Saturday, March 20, 2010

Self-Awareness Can Prevent Silliness

"Considering his wealth and good fortune, you wouldn’t peg Peter Thiel as a prophet of doom. He cofounded PayPal at age 31 and sold it to eBay four years later for $1.5 billion. Two years after that, he became the first investor in Facebook — a wager that earned him another fortune. Today, at 42, he runs a San Francisco venture capital firm and a hedge fund, Clarium Capital. But the past year has not been easy on Thiel. As bailouts and government stimulus policies revived financial markets, the staunch libertarian bet against the rally and lost big. Investors have been pulling their money out of his fund: Clarium has shrunk from $7 billion in assets to about $1.5 billion. Even as he was laying odds against the economy as a fund manager, though, Thiel was pouring money into audacious, futuristic projects as a VC and philanthropist: private space flight, ocean colonies for human habitation, indefinite life extension. Contradiction? He sees none. Behind both his economic skepticism and his radical utopianism is a conviction that the only way to escape a looming social crisis is to revive the science fiction dreams of yesterday."

So-called "Utopian pessimist" and billionaire Peter Thiel complains to a Wired interviewer that we don't have enough visionary scientists/inventors working on things like underwater ocean colonies and life extension. Now I want to live forever beneath 20 feet of beautiful glinting blue water as much as the next guy, but let's think about this for a while.

If you can make 1.5 billion for creating PayPal, a useful but not overwhelmingly visionary service, then why waste your time designing submarine living quarters? Thiel complains that we aren't facing up to the fact that we'll need new technologies to keep growing at the rate we have been for the past 200 years. Maybe this is true, but then don't we need advances in alternatives to fossil-fuels much more urgently than this sci-fi kind of stuff? And if we want this kind of sci-fi stuff and billionaires want to fund it that's great too, but I don't think it makes sense to say that this is more helpful to society than a more productive kind of wheat or a better cancer treatment, or any number of boring things.

1 comment:

Little Earl said...

I kind of like this guy:

"And sure, you look back over the past 100 years, the stock market has generally gone up 6 to 8 percent a year. But in a larger historical perspective, that kind of growth is exceptional. If you had done the equivalent of investing in the stock market from, say, 1000 to 1100 AD, you would not have made 8 percent a year. During the fall of the Roman Empire, you’d have been lucky to get zero."

Yeah, so take that, Caligula.