Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University, recently interviewed Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and investor in Facebook. Here is an excerpt from that interview where Thiel talks about Aspergers being important for innovation and the problems of conformity:
TYLER COWEN: Let me give you my take on how I’ve tried to fit different parts of your thought together. And again, for all you listeners, this doesn’t have to be true. It’s just my mental model of Peter Thiel. That you’re one of a lot of thinkers who takes the idea of original sin — it doesn’t have to be a theological commitment — seriously. Tocqueville wrote in the 19th century that America eventually would evolve to be a land of complacent people who were going to stop believing in original sin and stick to a kind of conformist mediocrity.
So you have taken this to heart. The world out there is deeply weird. Even though there appears to be free entry into ideas production, because of René Girard–like ideas, the people who deviate, someone comes down on them pretty hard. So there’s excess conformity, the original sin in people’s motives gets magnified at the social level. So basically, there are distortions out there. And everything we can see, it’s a gnostic theology, and a relatively small number of people who can see through those distortions can be great entrepreneurs, or can tell the truth about politics.
And it’s all ultimately some kind of bundled, implicitly theological, but not necessarily involving belief in God, but theological perspective about the nature of people. And it ends up spreading to all the different parts of society and that, to me, has been what ties your thought together. But that’s a hypothesis; let’s hear your reaction to that.
PETER THIEL: Let’s see. I think the way original sin normally works is that it resides in individuals, in one way or another. And so theologically, I would place it much more in society. And so I think society is both something that’s very real and very powerful, but on the whole quite problematic. We always run the risk of losing sight of that.
I don’t know if it’s strictly the awareness of it that solves it. Certainly, there probably are some people who are just vaguely oblivious to it, so in Silicon Valley, I point out that many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s where it’s like you’re missing the imitation, socialization gene.
TYLER COWEN: And that’s a plus, right?
PETER THIEL: It happens to be a plus for innovation, and creating great companies, but I think we always should turn this around as an incredible critique of our society. We need to ask, what is it about our society where those of us who do not suffer from Asperger’s are at some massive disadvantage because we will be talked out of our interesting, original, creative ideas before they are even fully formed?
We’ll notice that’s a little bit too weird, that’s a little bit too strange. Maybe I’ll just go ahead and open the restaurant that I’ve been talking about, that everyone else can understand and agree with, or do something extremely safe and conventional, and therefore hypercompetitive, and probably not that great as an idea.
I’d say a lot of these people may not understand this larger theory about society, but they are somewhat oblivious to it, and it pushes progress. Now, certainly my own experience would have been a little bit more where — I grew up in Northern California. It was this hyper-tracked process, where my eighth grade junior high school yearbook, one of my friends wrote in, “I know you’re going to get into Stanford in four years.”
Four years later I got into Stanford, then I got into Stanford Law School. You won all the conventionally tracked competitions; you ended up at a big law firm in Manhattan. From the outside, it was a place where everybody wanted to get in. On the inside, it was a place where everybody wanted to get out.
You ask one of the people down the hall from me, said that it was great to see me leave. I left after seven months and three days, it was great to see me leave. It was like “I had no idea it was possible to escape from Alcatraz.”
TYLER COWEN: What did you learn there?
PETER THIEL: I learned that I was incredibly prone to this problem of social convention. If you want to give it a religious terminology, the psychological terminology would be that I had a rolling quarter life crisis in my mid-20s. The religious terminology, I had a quasi-conversion experience where I realized the value system was deeply corrupt and needed to be questioned.
I do think that one of the ways of challenging convention, one way, the Asperger’s way, is just to be vaguely oblivious to it all, and continue apace. Then I think there is another modality where you just become aware of how conventional our conventions really are, and then that becomes sort of an indirect route of trying to start thinking for yourself.
TYLER COWEN: In your view, perhaps the contemporary world is becoming, I don’t know what the word would be, stranger, or weirder, or more shaped by individuals who are different, precisely because conformity is being piled on other places. So if the movers and shakers would be people who are in some way neuro diverse, then overall, the world is becoming more surprising in a way, right? That’s what we expect at different margins, at different corners. This will accumulate. It may not ever feel like we’re getting out of the great stagnation, but each bit of change we get is in a way a more different change than we would get, say, in 1957, where everything was done with guys with white shirts and starched white collars, hoping they would be able to buy a little pocket calculator someday.
PETER THIEL: I think the innovation that we are getting is driven in strange ways.
I worry that the conformity problem is actually more acute than it was in the ’50s or ’60s, so that the category of the eccentric scientist, or even the eccentric professor, is a species that is steadily going extinct because there is less space for that in our research universities than there used to be.
I worry that perhaps, if anything, it’s a little bit the other way. It’s very hard to measure these things or calibrate them, but I think that in politics, the conventional approach is to simply look at pollsters. What are your positions going to be? You just look at the polls, you figure this out, and it works fairly well.
At the end of the day, that’s probably not how the system really changes. It probably will be changed by some idiosyncratic people who have really strong convictions, and are over time, able to convince more people of them. But whether this means that we have more or less change is hard to evaluate. It always comes from these somewhat nonconventional channels.
An interesting thing to do with this part of the interview is replace Aspergers with masculinity and conformity with feminization. When you do that what Thiel is saying makes just as much sense if not more.
What is going on here is that innovation requires a willingness to buck conformity just as Thiel points out. However, Aspergers (or Autism Level 1 as it is now called in the DSM-5) in many ways is just having an ultra-masculine brain. In other words, innovation is driven by masculinity. On the other hand, conformity is driven by femininity. Thiel points out that the increasing conformity of universities has driven out the eccentric innovative scientist and their Aspergers/ultra-masculine brains. What has happened to universities over the time period Thiel is talking about? They have become feminized so naturally they became conformist and hostile to innovation. That’s why innovation and change comes from nonconventional channels as Thiel points out. That describes the M(H)RM, MGTOW, and #GamerGate.
Thiel also had something to say about Japan and innovation and conformity:
TYLER COWEN: In the back room, we were talking about Japan, and a recent trip of yours to Japan. Maybe you would like to relate some of what you were saying?
PETER THIEL: They always want you to say things that are sort of contrarian and surprising, and so they asked me at this discussion I was giving in Japan. And the answer that I came up with, which was both flattering to the audience, but somewhat disturbing from our perspective, was I think we always think of Japan as this hyper-imitative, noncreative culture of extreme conformity.
My suggestion is that perhaps at this point, Japan is the least conformist, the least imitative country in the world. There’s actually a lot of interesting aesthetic cultural stuff going on, there still is a lot of very successful types of businesses. There’s innovation in food production, all sorts of interesting areas.
But then it’s an indictment of the West, where I think Japan is no longer the Japan of the Meiji Restoration of the 1870s, or the Japan of the cheap plastic imitation toys of the 1950s. It’s a country that no longer thinks it can get that much by copying the West. There’s probably still some narrow interest in IT and software. Outside of that, I think they are copying the US and Western Europe less and less.
People aren’t even learning English that much anymore. They’re speaking less English than they were 15, 20 years ago. The golf courses are all getting shut down and converted to solar farms or something; people don’t even want to play golf anymore. I think we need to take this as a real critique of our society, very seriously, that they’re finding less that’s desirable to imitate in the US or Western Europe.
I’m not sure about the golf thing because golf is also declining in the US, but that’s beside the point. Why would Japan want to copy the West less now? It’s because so much of the West is feminized. The Japanese know better. Thiel points out that the one thing Japan is interested in from the West is IT and software. In other words, Japan only wants to copy things from the West that aren’t feminized.
One thing I have noticed is how much feminists and SJWs hate Japan. This provides an interesting angle of that. Japan is rejecting the feminists and SJWs since they are not innovative and ossified conformists.