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Rushes Sequences - Peter Thiel interview - USA (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 13:54 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009

Peter Thiel is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal. Aleks Krotoski and the Digital Revolution programme one team met with Peter to discuss the development of the web from its early libertarian beginnings, to its current effects upon nations, communications and the future of nation states.

'Technology will decide the question of the number of countries that exist in the world in 2050 more than anything else.'

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(Please note that this transcript is the 'raw data' text we receive from a transcription company. It is a tool commonly used in production to facilitate editing and review the content. We publish it for users in that same spirit, rather than it standing as a 'perfect' representation of the content.)

Aleks do you feel that that libertarian ideal still lives on in silicone valley today?

Peter          Well you know, I think, I think it would be a mistake to ascribe too much ideology to, to what people er, the, to the way people were thinking about it.  Um, I, I do think that a lot of the people involved in the internet would, would subscribe to some version of this story I'm telling you about er, empowering people, giving them more freedom.  They wouldn't necessarily er, and, and changing you know, the existing power structures of the, of the state. Um, you know, I think a lot of people um, the, and there certainly are other political cuts of this so I think you know, I think another equally important dimension of the internet is that er, that you know, the future of the 21st century's going to involve some version of globalisation and we have to get globalisation to work.  And, and you know, that means we have to somehow er, figure out ways to break down certain barriers that exist between, between people.

Aleks Like financial barriers for example?

Peter         Financial barriers, social barriers er, thing, thins of, things of that sort. And I think that's, that' probably and equally er, important er, dimension of it.  Um, so I think, I think there are sort of a, but, but I, I do think the um, um, I think there has been an element of this that's been um, well there's, there's been, there's been a debate not just since the history of the internet but really since the history of the computer age is how would computers develop?  Would they, would they empower individuals or would they empower the state?  And so go back to the 1950's and 1960's and the sort of the er, the classic science fiction narratives where you'd have like a super computer that's running a planet, there's a, maybe there's a Star Trek episode from the original Star Trek where you have the er, um, the planet er, Beta where you have these DOS ............... that are controlled by a single computer that's er, sort of incarnates the er, um, the thoughts of somebody who lived 8,000 years ago and still sort of runs the planet. Um, and those sort of, this vi, vision of computer revolution as leading towards centralisation of, of power.  Um, but then I think starting in the late 70's in to the 80's this very alternative vision of computer revolution evolved which was er, I think started with the personal computers that computers would be a vehicle not for empowering the state but for empowering individuals and giving them more information and more knowledge about what happened. And in some ways the internet revolution of the late 90's and 2000's I think was sort of a culmination of the sort of er, revolution in information technology where, where um, information just became too much for the state to handle and you had to decentralise power.  And this is in some ways you know, there's, there's a version of this which was the story of you know, the fall of Eastern Europe and of communism where basically er, where basically things like um, the spread of fax machines enabled people to find out what's happening and to circumvent the um, the official truths er, that had promulgated by er, institutions like ............ in the Soviet Union. And at that point it gradually unravelled and people learned what was really going on.  And I think um, I think in some ways the internet was just a culmination of that, of that process.  That being said I think you know, I think the jury is still out and the question of where it will be in 20 or 30 years um, one should not be overly dogmatic.  I think er, it er, it may empower individuals, it may, it's possible that we go back to a 1960's version where it somehow um, ends up empowering the state. And er, but I think the question will be decided by technology and not by, not by politics.

Aleks What do you mean the, the question will be decided by technology because as we're seeing there's a real interesting um.


Aleks There's a really interesting struggle at the minute, when you talk about you know, the nation and the state and, and the individual; when you're talking about technology it seems like you have incidents like er, for example in Iran where you had, you had the, the nation, the nation state trying to put the barriers around information getting out for example during the recent riots. But at the same time you have individuals who are hacking around those firewalls, those, those barriers.
Peter         Yes.

Aleks So where do you see, if you say that it's difficult to see in 20 years time where it's going to be, where, where do you see it happening in 20 years time?  What do you see happening?  Where, what will the outcomes be?

Peter         Well I, I think that um, I think the outcome will be one or the other.  So er, it will be that we either have, it's likely we either have a far more powerful state that uses technology to control things which is in some sense a culmination of what's happening in China to some extent.  Or we have a state; we have a place where the technology sort of circumvents existing power structures which I think has been happening in Western Europe and the United States. And er, and I think it's, but I think the, the Iran case was certainly one where um, it didn't cut, has not so far cut very well for the you know, the individual empowerment narrative where I guess people were um, issuing Tweets on Twitter but er, it turned out that er, bang, bang beat tweet, tweet.  And er, and so that was, that was an example of where um, where this didn't' quite work.  So I don't, I don't think you know, I don't think the individual story is clearly going to end. I think it's an open question and that's why, that's why I think there's nothing automatic about history, there's nothing predestined about it going one way or the other.  Um, and I think it will be a very close call and depends very critically on the kinds of technologies that are developed, how they get rolled out and how they er, how they transform things. Um, and er, and I think that we'll not know for sure except you know, with hindsight 20 or 30 years from now.

Aleks Have we seen precedents for this, in technologies that have come before whether it you know, I don't know, you mentioned the fax machine.  Have we seen other precedents with a new technological innovation where the nation state has been challenged in this way?

Peter        Well there have been um, there have been enormous precedents.  Um, I mean you know, certainly there are military examples and the gunpowder revolution around the year of 1500.  Er, basically resulted in the obliteration of all sorts of small countries because central governments were able to expand their power and project violence over much greater, greater areas.  Um, and I think er, in some ways you could say er, that culminated in the nuclear age in the late 20th century and in super power states.  And so I think um, and then I think there have been other technologies that er, that empowered er, individuals er, more locally.  And I think that's been, that's been the story of the computer age really since er, the 1970's.  Completely contrary to what the expectations of the science fiction writers of the 50's and 60's were. And it's a, it's a very interesting how the science fiction thought it was going to go in a very different direction to what, to what er, ultimately happened.

Aleks It seems that what you're suggesting when it comes to er, the, the nation states success in the end in this battle goes against your ideal when you developed Pay Pal does it not?  With you know, the notion that the individual ..............

Peter Well I don't, I don't, I don't, I don't, I don't think the nation state is destined to succeed.  Um, so far it's looking like it's going the other way.  I just don't think, I don't, I don't think we should have a view of history where history is automatic and it just necessarily unfolds in a certain way.  Um, and I think, I think it's a, it's a, it's an open question which way you know.  It may, it, it's, it is possible that the science fiction writers of the 50's and 60's still turn out to be right.  And you know, but so far it looks like it's gone the other way.

Aleks Well taking a look at.

Peter  And one, one, one, one way of, one way of measuring the er, the question about the er, power of the nation state and the ability of the nation state to project force er, involves just looking at a map of the world and counting the number of countries in the world.  In er, 1945 when the United Nations got started I believe there were about 45 or so countries in the world.  So they were large countries with large empires.  And er, the history, er, especially the last 20 or 30 years has involved the collapse of this em, these empires and the creation of more and more countries so we're at something like 192 countries today .And so one, and they're sort of smaller, generally somewhat weaker, people have more freedoms in them.  Um, there are problems with them too but er, that's generally been the direction it's gone.  And simply fast forward to the year 2050 er, one of the questions is um, compared to today will there be more countries, fewer countries or just the same number?  And I think it would be very strange if the number of countries in the year 2050 would be exactly 192. I think its likely to me more or less.  And what I'm willing to predict is that if it's more you will have, you will have a world with um, greater individual freedom, there may be greater security problems, may be, may be other problems associated with it.  If you have fewer you'll end up with a world of more government power and less individual freedom.

Aleks And you believe that this will be technologically instigated?

Peter  And technology will decide the question of the number of countries that exist in the world in 2050 more than anything else.


  • Comment number 1.

    Those missing words in the transcript (Peter's second paragraph) are, I believe:

    "DOS ..............." = "docile"
    "institutions like ............" = "institutions like Pravda"

  • Comment number 2.

    Thiel is also an early investor in that Internet state of...Facebook.

    Hopefully, Aleks has asked for his views beyond whether the Web is a proxy/ replacement/ complement/ extension of the nation state. It would be interesting to find out how he believes online interactions are affecting our identities. He might offer a perspective on how Rene Giraud applies to online advertising and the shaping of collective mimetic desire.

    Re. gunpowder, the Chinese had been using it since about 1000, a good 500+ years before a certain guy called Fawkes or the Spanish Armada.

  • Comment number 3.

    I found Peter Thiel rather fence sitting on the idea of how much power to the people was idealised in the erly days of the internet/web. Delving into the webworld on the trail of manifestos following a tweet by ~dang tonight I found this internet manifesto copyright dated 1997


    "The Internet Manifesto
    Universal Rights

    Every human being, every man, woman and child, has the inalienable right to access information, communication and commerce. To this end the Internet has evolved to serve mankind. Any entity attempting to abridge these rights is an enemy of the people. Just as governments have granted rights to their citizens, so the Internet grants rights to its netizens."

    OK so it is a very 'HippyDippy' document but what interested me was the many statements in this 1997 piece that predict the need for governance to accept the freedom of the internet in order to remain in existence. Thus:

    "More and more, we see how governments feel threatened by the Internet. Indeed, more than one has fallen, with Internet assistance. Governments with their entrenched bureaucracies are incapable of evolving fast enough to satisfy the needs of the emerging netizenry. Their response is reams of legislation to restrict and control access and content. Their explanation is to "protect" some indefinable constituency. In reality they are protecting their own powers to govern."

    Can anyone enlighten me which was the actual Government that fell and is being talked about here?

    The some of the claims may now seem a bit far fetched but I think the six right quoted at the beginning still hold true although Society has, in the main, accepted laws governing Censorship of pornographic explicit content.

    Interesting is their link to a more up to date manifesto by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions who assert it is their task to promote and uphold the Freedom of the internet and it's universal access.


    I note the www.hippy.com website is still going strong and uses PayPal to obtain donations to it's anti-war cause.


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