Back to the Future with Peter Thiel
The hedge-fund billionaire says we need more innovation — and less herd-thinking — to open a new frontier.


shaffer: Thanks to The Social Network, you may now be best known as a pivotal player in the creation of Facebook. Do you think someday the history books — or, I guess, history websites — will write you up as effecting a millennial transition to people living their lives online?

THIEL: People are still living primarily in the real world. Cyberspace’s status as an alternative to the real world has been somewhat overstated. There are libertarian perspectives from which cyberspace is appealing because it is relatively free of state regulation and intervention. But the basic problem, or basic fact, is that people are biological, physical entities that live in the real world. So the Internet really cannot be a substitute for reality.

One of the main factors behind Facebook’s success, relative to a number of earlier attempts, is that it was focused on real identities. It was looking at real people; it was not people pretending to be a cat or a dog on the Internet, or something like that — which might have been the way people would have envisioned it in the 1990s.

shaffer: Speaking of major changes in the way we live, you’re also interested in “seasteading.” Can you talk about your interest in and advocacy for it?

THIEL: Seasteading was thought up by acolytes of Milton Friedman. The idea is that we need to create competition between governments. If it’s very hard to reform existing ones, we need to create new sovereign states — in the oceans or elsewhere. There’s a technological question about how far away we are from these kinds of things. It’s probably not around the corner. But these technological projects are worth pursuing.

It’s one of the ways in which I see things in the U.S. as having declined from the 1950s, when people had a real sense of the future, and the future was an important subject for public discussion. We thought about being on the moon, or living underwater, and what we were going to do about farmlands and forests and so on. Different ideas about how technology would change in the future played an important role in our society. That sort of collapsed with everything else in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. I want to go back to the future and back to a time when people were thinking about how to use technology to make the world a dramatically better place — not like the present, where technology is largely seen as irrelevant and specifically as bad.

Now, the broader issue with seasteading is that a lot of people are quite sympathetic to the idea that we need more competition in government, though you can debate whether seasteading is the best way — or a possible way — to bring it about. If there weren’t some competition between governments, the overreach would be dramatically worse than what we’ve seen. A lot of state governments would like to dramatically increase taxes and increase regulations on businesses, rather than reform their bad ways. But they’re under extraordinary pressure because people may just choose to leave.

The U.S. government is under somewhat less pressure, because it is a lot more difficult to leave the U.S. But it’s under more constraints today, because the U.S. is now living in a much more competitive world than it was in the 1970s. It’s hard to simply devalue the dollar, or simply inflate, or tax in a confiscatory way. So competition among governments is an extremely valuable and very good thing. The seasteading netroots are best seen against that larger background.


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