One thing I agree with Peter Thiel About: Our Silly Conservatism (To New Ideas)

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I am fearful. Some of my biggest limitations in life have been self-imposed.*

This fear has traditionally led me to play it (read: My life) “safe” or act in “conservative” ways, for example: Why have I been so afraid to pursue writing more seriously?; Why do I reason my way out of talking to that cute woman?; Why do I tend to be emotionally reserved in relationships?**

In the past, I’ve propped myself up with false confidence — think “fake it ’til you make it” — and probably still do to some extent. On the positive, this helped spur action in some cases, but on the whole it set me up with a fragile ego that led to an unwillingness to test or expose myself to too much “danger.” The most nefarious (and surreptitious) effect of having self-limited beliefs has been constraining what I thought was possible through the justification that I should be more realistic.

This applies to cultures and societies too.

The dangers of being realistic

For the larger society, it can be useful to have individuals who are more conservative. Conservatism confers value through structure; it can help create an incubation period for ideas, allows foundations to be set and prevents things from breaking too fast. However, conservatism also leads to mob dynamics and resistance to change.

The issue, as Simone de Beauvoir argues, is that most people are willing to subvert their freedom (whether they recognize it or not) in order to comply with the demands and inherent beliefs of society.*** The average person is readily indoctrinated into the herd… of say, Nazism. The argument of “we were just following orders” didn’t pass muster at the Nuremberg Trials (thank goodness), but the Nazi regime DID utilize systematic propaganda, education, and military codes of conduct to train several generations of the populous to elicit certain behaviors and complicity.

The Nazi party didn’t rise to power due to radical practices, it was inherent conservative psychological tendencies such as following what others were doing and an incremental ratcheting up of measures that helped it to flourish in Germany (the moral of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” if the mouse was a psychopathic dictator). Couple the aforementioned with nationalism, situational psychology (adopting your behavior to the circumstances you are in), a conspiratorial culture, and fear of death or violence from the Gestapo, and yea, you get a lot of people going along for the ride.

I’ll concede the world is round but…

In this day and age we are too risk averse as a species. In the past, our stress response system made sense: We needed to be hyper-vigilant of our surroundings because animals that were larger, faster, stronger than us posed real threats. Other tribes were dangerous. Fight or Flight mattered.**** Food scarcity and droughts were facts of life. Disease could wipe out whole populations.

Today, people don’t even look up from their cell phones as they cross the street. So much for situational awareness.

In America, the clear and present dangers are from diseases related to stress, over-consumption, and living too long, accidents, and self-inflicted demise. Additionally, the former U.S. Surgeon General argued that our greatest health malady may actually be social in nature; loneliness can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s (which you see are among the Top Ten killers). Put another way, loneliness shortens lifespans in a way similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Note that the CDC’s list doesn’t include terrorism or the perils of teaching evolution in school.

I’d posit that conservative beliefs may very well be our greatest existential threat.

Historically, we’ve pilloried heretics for claiming things like the earth revolves around the sun or that the planet is round. Today we laugh at such notions because we can, like, fly around the globe on airplanes and can observe firsthand the roundness, and stuff. So some dangerous beliefs turn out to be true and become widely adopted. Until the next dangerous idea comes along. Deny, deny, deny.

This progression of acceptance is akin to the technology adoption curve, once an idea or technology reaches a certain threshold, a critical mass, it begins to achieve acceptance from the the rest of the population. The majority of people are dragged along to use the technology because eventually the world will move on without you. This resistance may not be thought of as conservatism, but it is far away from eager acceptance, which puts it closer to the conservative end of the spectrum.

On a global scale, the potential for mass demise comes from things like nuclear or biological warfare, super-diseases, natural disasters and drought (exacerbated by global warming), total economic failure, and the sun eventually blowing up…

Some of these challenges can be attenuated or prevented through technology and science. Others through social, political or economic actions. But, we need to be proactive and forward thinking, and invest in solutions appropriate to the circumstances, and not rely on outdated notions or technology because we will be facing problems never before experienced.

Or, we’ve made more progress by promulgating and investing in science and technology than by strictly adhering to the status quo.

Me wonders, what are the self-limiting beliefs of our society today?

Dangerous ideas

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” — Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel argues that we have a fear of pursuing the hard problems, that one of the most tenacious self-limiting beliefs today is that there are no more secrets to be discovered.

If you believe prognosticators, the future of the world is bleak, full of pessimistic Malthusian fears of exploding populations (The WHO predicts the world population to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050), energy shortages, global warming, etc.

Questions abound: How will we feed everyone? How will we ween ourselves from the dependency of oil? How can we maintain global economic growth? (Do we need to?)

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To touch upon food, the Netherlands has harnessed the power of science and technology to become the number two exporter of food (as measured by value) in the world, second to the United States which has 270 times the landmass. Their leading agricultural research university, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), works directly with other nations to develop solutions for specific, localized geographic challenges and needs. And it’s working.

There are other reasons to be hopeful: Quality of life has risen globally, average lifespan has increased from 32 years in 1800 to 70 years in 2012, and we are in the least violent century ever (if you believe Steven Pinker).

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The issue is NOT tech and science — it is not AI, automation, space travel, etc. — today’s challenges are about an imbalance of distribution for infrastructure, technology, money, education, etc. Some of our future problems are likely to be exacerbated by technological advancements (and resulting imbalances), but the benefits tend to far outweigh the downside, and our greatest solutions will certainly arise from the domains of science and technology (in addition to social, political, and economic advancements) as we’ve seen from innovations so far (think antibiotics, global trade, refrigeration, etc.). In the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, many people were displaced and lost their jobs, their livelihoods, but on the whole this wave created more jobs and a greater quality of life.

Fear of the unknown

The hardest outcome to quantify is opportunities lost from not taking the chance, from not pursuing a radical idea. How long did our species look up at the moon and think “we’ll never walk around up there”? Until we did.

What if we just decided there was no need to pursue that wild idea? Or any radical notion?

The fact of the matter is we’ve made tremendous progress in the past few centuries, but it is not guaranteed to continue. Dark Ages arise, world-dominating civilizations fall (bye-bye Rome, Persia, et al.), and we lose ideas, systems of thought, tools; in sum, progress.

But we have a choice as individuals and can help encourage continued development:

Will you take it upon yourself to be open-minded to uncomfortable ideas? Will you examine your own beliefs and ideologies to see if they make sense for you? (And if they do, great! Now you know). Will you approach the world with empathy, courage, and a desire to seek truth?

For me, I’m trying. And yes, I’m afraid and uncertain, anxious and uneasy. I don’t know what my contribution will be (if anything at all), but I’m going to start with an openness to ideas and the pursuit of truth (i.e., not alternative facts).


*Some things you cannot help: You can’t control the circumstances you were born into, for example. But you still have to play the cards you were dealt.

**I’m not arguing for radical selfishness, anarchy, etc. we live in a society and we owe it to each other to respect each other and find a balance between questioning the boundaries and rules as they stand with subordinating ourselves through cooperation for the greater good.

***This type of fear is not unique, many people can claim the same. With that said, I am comfortable taking risks in certain areas, such as joining startups, moving abroad to work, or moving to a new city. But I tend to experience fear in more personal ways, such as doubting if I am indeed lovable (which I’ve overcome to some extent), whether I am good enough, and other ideas of that kind. I do struggle with the tension between aspiring towards change (in myself) while also accepting and appreciating things (myself) as they are.

****Robert Sapolsky argues in “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” that our stress response systems are maladapted to today’s society centered around hyper-stimulation.