A Man is Skeptical of the Innovation Gospel

Peter Thiel on startup culture:

There’s a pessimistic read on the startup culture where you could say that people, it’s not really a typical thing to start something new. That, the large institutions should have far more resources, longer time horizons and so you only need to start something new when none of the existing institutions work. Maybe the fact there’s so much stress on starting new things is the positive tip of the iceberg but the much larger, negative part of the iceberg is that the large, existing institutions are incredibly broken.

To me, this attitude (which Thiel doesn’t necessarily hold) speaks of the belief that tomorrow will be better, must be better. (I wrote about this a few months ago.) Part of what’s going on in this kind of thinking is a denial of history. You have to contort yourself into some really wild intellectual knots to believe that the past was just a bulldozer of scientific, social, and political progress. Rather than face facts, people invent new things.

Josh Gibbs says something similar in his book How to be Unlucky:

The modern man wants every ancient proverb qualified with words like “usually,” “typically,” “generally,” “often,” and “sometimes.” He does not believe there is a way things are. He does not even believe there is a way things tend to be. Rather, he views the world as a series of accidents and arbitrary events. Every thing and every person in the world is atomized, isolated in its being, sequestered off from the habits of existence. Reality has no contours; being has no grooves. The modern man does not believe women are a certain way. He does not believe men are a certain way. He does believe children or kings, farmers or prostitutes are a certain way. He believes that every human being alive is at war with the past, at war with tradition, and thus the modern man believes every farmer is reinventing farming, every kind reinventing dominion, every woman reinventing femininity. Because every farmer is reinventing farming and every woman is reinventing femininity, the terms “woman” and “farmer” are empty. We should not expect the zeitgeist to be content until every weighty word in the dictionary has been gutted. (p. 91)