Peter Thiel seems to enjoy confounding expectations. So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising to hear the multimillionaire libertarian technologist extol the virtues of making little money and massive state projects.
In Thiel's new book, Zero to One—heavily praised by many reviewers, including my colleague Derek Thompson—he argues that the rate of innovation has gone down. Challenged on that view by David Frum, during an interview Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum, Thiel clarified what he means: Sure, there are plenty of shiny new objects coming out of Silicon Valley. But what about big leaps?
"It's a narrow kind of progress, reflected in stagnation in our society," Thiel said. "Median wages have not gone up that much in last 40 years." While people in the tech industry are "always pumping their companies, their inventions, their research," those are often incremental breakthroughs, the sort of thing that makes a lot of money very briefly but is obsolete within a year or two. As for what major shift these devices effect ... well, there isn't much.
The people who've really made massive innovations are those that make more splash than money, Thiel countered. "The Wright brothers didn't make money. Tesla made no money," he said. The steam engine drove the Industrial Revolution, but "even in 1850, most of wealth in Britain was still held by landed aristocracy."