Despite what the popular media may tell you, innovation in the United States is somewhere between dire straits and dead.
That’s the notion Max Levchin says motivated him and co-author Peter Thiel (pictured) to write their upcoming book, “The Blueprint,” slated to come out early next year. The two told attendees of this week’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference that the book will focus on how to fix what they consider a troubling stall in the pace of technological advancement.
On its face, the concept seems like a curious notion, particularly when one considers who’s propounding it. After all, Thiel and Levchin seem like guys who’ve gotten plenty of exposure to innovation, having co-founded PayPal and, in Thiel’s case, gone on as an investor to back some of the most ambitious startups of the past decade, in sectors from social networking to space travel to seasteading.
But listening to Thiel rant about the state of technological progress (something, I get the impression, he spends a lot of time doing), one gets the impression we’re woefully behind schedule. The speed of airline travel, he estimates, is about where it was in 1960 when one factors in the time spent getting through security. As for energy, we’re still stuck in the fossil fuel era and investments in cleantech, so far, are working out disastrously.
“It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say nothing is happening,” Thiel says. “But if you look outside computers and the Internet … we’re no longer moving faster.”
Levchin’s turn as author, meanwhile, follows an unimpressive showing for his last entrepreneurial venture, Slide. Google bought the social media app company last year after the startup’s early growth trajectory petered out amid stepped-up competition from Zynga, Electronic Arts and others.
Today, Levchin says, the fundamental problem with innovation is the lack of big, ambitious, risky projects. While it’s nice that young entrepreneurs can launch new apps with a few dollars and a weekend of coding, it would be nicer if people also devoted more resources to big, hard problems, in areas like space travel or energy technology. Whereas in past cycles, entrepreneurs may have focused too much on hard problems, and not enough on simpler solutions, today the opposite is true.
“The famous speeches that sent us to the moon are few and far between,” he says. And while not all projects start out as practical, the most ambitious research undertakings do tend to spawn innovations that end up being quite useful, he says. “The space program was this incredibly insane and useless idea … but we got all kinds of crazy stuff that came out of the space program.”
Interestingly, Levchin and Thiel, known for his libertarian views, seem to see government as having a role in funding big research projects. Guess it’s just supposed to stay out of everything else.