, entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal. 

He pointed to films like The Terminator, The Matrix, Avatar, Elysium and Gravity. The underlying message in Gravityis that "you never want to go into outer space," Thiel said.

The movie industry, he said, isn't to blame. It's simply reflecting and feeding a public bias against science.

Technology has a much different meaning today than it did in the 1950s or 1960s. During that period, it meant computers and rockets, underwater cities, new forms of energy and all sorts of supersonic airplanes. Since then, there "has been this narrowing" view that technology is mostly information technology, he said.

While advances today may be enough to dramatically improve business efficiencies and create great new companies, "it's not clear it's always enough to take our civilization to the next level," said Thiel.

His argument parallels one raised by the economist Robert Gordon, who in a 2012 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (download PDF), said there is an absence of the type of innovation that advances civilization in fundamental ways. True innovation is something like air conditioning, the combustion engine or the telephone.

In the last decade, argued Gordon, attention "has focused not on labor-saving innovation, but rather on a succession of entertainment and communication devices that do the same things as we could do before, but now in smaller and more convenient packages."

The problem may be partly the result of the process used to develop new technologies.

From Thiel's perspective, what's "sorely lacking is any sort of conviction. If you have conviction around getting certain things done, a very short list of things, that's how you really push for progress," whether in a corporation or government.

Using the government as an example, Thiel pointed to the Manhattan project, which built a nuclear bomb in 3.5 years, and the moon landing in the 1960s. "It was not a spray and pray approach," said Thiel of those government efforts, "it was complex coordination around a well-defined plan, which is very out of fashion."

Among those at the Gartner conference who heard Thiel talk was David Hanaman, co-founder and chief sales and marketing officer of C3i Inc., an IT services firm for life sciences. He said the analysis resonated.

"We've come out with a lot of cool technology, and it has made first-world lives maybe a little more superficially fun, but it hasn't fundamentally changed the human condition," said Hanaman.

Regarding the cultural aspects, Hanaman said that Thiel was probably also being critical about the way science is treated in policy arguments.

In environmental issues such as climate change, both sides will take the science that fits their opinion, said Hanaman, "as opposed to the more traditionally scientific way which is to really interpret the data on its merits."

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