Peter Thiel and Elle Hunt on the World We Live in Today

Here’s Peter Thiel, in a long interview published in UnHerd:

If, he suggests, it were more obvious to people that we now live in a stagnant world, more might be said and done to address it. But the key reason this isn’t happening is “that we’ve been distracted from the lack of progress” by “the shift from exteriority, from measurable things” such as “faster speeds, supersonic airplanes or longer life expectancies” and re-oriented on “the interior world of yoga, meditation, psychology, parapsychology, psychopharmacology, psychedelic drugs, video games, the internet et cetera”.

And here’s Elle Hunt in The Guardian:

She quit last August, and has since pursued work that feels meaningful: she has written a children’s book about being mixed race, advised on inclusive recruiting strategy, coached corporate types in empathic leadership, and taught meditation – “to slow everyone else down too”.
It has not been easy to turn down opportunities or to adjust to the step-down in status and income. “But I feel so much more me.” She doesn’t start work before 10am or carry on past 5pm, does yoga daily and spends quality time with family. “Ambition used to mean a bigger paycheck, a bigger brand, a more senior position … Now I’d actually rather go and watch the sunset.”

I’ve started to read columns, essays and blogposts on TFP and measuring productivity,1 because I’ve been thinking about writing out a series on this topic, and that’s one of the reasons I chanced upon the Thiel interview:

Thiel characterises this stagnation as a long, slow victory of the Club of Rome, a nonprofit founded in 1968 to drive political change premised on the belief that infinite growth is impossible. As Thiel sees it, this tacit postwar abandonment of the growth aspiration has resulted in “something like a societal and cultural lockdown; not just the last two years but in many ways the last 40 or 50”. There’s “a cultural version, a demographic version, and a technological version of this stagnant or decadent society,” he suggests. And the upshot of this paralysis has been “a world of technological stagnation and demographic collapse”, along with “sclerosis in government and banal repetition in culture”.

Are we as a society (and I mean the entire world) in cultural lockdown? I’m currently rewatching Seinfeld, and my favorite genre of music to listen to is classic rock. Quick aside: Dave Barry’s definition of the genre is funny because it is true. So from a sample size of one (me), I can empathize with the idea of a cultural stagnation. But hey, Netflix paid five hundred million dollars to get the streaming rights to Seinfeld until 2026, so maybe there’s more to it?

I’m not sure how to interpret the demographic version from a global perspective. There’s Italy (most of Europe, actually), Japan, China and the United States, but hey, we’re still growing (albeit ever more slowly), and Africa is going to chug right along this century.

And this is Peter Thiel, so I’m sure I don’t need to re-emphasize his point about technological lockdown.

And then on the supply side we have the exhaustion that seems to have settled like a fog on on most of us over the last two years, and certainly among folks somewhat younger than I:

My burnout was especially distressing for being self-inflicted; I felt bewildered and betrayed, as if my trusty north star had led me astray. Gingerly, I started interrogating my ambition: what was I seeking from work, and where might this feeling be better sourced?
By my 30th birthday, in March 2021, the version of myself who had organised her entire life around her career felt like a stranger. I was still productive, but no longer at the expense of my health, happiness or relationships. It was as if the fire that had been fuelling me for half my life was down to a smoulder – and for the first time, I was content to let it go out.
It turns out I was not alone. This has been called the age of anti-ambition: over the past two and a half years, many people have taken stock – of how they spend their time, where they find meaning, their hopes for the future – and found work wanting.

How to increase productivity begs the question: how does one measure it? And the more you read about both of these questions, the more you wonder if we know as much as we should about the latter, and whether we are worried (at all) about the former.

Food for thought, but for the moment, these are disquieting thoughts.

  1. and please, if you have recommendations, send ’em along! This is a very short list, and I hope to add much more reading as I go[]