Is it the End of the Future?

When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.” (Revelation 6:5–6)

On October 3rd, 2011, the National Review published an Op-Ed prodigiously entitled “The End of the Future,” written by this newspaper’s founder, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Contrary to the apocalyptic title and foreboding biblical opening (printed above), the opinion piece does not advocate for some sort of Rapture. Rather, Thiel reveals his contemporary impression of the state of technological innovation. Thiel’s unmatched power and success in Silicon Valley automatically makes any commentary he gives on the state of technology invaluable. That said, I think this piece both merits and encourages critical reception.

The End of the Future is written as a prophetic manifesto. In true Thiel style, he puts his philosophy degree to good use and likely calls upon more science fiction than L. Ron Hubbard. In spite of the editorial’s messianic rhetoric, its thesis is relatively simple—there is a tech slowdown. Thiel essentially says that liberals and conservatives, while they disagree on social issues, both seem to agree unquestioningly that technological and scientific progress continues to develop at a fast pace. While I think it is absolutely true that culture wars, particularly in the United States, distract the general public from other important issues like technology, Thiel is not the only person on the planet to notice a tech slowdown. But he might be the only person preaching a tech slowdown in conjunction with allusions to the book of Revelations. And, of course, he is still Peter Thiel.

The End of the Future opens with a general assessment of the state of Western Civilization, whose intellectual space he sees as dominated by the “Culture wars”: “Modern Western civilization stands on the twin plinths of science and technology…these two interrelated domains reassure us that the 19th century story of never-ending progress remains intact…Without them, the Culture Wars –would gather far more force.”

As I mentioned before, I appreciate his criticism of the culture wars. However, I think his thesis’ clear Western-bias is fundamentally problematic. The End of the Future focuses specifically on the Western World, totally undercutting changing models in the developing world and in the East and other regions. This is problematic because it implies the West’s unequivocal superiority in technology and science. Perhaps the West will not be at the cutting edge in the future? Maybe the East will be the driving society of innovation? Could we even be in a period where the developing world is playing catch-up in technological progress “apace” with bygone eras or even faster, and that is what creates the illusion of deceleration? I don’t necessarily agree with these questions but I think Thiel’s argument is weaker because he does not even address the possibility of a changing geopolitical hegemony.

Additionally, for Thiel to say that the culture wars would gather more force without an unquestioned idea of progress undercuts his original idea that the culture wars distract us from evaluating technological progress. Thiel first argues that the general public is distracted by cultural issues, which is why no one can see the tech slowdown. Hence we need Thiel to ride in on his shiny techie horse and tell us to stop letting cultural issues distract us from what’s really going on, like a good libertarian. I appreciate Thiel’s point, but I think he lives a very specialized, Silicon-Valley-Venture-Capital life in which he wrongly believes that the general public cares a lot more about science and technology than they actually do.

As a fellow libertarian, I appreciate the piece’s subtext criticizing the culture wars and how inflated they are in the minds of the public. But contrary to what Thiel says, I think it is science and tech that would have more force in the public sphere in the absence of the culture wars, not the other way around. I am a believer in the western model of innovation, and our civilization has advanced tech and science in an unprecedented way.

But as a humble reader, I wonder to what extent we should not explicitly evaluate this when writing pieces like Thiel’s, if only to not come off as supremacist. As hegemonic structure and world powers change, perhaps a western-focused lens is no longer useful for understanding progress.

Not to sound as prophetic as Thiel, but perhaps we are moving in to a new model, a new world order, and our time would be better-spent trying to understand the world as something like Fareed Zakaria’s “Post-American.” or post western world. Don’t get me wrong—I think Thiel’s argument is useful in and of itself and provides some extremely insightful points from a thinking man “on the inside” of the tech boom. Thiel’s perspective is extremely well-thought out and clearly comes from a body of experience that is unlike no one else’s in the world.

Lisa Wallace ’14 is Features Editor of the Stanford Review. Please feel free to email her with comments and queries at [email protected].

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