Reporter with Silicon Hills News

IMG_4227Society right now has an intense dislike or hatred of all things scientific or technological, said Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.

To illustrate this, just look at all the movies produced by Hollywood that show technology that doesn’t work, that kills people, that destroys things and that is bad for the world, Thiel said. Movies like Gravity portray space as something scary and unattractive, he said. Other sci-fi movies like Terminator, Avatar, the Elysium, and the Matrix depict a dystopian future.

“In our time, science and technology, is in some sense, the real counter culture in our society,” Thiel said.

While the country has made some progress in the last 40 years, we could do a lot more, Thiel said. For example, we wouldn’t even try, at this point, to declare war on Alzheimer’s, in which one out of three people at age 85 suffers from dementia, he said.

“It seems like a massive crisis,” Thiel said. “There’s sort of a subtle way in which past failure, a history of failure, where if you haven’t succeeded, your expectations about what you can do get commensurately reduced. So we’re in a place where we are very optimistic about computer technology, information technology and we are much more pessimistic about all these other things. And I think it’s important for us to think about how to break this cycle and get back to the future in one way or another.”

Thiel, also co-founder of Palantir and an early investor in Facebook, visited the University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday. He is also founder of the Thiel Fellowship, which provides people under the age of 20 with $100,000 grants and a chance to learn outside of a college setting. Several hundred people turned out to the Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium Wednesday evening to hear Thiel speak about his new book “Zero to One, Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future.” UT organizers relocated the event from the AT&T Conference Center to accommodate the crowd. Gregory L. Fenves, UT executive vice president and provost, moderated the event, which was sponsored by the Innovation Center in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Thiel discussed a lot of the themes and information in his book such as “it is better to risk boldness than triviality, a bad plan is better than no plan, competitive markets destroy profits and sales matters just as much as product.”

He provided a contrarian view on startups and innovation and a worldview of the technology industry.

A successful 21st century will involve both globalization and technology, but as two different trends, Thiel said. China is the paradigm of globalization or of copying things that work and going from 1 to N on a horizontal axis of extensive progress, he said. But technology presents people the ability to go from zero to one on a vertical axis of intensive progress and create something that doesn’t yet exist that can be game changing, Thiel said.

The 19th Century was a period of both tremendous progress and growth of globalization and technology, Thiel said. But after World War I, globalization slowed down even though technology continued to progress, he said. Starting in 1971 with the Kissinger trip to China, globalization began again and has been growing at a ferocious pace ever since, Thiel said.

Technology has been this narrower cone around information technology, Thiel said. And many of the other areas are not as supported such as space travel, supersonic aviation, underwater cities, turning deserts into farmland and forests and other things people talked about 50 years ago, Thiel said.

Today, the world is characterized as developed countries and underdeveloped countries. It’s a pro-globalization and convergence theory that everyone will become much more similar as time progresses.

But that is also an anti-technological dichotomy, he said.

Peter Thiel signing books with Blake Masters, his co-author and former student.

Peter Thiel signing books with Blake Masters, his co-author and former student.

“When we say that we live in the developed world, we’re are implicitly saying that we are living in that part of the world where nothing new is going to happen, where things are done and finished. And where we should resign ourselves to decades of stagnation and that the younger generation should have lower expectations than their parents,” Thiel said. “I think this is a characterization we would do well to resist powerfully.”

Instead, people need to be asking themselves a different question.

“How do we go about developing the so-called developed world?” Thiel said.

In the question and answer session following his talk, Thiel said he is a bit skeptical of all the buzzwords surrounding startups like the term “disruptive”. His friend Shawn Fanning started Napster, one of the first peer-to-peer file sharing programs and the classic disruptive company, and it was on the cover of Time Magazine one year and the government shut it down the next year.

“The goal you should have, as an entrepreneur, is not to destroy existing things, but to create new things,” he said.

In response to a question about Bitcoin, Thiel said he’s generally in favor of it but wonders whether it will get shut down by the government.

Fear also hampers innovation, Thiel said. It would be nearly impossible to get a polio vaccine approved today, he said. And in the face of climate change, nuclear power plants would prove a better energy source but people are afraid of them, he said.

In response to a question about his major failures in his life, Thiel said he’s had his share of failures and they were quite traumatic at the time.

“I always worry that we exaggerate the significance of failure and we celebrate failure too much,” he said.

At the age of 25, Thiel interviewed for a clerk job with two of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. They both turned him down. He was devastated at the time. But 10 years later, he was glad he didn’t get the clerk job.

“There is this cult of failure around a lot of entrepreneurs and it’s not clear it’s that helpful,” he said.

He thinks failure is overrated.

He also doesn’t think there is a tech bubble right now.