We have seen that even the simple question of whether a technology slowdown has occurred is far from straightforward. The critical question of why such a slowdown seems to have occurred is harder still, and we do not have the space to tackle it fully here. Let us end with the related question of what can now be done. Most narrowly, can our government restart the stalled innovation engine?
The state can successfully push science; there is no sense denying it. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo program remind us of this possibility. Free markets may not fund as much basic research as needed. On the day after Hiroshima, the New York Times could with some reason pontificate about the superiority of centralized planning in matters scientific: “End result: An invention [the nuclear bomb] was given to the world in three years which it would have taken perhaps half a century to develop if we had to rely on prima donna research scientists who work alone.”
But in practice, we all sense that such gloating belongs to a very different time. Most of our political leaders are not engineers or scientists and do not listen to engineers or scientists. Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years. I am not aware of a single political leader in the U.S., either Democrat or Republican, who would cut health-care spending in order to free up money for biotechnology research — or, more generally, who would make serious cuts to the welfare state in order to free up serious money for major engineering projects. Robert Moses, the great builder of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, or Oscar Niemeyer, the great architect of Brasilia, belong to a past when people still had concrete ideas about the future. Voters today prefer Victorian houses. Science fiction has collapsed as a literary genre. Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.
Today’s aged hippies no longer understand that there is a difference between the election of a black president and the creation of cheap solar energy; in their minds, the movement towards greater civil rights parallels general progress everywhere. Because of these ideological conflations and commitments, the 1960s Progressive Left cannot ask whether things actually might be getting worse. I wonder whether the endless fake cultural wars around identity politics are the main reason we have been able to ignore the tech slowdown for so long.
However that may be, after 40 years of wandering, it is not easy to find a path back to the future. If there is to be a future, we would do well to reflect about it more. The first and the hardest step is to see that we now find ourselves in a desert, and not in an enchanted forest.
— Peter Thiel, the founding CEO of PayPal, is an American entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an undergraduate he founded the Stanford Review, a conservative/libertarian newspaper at Stanford University. The Hertog/Simon Fund for Policy Analysis provided funding for this article.