Book Review: Zero to One by Peter Thiel

I’d heard of this book, but never quite gotten around to reading it. That was a mistake, and I’m glad I eventually read the book. It is full of brilliant insights, and is really an incredible learning experience. I have mostly positive things to say about it, but I won’t go into those because enough has been written about how brilliant the book is, and I doubt I have anything new to add there.

However, I do have one piece of criticism to offer. So rather than a structured review, I’m just going to offer a quick reaction to the book here.

In the very first chapter, Thiel proclaims:

“New technology has never been an automatic feature of history. Our ancestors lived in static, zero-sum societies where success meant seizing things from others. They created new sources of wealth only rarely, and in the long run they could never create enough to save the average person from an extremely hard life. Then, after 10,000 years of fitful advance from primitive agriculture to medieval windmills and 16th-century astrolabes, the modern world suddenly experienced relentless technological progress from the advent of the steam engine in the 1760s all the way up to about 1970. As a result, we have inherited a richer society than any previous generation would have been able to imagine.”

This passage struck me as odd, Western-centric, and blithely unaware of Western colonization and its devastating effect around the world. There is clearly a lack of self-awareness here. Let me break this down a little further.

Firstly, Thiel assumes that prior to industrial revolution the average person led an ‘extremely hard life’ without specifying what that means. How was this life hard? As a matter of fact, if there was hardship back in the day, it was, to a great extent, because of technology, and not due to lack of it. We know today that tribal and hunter-gatherer communities, relying on almost no technology, lived in far greater comfort than peasants in agrarian societies. An argument could be made, therefore, that the hardships of our ancestors came about, in large part, due to our ‘primitive agriculture and medieval windmills.’ Because of technology, in other words, rather than dues to its absence.

Thiel’s understanding of the the economics of the ancient world in particular is strikingly Western-centric and lacking in self awareness. Our ancestors, he says, ‘lived in static, zero-sum societies where success meant seizing things from others,’ and they ‘created new sources of wealth only rarely.’ Let’s spell that out: Till 1760, according to Thiel, people stole rather than created wealth. That means wars and violence, rather than trade and industry. And somehow, after 1760, people (and Thiel clearly means white, Western people here) figured out how to generate wealth rather than steal it, by harnessing technologies such as the steam engine.

And while making a sweeping statement like this, he completely ignores the whole phenomenon of Western colonization: the biggest land grab in human history, the biggest captive labor force and slavery ever, and two of the biggest and deadliest wars fought as a result of this very colonization. There is simply no way to deny that from 1760 (or a little before) to all the way till 1960s, most of the Western world was focused on ‘seizing things from others.’ The Western nations probably created wealth too, I’m not economist enough to go into that, but there is a wealth of data out there that shows they also stole a lot of the wealth that powered their prosperity.

There is probably a German word for this phenomenon where you are biased towards the present and towards your own, and find things in the distant past to be wrong, while blindly approving of the things closer to your location in time and space.

In any case, it struck me as odd that Thiel can ignore any number of armed conflicts including two world wars, slave trade, genocide, and centuries of colonization (the entire colonial enterprise being focused on stealing wealth), and proclaim that the Western people figured out how to create wealth during the industrial revolution.

It’s a very casual acceptance of the colonial enterprise, and I find it disappointing that Thiel, who is otherwise extremely self-aware (as the rest of the book shows), should have this blind spot of a Western-centric perspective.

Featured image source.

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