Peter Thiel is teaching a new course this winter quarter at Stanford on “Sovereignty and the Limits of Globalisation and Technology” a theme—as you can tell from my reading list and latest posts—which is also a lot on my mind lately. The syllabus, and in particular the suggested readings, look great, and so I decided to read along and write down my reflections. This is the first post.
Nationalism is back. Be it Brexit, Trump’s election, the establishment of a national-populist government in Italy or the surprising result of Sweden Democrats - just to name a few - the trend is now clear. Parties and movements built on the promise of putting “(insert nation) first” are gaining support pretty much everywhere.
Immigration is without doubts the most heated political topic of the present. Most countries in Europe have large parties which make their opposition to immigration the main point of their political program. Some of them are in power and even where they are not they are able to set the agenda, forcing all other parties to play chase to prove the electorate that they too are “tough on immigration.”
With Hedge: A Greater Safety Net for the Entrepreneurial Age, Nicolas Colin has written a much-needed book. In it, he addresses one of the most critical challenges of our time: how to upgrade our social and economic institutions to make the most out of the current technological transformation and spread its benefits as broadly as possible.
Throughout history, the pendulum of political conflict has been swinging between two points: we either fight about society, or we fight within society. When empires advance, or when civilisations clash, the fighting is about what model of the world should dominate. Once the dust settles, the battle moves to what version of the winning model should prevail. That’s where we have been in Europe since the end of WWII.
Ted Chiang has the rare ability to tell stories of deep emotional complexity through a language so simple to appear, at traits, shallow. That’s the trick; that’s the magic of the narrator. In many of his stories, the slow unfolding of the plot carries the reader like an unmanned canoe along a quiet tropical river. The scenery flows monotonous under our eyes. Feeling no friction, we absorb the characters and their lives, their relationships and their thoughts. Without noticing, we are now immersed in their world. The fictional part - a new technology, a breakthrough in AI, an alien arrival - blends in as if we were already familiar with it. We don’t get distracted by silly questions of possibility or probability; we are free to focus on the meaning. The shallowness of the story allows us to find its depth.
In 1986 Harry Frankfurt published the first edition of On Bullshit, the essay that, in the years that followed, was to become the authoritative take on the topic. In it, he lamented the amount of bullshit plaguing every aspect of public life, arguing that production of bullshit was tightly correlated with the increase in opportunities and (perceived) obligations for people to speak their mind, even in the absence of a strong “apprehension of reality”.
Historical analogies are everywhere around us. Open a newspaper these days and you will find: Trump and Brexit compared to the rise of fascism in the 20’s and 30’s, the bitcoin run compared to the dotcom bubble - and the tulip bubble, or any other bubble before that - the AI revolution compared to the electrical revolution, Tesla vs Bigcar compared to Apple vs. Nokia, and many others.
There is nothing more natural - and well deserved - than celebrating an achievement. Celebrations - rewards, more in general - release dopamine and create the desire to feel those emotions again. Achievements beget more achievements.
In November 2008, with the financial crisis in full swing, Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony at the London School of Economics. Facing an audience of high ranked academics, she posed a simple question: “Why did nobody notice it?”