Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S2. EPISODE 5
The Information Horizon
Featuring Tyler Cowen
What’s coming next? We sit down with a modern renaissance man, economist, and podcaster Tyler Cowen to participate in what he calls his greatest pleasure: information extraction. We pick his brain on everything from mRNA to housing bubbles to literature. “The world,” he tells us, “has never been more optimistic than it is now.”
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? We are here at The Progress Network having an ongoing series of conversations with compelling people. I am Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m here as always with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And today we’re gonna have a conversation that’s a little less focused, a little more broad, and that totally suits the person that we are having the conversation with, who is broad-minded, eclectic, unusual, polymathic, curious, delightful—the kind of person that you really, really, really want to have a long meal with. But in lieu of that, we’re gonna just have a somewhat long conversation with. Emma, tell us a little bit about Tyler Cowen.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Tyler Cowen is the Holbert L. Harris chair of economics at George Mason University and serves as chairman and general director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. With colleague Alex Tabarrok, Cowen is coauthor of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution and cofounder of the online educational platform, Marginal Revolution University. So Zachary, let’s have our conversation with Tyler.
So Tyler, thank you for being with us today and having what I am sure—I feel in my bones—is gonna be one of the epochal conversations of our era.
So, you wrote a book 10 years ago, 11 years ago called The Great Stagnation. And I highlight that—I know you’ve talked about this a lot over the years—because at least nominally, given that we are The Progress Network, that points to, if not the antithesis then certainly in a rather different direction to the notion of progress, which was things tomorrow will be better than things yesterday, and things yesterday were better than the day before, and on and on and on in some seamless, wonderful gallop forward into the future. And while that’s not really my ethos, and it’s not really the ethos of The Progress Network—it’s much more the idea of how do we create the progress that we need, want, and expect, not that there’s some sort of ineluctable, magical pathway, that’s preset, preordained, if you just get the right formula. But I wonder, you have said I think recently, and maybe you can expound on this a bit, that there’s a bit of a “hurry-up, go slow,” or in this case, “go slow, hurry-up,” this period, this kind of caesura between intense growth or intense progress middle of the 20th century into the later part, and then slowing down precipitously until you wrote the book that you feel, particularly with biotechnology and some of the tools of the internet, may be, I guess, reaccelerating. Is that fair? Am I getting that right? And [if not], maybe you can tell me why I’m getting that wrong and and expound on that a bit.
Tyler Cowen (TC): That is correct. My view is that starting in about 1973, rates of economic growth, rates of productivity growth fell noticeably. Now, I think we’re in a different time now, but I’m not entirely sure. Obviously the pandemic came along. So GDP drops a lot, but that’s not a technology problem per se. We do see that mRNA vaccines are created to fix the problem rather rapidly. From my point of view, that counts as about 10 years worth of progress condensed into a pretty small number of months. Now that doesn’t mean major advances will continue, but it’s actually my best guess that they will. So we will see.
Ross Douthat just wrote a New York Times column in January where he says well, we had this chance to get out of the mess, but actually we’re being dragged back into it. I’m more hopeful than that.
ZK: Emma, you highlighted, I think in one of the newsletters that we put out, the degree to which—and obviously other people have been highlighting this as well—the mRNA technology: we’re totally focused, as we should be, for this two-year period on what it’s done in terms of COVID vaccines. But what that opens up for everything else is just extraordinary. Monumental. Who knows where that will all lead.
TC: And it seems to be more than just mRNA vaccines
Malaria vaccines are in advanced stages. There’s talk of fixing a lot of sickle cell anemia. There’s serious talk about fixing dengue, which would all be major advances. And I think the common thread is a kind of democratization of access to extreme computing power amongst scientists, and also that scientists can use—whether it’s WhatsApp or Twitter or just plain old email—they use information technology to communicate with each other much more rapidly, find talent, draw talent from many parts of the world. And when good things like that happen, I think it actually takes much longer to turn them into final stuff than a lot of people think. But there’ve been a lot of positive headwinds, maybe for two decades, that have sort of looked really good, made for cool articles in The Atlantic, but didn’t quite get converted into stuff. And now my intuition is the mRNA vaccines are not even the main thing. They’re just the first thing we see. And they’re a big deal. They should be a big deal because they work now, against this terrible threat. But I think there’s much more coming. And again, it’s the final development of trends that had been in the works for 20 years.
EV: Do you have any sense of what else might be coming? Because like you’re saying, we’ve seen the proof in the pudding of mRNA. Outside of mRNA, what do you think those applications that Zachary talked about that are opening up to us, what are we looking at into the future here?
TC: I think artificial intelligence is a somewhat misused term. It is too broad. But you look at something like GPT3, you talk to people who are working on advanced AI, you very much get the feeling that much of that is coming to fruition. I think the largest tech companies, obviously they benefit from scale. That means overall they’re much more productive when they get to a very large size. And we’re in a period now where they’ve been at stably very large sizes for a while. I think just accruing [inaudible] from scale, from ordinary consumer retail tech. I think our talent search, the number of talented people we find in South Asia, especially India, is relatively new. And that’s gonna change the world. Just like getting American scientists into the game changed the world for the British. So I don’t think it’s just one trend. I think it’s many trends, mostly stemming from the internet. They just take longer to really work than many people think. But you can find their roots in the 1990s.
ZK: That raises an interesting question, which is, if the consolidation of these mega tech players, which also then gives them certainly more cash in hand for types of moonshot AI or moonshot R&D—and you certainly saw this with Google and Google X—that could suggest that the moves toward breaking these companies up, both in the United States and the curtailing of them and China, because obviously the Chinese internet giants like Baidu and Alibaba have also been significant investors and players in this particular space, could you make an argument that for whatever the competitive benefits of antitrust activity that they may not be so good for research development and the progression of the things that you’ve just alluded to?
TC: I don’t wanna split up any of those companies. So you think of Google, right? Well, now Alphabet, but what was Google, Gmail is free. Google Maps, right? Parts of the advances behind driverless cars come through Alphabet, formerly Google. So again, those are pretty major advances. There was a January announcement from Meta, formerly Facebookthat Meta would soon have the world’s fastest supercomputer. Now, I don’t know much about that. Maybe it won’t amount to much. But it’s like, hey, it’s something to sit up and take notice of. Amazon still delivers you an incredible variety. Super reliable delivery was a kind of lifesaver during the pandemic. So I think those are great companies. I think we should be supporting them, not attacking them for the most part. I’m not saying I agree with everything they do, but the overall cost-benefit calculus is highly favorable.
EV: Tyler, can you actually do me a favor and go back and explain what GPT3 is? Because it’s not a term I’m familiar with, and I’m curious what the potential is there.
TC: GPT3 is an artificial intelligence tool that basically can create very smart text much better than you might think. So for instance, a friend of mine scanned the text record of things I’ve written and said, like the transcripts of my podcasts, and scanned the text record of things Donald Trump had said, and used GPT3 to create an imaginary dialogue between myself and Donald Trump. The computer is doing it. And it was remarkable how good it was and how close it came to what I would imagine such a dialogue to be like. Now, that’s a kind of trivial, fun, personal use. But the extent to which what we broadly call AI is not just doing number crunching, but it does things that look like thinking, and it’s working that has been happening faster over the last decade than most people had been expecting. Again, a lot of it hasn’t been converted into final stuff yet.
I wanna stress that point. But I think we’re on the verge, the next five, 10 years, you’ll be seeing actual things in your lives. Or just like translation, right? From one language to another. That’s working pretty well. In three years, it will be much better. It was already the case three years ago, pre-pandemic, I could go to China, use my smartphone in the taxi, translate everything using a simple program—they had the app, I had the app. It’s gonna be more of that. It will be better. It will be quicker. It will be like that Star Trek universal translator. I just see much more of that on the way. And it will actually matter for our lives and not just be cool articles, like in Wired.
ZK: The camp that talks about the massive dangers of sentient AI, or more sophisticated AI… And, you know, some of the people who are most agitated at the potentials of AI are people who have been in this world. You know, people like Kai-Fu Lee and some of the people at Google who are… I mean, Elon Musk, of course, on any given day Elon Musk will say three different things, all of which contradict each other. So I’m not sure exactly where he stands on that. But there is, particularly amongst people in Silicon Valley, a high level of anxiety about the potential cliched unlocking, unleashing that genie, and what it will do, whether or not we’re gonna be in some sort of Isaac Asimov iRobot, you know, we’ll create these tools that will protect us at the cost of our freedom. Do you feel that there is anything there, or is that just another moment in time where human beings panic inordinately about the downside, Brave New World promises of technology?
TC: I think it’s hard to judge from this distance. And it’s hard for me to judge as a non-specialist. But even the doomsayers I observe, they’re all along the market, right? They hold portfolios of different. They make venture capital investments. I don’t mean to call them hypocrites. I don’t think they are. I think they’re fully sincere in their worries, but at the end of the day, they’re acting selves, I suspect, represent their real views. And I would just say my main worry is humans using weapons, including AI of course, cyberwarfare, nuclear weapons, and destroying each other. And that’s been a recurring theme in human history. That is not a speculative worry. So whatever you think of “Skynet goes live,” there’s still this rather extreme danger that humans will use current and pending weapons to achieve immense acts of destruction. And I think we should be much more worried about that. So I would say focus our worry on the thing that we’re sure is a big danger. “Skynet Goes live” might be a worry on top of that, but before the AI gets that smart, just having humans use it for nefarious purposes. Any new technology is also a weapon, right? I don’t have the fixes for that.
EV: Speaking of new tech, how do you see, you know, crypto and Web3 and all of this stuff fitting into this picture? I saw an article recently that was like, it’s not just you, everybody’s completely confused by Web3 and crypto. That’s how I feel. I’m wondering how you feel about it.
TC: You know, for quite a few years I was a crypto skeptic. It looked to me like a bubble, or some parts of it a scam. Some parts still are a scam, of course. But over time, I’ve grown increasingly optimistic. I now call myself a crypto hopeful. I’m not convinced, but I see the potential. And if you look at something like decentralized finance, the notion that we could achieve, you know, savings, borrowing, and lending, maybe across the globe from richer people to poorer people with higher rates of return, in essence, through software, with fewer barriers, less regulation… We still need to make it happen. But I think that’s a very real and concrete and tangible use case. There’s a very good chance it can work. I’m worried the regulators will kill it or overly restrict it, but it’s been around too long at too high a price to be a bubble, right? So the market could be wrong, but we definitely need to take it seriously. And the notion that you will be able to have a new system of property rights and contracts and lending and financial arrangements and payments online, at a much lower cost, I think the chance of that now is, say, 60/40. So again, I’m cautiously hopeful about crypto and Web3.
ZK: And of course, it can simultaneously have aspects of a bubble and be transformative.
I mean, people have written about bubbles over the years that they can be actually—you know about this better than anyone—ways for sort of crowdfunding with a little bit of hysteria things that ultimately require massive investment to be transformative. So it’s true that a lot of people lose their money, the railroads being the best example, but they actually got the railroads built, which paved the way for the next transformative moment, somewhere to the telecom bubble of the late 1990s.
TC: And that’s the most likely scenario for crypto in my view. Most of it will end up as a waste and lose money. That’s true of most things. It was true of the earlier years of the internet. But some of it will stick and be really important.
EV: I’m dying to ask now, since you mentioned that you think some of it’s a scam, what parts do you think are a scam?
TC: Well, there are so many crypto assets out there. I mean, more than I can count, right? And whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic on a given day, I’m really pretty sure most of them won’t last. And that’s fine. Most rock bands don’t make it, right? Most novelists don’t make it. There’s nothing new in that, nothing wrong with that. But that said, with crypto in particular, there is this lure of easy money that makes people gullible or overly confident. And I think we’ll even see it to a more extreme degree than we have in a lot of other areas. So if you’re an individual, be cautious. But from a social point of view, I would just say, it’s not surprising. You know, let’s try to get more of the better side of it and less of the scams. And that starts with user education.
EV: Yeah. It’s not like you put your money on an aspiring novelist, so…
ZK: Well, some people put their money on aspiring novelists.
TC: Yeah. Publishing houses do. [laugh]
EV: A very small circle of people. [laugh]
ZK: So I’m curious about some of what you’ve talked about in terms of GDP growth as a normative good and a necessity. This is something I’ve written about, you’ve written about, thought about for a while. We had a conversation a while back with Diane Coyle, who’s written a lot about the limitations of GDP and different ways of looking at something,
And without belaboring, the question of has GDP been an appropriate proxy for overall societal advancement and good, which you’ve written cogently about and is likely to be the case, I have the question of whether or not that will continue to be the case, particularly in a 21st-century world, where one of the great unexamined challenges is going to be depopulation. It’s gonna be the first time in modern human history, if not ever, that we know of where the population of the world, maybe since the Great Death of the 14th century, 13th century, where the population will shrink. And it raises the question of Japan, right? Has Japan’s zero GDP growth, or almost zero GDP growth, for the past decade plus really been a negative? And can you have higher levels of individual and collective affluence if it’s gonna be a population contraction? You might not really have much GDP growth, and yet you will have many of the things the beneficial aspects of technological, material advancement, particularly given the deflationary aspects of technology. So what do you make of that? Because again, you’ve looked at GDP as a pretty good proxy for more GDP is better for society, less GDP is… More GDP growth is better, less GDP growth is worse.
TC: I do view depopulation as a major problem. I would stress that many poorer societies face already the same problem: Iran, Mexico—actually, most of them outside of Africa. I’m not sure how to fix it, but I would wager this, that the countries that do the best job fixing it are the wealthier countries, who (a) can afford it for a while, who (b) you know, some form of birth subsidies works, as it has in France, but hasn’t in many places. It’s the wealthy countries that can afford it. Whatever innovations we might come up with, whether in childrearing or whatever, again, I think the wealthier countries will be there first. So it’s an underrated problem. I suspect we will solve it one way or another, if only for Darwinian reasons that over time, people who really like having kids become a larger share of the population. But we need to get on it. If I were a South Korean, I’d be very worried. They have one of the world’s lowest fertility rates.
ZK: But can you imagine a world that is more Japan-ish, in that shrinking and/or stagnant populations with high levels of technology and high levels of material affluence can be stable. There’s not the same fight for resources. Resources end up being, if not plentiful, then exceed, you know, the amount of humans clamoring for them. So why does it have to be a negative per se?
TC: I don’t think it’s stable. You have too many countries losing influence, losing geopolitical power. You will have some countries, arguably the United States, doing a pretty good job of taking in immigrants. And those countries won’t have shrinking populations. Most resource problems become better with higher wealth and more innovation and more people. Not all of them. You can’t say that about carbon emissions. But as we’ve had, say, many more people, basically the price of food has gone down, the price of most good environmental amenities has gone down, not up, people live with cleaner air, we can afford the proper kinds of regulation. I can imagine countries that have super tight norms, they’re highly ordered—Japan is an example—they don’t have too much debt., they might live with a declining population… But even when I go to Japan, it strikes me as a less fun place than it was a few decades ago. I think there’s just less spark, less dynamism. I don’t want to live in that kind of society that always feels like it’s on the decline. And that’s an important part of the picture too.
EV: It’s an interesting problem to ask about solutions for, right? There’s a really interesting article in Works in Progress Magazine that was called “Natalism for Progressives,” and why we should, you know, be looking at this issue. And for me, the sort of missing voice in this conversation, if we take this problem to be the problem in Tyler’s view, is motherhood is a really tough sell. For someone who’s coming from a fairly affluent country and just speaking a little bit personally, like, it does not look that appealing, and I don’t know how to solve for that. Because it’s more of a cultural problem than it is necessarily… Well, there’s also an economic problem that maybe could be solved by something like subsidies, but it’s also a cultural issue. Like, why would I wanna necessarily go through that?
TC: Our daughter just had a baby. So I see firsthand how difficult some things can be. If I look back at history, in the 1920s, there was a fertility crisis, and people asked, you know, when, or why will people want to start having children again? I suspect it will take big social changes. But if I look, say, at France. France is back to a total fertility rate of two. England—I’m not sure about the whole UK—but at least England is back to a total fertility rate of two. I don’t think we’re gonna get to three, but getting to two is not utopian. We have two highly successful Western countries that have done it already. Doesn’t mean they’ll keep it. So, I think religion may come back in our world. That will probably encourage people to have more children. We will see. And the notion that very advanced technologies—not things on the margin, but very advanced—may lead us to create children in ways we’re not currently considering. I think sooner or later that will happen, whether or not we think it’s an entirely wise way to go.
ZK: Well, [a total fertility rate of] two would simply maintain population at a fairly static level, right? We would not see what we’ve seen for the past 200 years, which is the population of the world went from barely a billion, probably less than a billion in 1800, and then basically hockey-sticked until the present, and clearly is not gonna reach UN projections, which at one point, you know, turn of the millennia, were for 12 billion by 2050, which seems highly unlikely at this point. And that was a cause of great anxiety, right? I mean, these things have oscillated from the tenor you’re taking now, which is that depopulation, or barely stagnant population, is a problem from a period of time, 20, 30 years ago, where the widespread assumption was that overpopulation was a critical threat to resources, to the planet, to our ability to feed, you know, kind of a Malthusian Trap redux.
TC: I would note in Africa, population is still rising. So if the West and Asia were static… African fertility rates have not declined with income the way many people had been expecting. I’m not sure why that is, and it may just be some kind of lag, but that will repopulate the world over time, you know, in all these scenarios.
ZK: Right. Unless it changes. And I think Nigeria is already shifting into a much lower year of population growth than it was, it being among the more affluent… I mean, it may be completely corrupt and have government problems. Although, these days, one kind of looks around the world and goes, “Who doesn’t?” I think our days of lecture in the world about, you know, their corruption and government problems are clearly… We should clearly take a pause on that particular narrative.
TC: There are a lot of different countries in Africa, a lot of different experiments. So you could have many of them, you know, approach say replacement fertility, and you’d have still quite a few others that were not. Many of those countries are large, larger than they look on the map, which distorts their size. So I think there’s a lot of what you would call population vitality in Africa, under most scenarios, even if you think the more successful countries sort of follow the path of, say, Mexico or other wealthier, poorer countries that have seen sharply defining fertility.
EV: Tyler, I wanna ask you a question, not as an economist, but as a sort of prodigious gatherer of information. I feel like what you do on Marginal Revolution and on your podcast is like sort of a modern-day Renaissance man, in terms of the breadth of topics that you cover. And I’m curious if there’s a topic that you’ve changed your mind about recently, where either you were like, “you know what, I was really wrong about this,” or with deeper thought you were like, “actually, this is where I’m gonna go.”
TC: I would say on most topics, I’ve changed my mind. We mentioned crypto already, right? What I view as this impending phenomenal set of advances in biomedicine, I wouldn’t say I was skeptical 10 years ago, I just wasn’t sure. And now I’m pretty sure that it’s happening. The causes of the financial crisis of 2008, 2009, that I’ve changed my mind on two or three times. I now think it actually wasn’t much of a housing bubble. Look at how those prices have come back. They were like a little bit ahead of their time, but everyone was so upset. Like, “oh my goodness, we built too many homes. How could we have made that mistake?” And I was hanging my head like a sheepdog. “Oh, I didn’t see that one.” But it turns out, most of those homes we should have built. Some regions clearly did go crazy, near Orlando, near Las Vegas. But for the most part, the problem, I think, was a kind of panic over real estate that was unjustified. Not that it was that much of a bubble. So that’s a mind change. First. I thought, no big problem. Then everything fell apart. And I was like, oh my God, how did I miss this one. And now with a bit more time, I’m like, you know, I was sort of right in the first place. Not exactly right. I certainly didn’t see the panic. But to think, you know, we should be building most of these homes that seems like correct view again. So on most things, I changed my mind. You’re welcome to ask for more topics.
ZK: Well, the panic was fueled by the derivative exposure around housing, meaning the housing bubble in and of itself—there had been multiple housing bubbles that had gone up and gone down. And, you know, for instance, there had been multiple housing bubbles in the Chinese real estate market. End of 2021, there was, you know, a good bit of concern over the largest property developer in China, Evergrande, going out of business. But if you look at China over the past 30 years, there’ve been these really sharp real estate bubbles forming. And then the government pops them. Societies can handle—it’s not fun to be on the wrong end of that particular equation—but they can handle real estate bubbles. It was this sort of massive derivative magnification of it, which could have been around anything, it just happened to be housing.
TC: Oh, sure. But if housing hadn’t crashed, we wouldn’t have had the derivatives problem. But we also learned we can patch up that problem. And maybe we weren’t sure, like in October of 2008. But once it happened, it was still ugly, but it’s like, hey, the fed did this. They mostly made the money back. Derivatives are zero sum. Like, if you have enough credibility and political will, you can at least put your fingers in the dike. And we did. And it sort of worked, right? Worked enough compared to how bad it looked at the time.
ZK: So on Emma’s question of, you’re someone who’s often at the epicenter of a lot of different ideas and a lot of different discussions, economical and cultural and psychological, you name it, there is a tendency, I think in contemporary America, particularly in high levels of political polarization, to look back to some time where ideas were engaged in some arena with boundaries and that at the end of it, everyone could kind of agree that that was a good argument and then go have a drink. And that there’s a perception that whatever that was isn’t anymore. Having been in the fray of people having heated debates, whether it’s theories of economics, whether it’s housing bubble, whether it’s, you know, should we spend more, should we spend less, do you feel that that’s true? Or is that a look backwards through rose-tinted glasses?
TC: I think every age has its pluses and minuses. So I was recently looking at some older issues of The New York Times in the 1960s. It’s remarkable, for a long time, how little they discussed the Vietnam War. That was a huge mistake in my view, that war. Today, it wouldn’t last a week on Twitter. [Laugh] So, there’s other problems with Twitter, which I wouldn’t deny, but it’s all comparative. And the idea that there was once… Like Walter Cronkite was so wise, you know, until pretty late in the war, very few Americans spoke out against the war or knew it was terrible.
And again, that wouldn’t happen today. You might have too many critics of different things we do, right, to allow a level of trust. But there never was a golden age. I agree.
EV: To me, it seems like one of the problems with this age is the overflow of information. And that strikes me in terms of the breadth of topics that you cover as well, that you must go through just enormous amounts of information, and you’re able to connect the dots, you’re able to synthesize. And it seems to me like a really important skill just for everybody in this day and age, to able to do that. Because I hear a lot of people talking about just simple overwhelm. Do you think that’s an implicit talent or is that something that can be learned? And do you think that people who are being born now are going to have that capacity at greater levels than the rest of us?
TC: I do think of myself as a kind of information arbitrageur. I think some of it can be learned, but some of it is a natural skill, that I can read very quickly. So I can read, like, not just a little faster than most people, but really a lot faster. And I mean to people of comparable education. And that’s just luck. I was born with that. But I think you can conceive of social media as a kind of computer. And if you know how to tap the keys, you can extract truth from it. But you can also tap the keys in different ways and be badly misled or manipulate other people. So what I observe is the variance increasing. I’m not sure about the average or the mean. But sort of the smart people are getting smarter and the people who believe screwed up things, there’s more rabbit holes for them to go down to, that seem to be getting more and more screwed up. So that higher variance worries me. But I think if you’re dedicated to being, you know, on the better side of that distribution, you can do way better than ever before. That’s, like, a lot of people. It’s not just a few people.
ZK: Do you read more quickly for pleasure as well? I find when I’m in kind of information extraction mode, I’m content to speed up the process. But if I wanna luxuriate in a story or history that I don’t know or prose that is particularly intoxicating, I’m much less likely to want to gallop through it.
TC: It’s all pleasure for me. Information extraction is my greatest pleasure. But that said, more concretely, I don’t think I read Proust that much faster than other people. Maybe a little, but not much.
ZK: Particularly not in the French.
TC: I read it in German, which was interesting. I think it was better in German than English. Partly because the German forced me to slow down all the more, and I enjoyed it more.
I love this quote, that information extraction is your greatest pleasure.
ZK: I wonder about the noise of media and sort of computer media. And we’re a little bit guilty as charged in adding to the noise, or at least part of The Progress Network goal was to amplify noise that we thought wasn’t noisy enough and tone down the noise that we think is too noisy. But I’ve been wondering about too much consumption of variegated sort of online, shorter media and not enough consumption of books. Because no matter how quickly you do any of this, right, you’re still making a choice of a minute spent that you cannot duplicate, right? You get one choice of your one minute. So do you think that there’s more value in books? Like, if you had to apportion your time between, you know, books and long-form magazines and podcasts and news, whatever that means, like all the noise on the internet, how would you do it?
TC: I don’t know. I try to do both like all day long, all night long. A lot of books aren’t that good, right? They should be much shorter. They’re boring, they’re too academic, whatever. And a funny way books are overrated, and there’s a lot of smart people who aren’t on Twitter at all. And they just, like, don’t even know what’s going on, right? It would be like not having any media almost. So that also seems wrong to me. I think you have to ask, like, what’s your individual position. But I don’t always come down in favor of books. You know, I can read 20, 30 books and be disappointed like 20, 30 times in a row. That’s not so unusual. Every day, Twitter’s fun. And it’s fun because it’s, for me, information extraction, to get back to that. So I think it’s Twitter that’s grossly underrated by smart people.
ZK: So the pushback on Twitter as being a pit of unmitigated id, where people are not interested in engaging ideas, but they are interested in the loudest ad hominem, the most pithy put-down, you have a more hopeful take on Twitter. Obviously we have a more hopeful take on Twitter.
TC: No, that’s totally true. That’s totally true, what you said. But it’s like the bubbles, like the railroads get built, right? So Twitter’s all those things. If you wanna use it well it’s one of the greatest educational resources humans have ever built, along with YouTube.
EV: It’s a curation game. Like, if you follow the right people on Twitter… I also, I didn’t really get on Twitter until we launched The Progress Network. And undoubtedly Twitter has made me much more informed and smarter. Because we happen to be running an organization where I had to create a list of insanely smart and informed people. And then I became, you know, smarter and more informed. So if you use it well, I agree. Like, it’s incredible. If you don’t use it well, well, yeah, you fall in the traps. But I do wonder about books as a… You know, aren’t they supposed to be an artistic experience, and they’re supposed to be a lived experience as far as reading them. And I wonder about kind of what Zachary was pointing out a little bit, that the internet and the alacrity of information coming at you has broken our attention spans a little in terms of especially reading fiction books.
TC: Well, if I look at some recent novels, you know, you have Ferrante’s four volumes. They’re masterful. I think they’re as great as, say, the great 19th-century novels. You have the first two volumes of Knausgaard, My Struggle, which are quite long. Again, I would put those in the top tier of literary works, you know, in the last few centuries. And both of those are like very recent. So what else will stand the test of time? Like, you know, maybe Houellebecq; those are shorter, but like Submission is wonderful. There’s plenty coming out. I’m just not so pessimistic about it. Latin American fiction over the last few decades. So, I just don’t see that books are dead. I don’t see the long form is dead. You can have different opinions. Like there’s always been dry spells. Like you have Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. That’s like amazing. Then there’s a while. Like, there’s never really been anyone up to those people as composers. Like, that’s okay. There’s still incredible music of all sorts in later eras.
ZK: It’s funny. I think I got through two and a half volumes of Knausgaard, and while I was reading it, all I could think to myself was “why am I reading these books?” Like, what is drawing me into this often mundane, you know, moment-by-moment digression of this individual’s life who is not leading an incredibly fascinating life. We all presumably lead incredible lives, or at least we all narcissistically believe that we are leading incredible lives. But there was a degree of, I’m reading it, and I’m drawn in, in a kind of like watching paint dry sort of way. I was confused at myself.
EV: I’m actually curious about us as readers. Like, if we’ve lost the ability to read long form, rather than the artistic worth of the product. Because I look around at people my age, and I don’t see a lot of people my age reading War & Peace for fun. Not because they’re not in interested, but because it’s just, frankly, incredibly long, and their attention spans don’t work like that anymore.
TC: Well, Harry Potter books have been very popular. They’re very long. I don’t love them personally. I suspect we’re seeing a hallowing out of the middle. Like people love the very long, like Lord of the Rings, the very short, TikTok videos. But again, every era does better at different things. If we do worse at some things, as long as we’re innovating in other ways, and I think we are, you know, gaming would be one example I’m fine with that. You’re not gonna have Russian novels every decade get better and better.
EV: Yeah, I’m a bit of a romantic about that [laugh].
TC: Yeah. As Tolstoy recedes into the past maybe it just gets less attention. But look, people I know have read it. It’s not some secret that you can’t get. Maybe too many people used to read it and were bored. And now like just the right number of people are reading it. I’m not sure, but I’m just saying, like, I don’t just always assume more Tolstoy readers is this good thing? I don’t think it is.
EV: That’s fair.
ZK: So flitting from thing to thing, we’re living in this era of relative abundance, comparatively to human history, caloric health. Even the pandemic has been a massively disruptive human event, but in terms of sheer lethality relative to things that killed lots of people at multiple times in the past, you know, this does not rank up there in the global league of worst case scenarios for humankind. But you’d be hard-pressed to find that sentiment in much of the world. I mean, it’s hard to know what Chinese public opinion is. For a while, it seemed like people in China appreciated the fact that political freedoms may be completely absent, but in terms of material security and conditions, it was probably better to be in China at any point in the 2010s than it would’ve been at almost any point in the 19th or 20th century. And people tended to feel that way, right, viscerally. Why do you think that there is—certainly in the face of economic abundance, badly distributed inequalities, absolutely—is an increasing amount, particularly in the most affluent parts of the world of despair and disgruntledness and dyspepsia?
TC: First, I’m never sure what is the absolute level of despair. It’s very hard to measure. There are many extreme claims made about it. Most of those claims in my view are unsupported. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I think the world as a whole—again, the immediate demands of COVID aside—probably has never been as optimistic as it is right now, or has been in the last five years. Certainly if you look at social indicators for educated Americans, they’ve mostly been going up. Now, alternatively, it’s a huge problem that for those without a college education or high school education, they’ve often been going down. But the fact that for so much of the country they’ve been going up suggests that the story is not pure despair, but rather there’s some kind of split. We need to think of ways of getting more people across that divide. That’s like a super large problem. It may be our number one problem. I don’t have the fix for it. But all of a sudden it sounds pretty doable, and there’s more talent today than ever before more technology. Like, I think we can make very real progress on that.
EV: Well, Tyler, you made a point, I think it was on Bari Weiss’s podcast—that I saw on Twitter—that I really loved…
[Audio Clip Begins.] TC: So as Andy Warhol pointed out, you know, basically I drink the same Coca-Cola that Bill Gates does. I think my smartphone is as good as his laptop. You know, maybe it’s a bit better or he optimizes it in some ways, but you know, I’m in the running now. So he can fly private and he can buy, you know, a Paul Cézanne painting that I can’t. But in terms of actual living standards, there’s much more equality than either income or wealth numbers are going to indicate. [Audio clip ends.]
EV: And I found that point like strangely psychologically comforting. And I was wondering how to, you know, sort of expand that point into the narrative a little bit more.
TC: Well, I would even trump my own point. I think I have a better life. Because he is lacking in freedom. People of that level of wealth typically have to go around with security details. And yes, I’m sure you get used to it, but I think it’s an unpleasantness, both having the detail around you and the fact that you need the detail. That doesn’t go away. You can’t just wander through public and do what you want to do. I can do that. I’ll be able to do that for the rest of my life. Now, is that worth more than, say, A+ quality yachts and a private jet and some other things, like, you get the world’s best brain surgeon if you need it. I suspect it is. Fewer people hate me. There’s millions of people out there right now who think Bill Gates is trying to control their brain with a microchip or… Again, he may be used to that to a considerable degree, but it’s not like you grow up wishing, “gee, I hope millions hate me for wanting to control their brains with microchips.” Like it’s a bad thing. And it’s not his fault. But he suffers under that. Even I suffer under things like that a bit, actually. But not like he does. So arguably, I have a better life.
ZK: It’s an interesting point you make about, it’s unclear how much despair and pessimism there is. And you know, there are public opinion surveys. Gallup, as you know, has done, I guess for 70, 80 years “how do you feel about the economy?” and you come up with a plus or minus, you know, the differential between the amount of people feeling good and the amount of people feeling bad. And certainly they’ve, other than the 1990s, it’s been pretty much downhill from there in terms of sentiment about how the economy is doing. It’s been pretty negative. It actually started crawling back into pretty positive territory toward the end of 2019. Then there’s the partisanship around it, right? Democrats think the economy sucks when a Republican is in the White House, and Republicans think the economy sucks when a Democrats in the White House. But it is still an interesting point of, are we amplifying divisions and partisanship and despair mostly because the public arenas where we get to have those conversations are either the media or politics, both of which put a premium on conflict and not the opposite.
TC: I don’t think we should jump at either the optimistic Steven Pinker view or all the negative views out there. I think we genuinely don’t know. But some of it may be our standards have gone up. So if you asked me when I was 23, like, “Tyler, how good is your record collection?” I would’ve said, “oh, it’s awesome.” Like, it was sort of good for a 23-year-old. Now I have a much better music collection. You ask me how good it is. And I’d be like, “well, I’ve spent a lot of time on YouTube.” You know, I’m glad I have YouTube and everything. Because compared to that, like my collection, it’s actually kind of puny, but I enjoy more music, more time, more choice than when I was 23. But if you ask me like, how good is your stuff? I’d be like, “well, you know, YouTube’s better.” So I’m not saying that’s the only thing going on here. But I think it’s very hard to draw inferences from what people say. Very hard.
ZK: Well, I mean, on the record collection thing, I mean the joke is when you were 23, someone would come over, and you would say, “do you wanna listen to some music?” And they would say, “sure, what do you have?” And you’d show them your collection, right? Today, someone comes over and you say, “do you wanna listen to some music?” And if they bother to ask, “what do you have?” The answer is “everything. I have everything.” Because all I need to do is go into any app, you know, Spotify—I guess Spotify doesn’t have Neil Young anymore…
TC: [Laugh] But satellite radio does, right?
ZK: But basically you have everything. And that’s true increasingly for everything. It’s the Bill Gates point, right? In many of the things that we want and need, we all have everything of. And I’m not sure human beings are wired for that, right? We’re kind of wired for scarcity.
TC: I think we will learn how to deal with it. I think this new world, the value of having self control is much higher. Like drugs are more intoxicating, more addictive than they used to be. Marijuana is stronger. There’s some better types of alcohol available to get addicted to. Better ways of wasting your time. Pornography is everywhere online. And people who stay disciplined, you know, stick to their information extraction, that’s not everyone. They have a huge advantage, and we need to learn to get more people across that divide and teach more people beneficial self-control. It’s one reason why I think religion might make a comeback.
EV: I think, too, what helps is like a shock to the system of realizing everything that’s at your fingertips. I live in Greece now, and I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to people that I can only watch Netflix, that there is no Amazon. And it’s really true that you do not realize how convenient your life is when you live in a country that truly has everything, until you don’t.
ZK: Is the absence of Amazon starting to erode your resolve to remain in Greece?
EV: No, I actually really like it for a few different reasons. One is that there’s a delayed gratification that, you know, your packages don’t come in two days. They come in three weeks. Maybe. If you’re lucky. But then when they do come, you’re so excited. It’s so much more exciting than an Amazon package coming. And you really feel like you accomplished something, like you’re really receiving something of value,
ZK: Which is sort of Tyler’s point, learning how to ration, learning how to appreciate what is and not just leap at it because it’s all there.
TC: This might be what I would use as my standard, but I get that it’s highly imperfect: If you just ask the simple question to people who are migrating with their whole lives—for the rest of their lives, they’re bringing their kids, their future grandkids—to the extent that they have free choice, where do they wanna go? I think that’s the best standard we have for like which societies are good or well-run or make sense. And if you look at where they want to go, I mean, you know this, it’s no surprise. It’s like North America, London, et cetera. And I think that’s overall the right answer. Like those are better places for all their problems.
ZK: Yes. Well, let’s hope that the United States in particular remains receptive to that draw and doesn’t go in the direction that it’s gone in in the 1920s and has done in the 1880s, where we translate our own insecurity about social cohesion and economic future into a “please don’t come.”
TC: But even if we don’t let them come. The fact that they want to tells us something, right?
ZK: Well, that’s true. That’s true. The aspirational part is indicative of something, even if we’re not as receptive to it.
TC: And I put more weight on that than like what current whiny Americans say when you ask them, “are you happy?” That matters a little, but I don’t know. Like, your own answers are… You’re talking about other issues in your life, so often. And you’re trying to build out some emotional portfolio. You say things aren’t that great so you’re not that disappointed. And it’s this very complex kind of managing your own emotions game. But just ask like an emigre from Mumbai with an engineering degree, what country do they actually want to go to? I put more weight on that.
ZK: So final valedictory question for you. You mentioned that you have a granddaughter now. And this is probably not the simplest question, but I’m sure, given you, that you’ve thought about some of this, which is, if you had to think about the world you want 30 years from now, when that granddaughter is a young woman, what world do you want and what world do you think is likely for that person?
TC: Well, a lot of her initial contacts with the outside world will come through school systems, right? I want her to have school systems that give a damn about their students more than so many of ours seem to have over the last two years. That’s like my big immediate want. I do see a lot of progress in the works on this issue. A lot of people upset, people taking action. People sort of have woken up and realized the system doesn’t really stand for them and their kids. I don’t think those final outputs of the solutions have been delivered. But that they are delivered in time, by the time she’s going to school, that’s really what I want.
ZK: Well, I certainly hope we get our collective act together on that score as well. So Tyler, thank you so much for having this conversation. You’re one of these people who, you know, this would be much better over a meal and wine for several more hours. But given the limitations of podcasts and virtual wine and dinner not being nearly as satisfying, I think we’ll have to leave it as an open conversation for the future.
TC: But we’ll see each other again. And nice to meet you, Emma.
EV: Nice to meet you as well, Tyler.
TC: It was an honor to do this with you all.
EV: Thank you so much.
So that was a lot of fun. Hopefully we covered as much breadth as Tyler does himself on his website and his podcast. But one thing that stuck out to me that he mentioned that we didn’t get to pick up on was his take on the comeback of religion, which I think is really interesting, and which might seem ominous to some folks. To me, it sounds like we could use a dose of discipline and self-control like he was saying. But I don’t know. What do you think? Like, do you think (a) that it’s gonna make a comeback, and (b), is that a good thing?
ZK: I guess it depends on what religion we’re talking about. I mean, the United States is unusual in its degree of religious affiliation and religious participation, mostly decentralized, lots of different Protestant sects, lots of different ancillary religions floating around there. But I mean, America’s a pretty—on those definitions—religious place. I don’t know that that has made us a better place, and there’s certainly large swathes in the Middle East that are particularly religious, and that has led to, as it did in Europe for centuries, you know, a degree of conflict rather than consensus. So, it depends on the religion. I think maybe a more—this is your [inaudible], Emma—more of a religion as a practice of mindfulness, mindfulness of ourselves, mindfulness of our communities, mindfulness of the need for some sort of balance, mindfulness that we can’t all get our way, that there are other people out there who also wanna get their way. And to the degree that some religions, Buddhism in particular, but every religion has those seeds of an ethical life and enjoying ethical life that could be great. But that doesn’t in my mind always follow in sync with what we think of as religion.
EV: Yeah. I mean, there’s a big debate about this in Buddhism, in terms of like modernized, westernized, Buddhism being a very different breed of Buddhism than what you would traditionally call Buddhism in various Asian countries. I mean, it might be just the thing we need for the times. Who knows? But what more easily I think comes to people’s minds when we think about religion coming into play, especially with the depopulation conversation we had and convincing women to get pregnant, is very The Handmaid’s Tale-esque. That is what’s coming to my mind. And I don’t know if we can dispel that image for people maybe.
ZK: And it’s probably why that show and that book have had such a contemporary resonance and revival for those very reasons, you know, the fear that that’s what it will in fact lead to, and not to my more rosy scenario of plenty of stuff for fewer people rather than not enough stuff for too many people. The other thing, I mean… The point of the Tyler conversation of what was it, information extraction engine, or extracting information…?
EV: Yeah, that’s his greatest pleasure is extracting information. [Laugh].
ZK: I think the one thing that is probably applicable to everybody is, in an information-laden age, other than choosing to completely tune out, which has significant costs in your ability to kind of navigate the world that you’re in, learning how to be that for yourself, learning how to most effectively, mindfully, in a balanced way navigate that sea of information without losing your mind, right? Which you’ve been writing about a lot, how to read the news without losing your mind. Tyler’s a great example of that, but he’s probably also an unfair example of that because, you know, he’s sort of a savant in that world where most other people have a much harder time staying afloat in that particular sea.
EV: Right. So like, what’s the advice for like the regular Joe Schmo who is not gonna be able to speed-read through the news. And I think for me, one of the answers there is like find a curation machine that you trust, right? Like whatever that curation technique is, or whoever it might be, if it’s good, it’s good. Right? Like it can help do that job for you.
ZK: Right. And, and the danger of someone like Tyler giving that advice, it’s like an Olympic slalom skier saying, “no, no, no, just tilt on the edges a little more. You’ll be fine.” And you’re like, “I’m worried about not dying on that mountain.”
EV: There’s a giant mound in front of me. [laugh].
ZK: Anyway, he’s a fascinating, polymathic, interesting voice. And I do love the way in which he remains flexible and nimble and willing to change his mind. And I think as an operating principle that we’ve tried to start with:be humble enough about what one doesn’t know, and be flexible enough to adapt what you think and how you view the world based on how the world itself is evolving, rather than trying to impose upon it a rigid framework and slotting all of your analysis of all reality into it. And in many ways, the pessimistic mindset—I do love this in David Deutsch’s work—has a kind of an arrogance of certainty that you know how things are gonna go, as opposed to a humbleness of, you know, things could turn out differently than I expect. They could turn out worse. They could turn out better. They could turn out some messy combination of all of the above, and that we all need to continue to be mindful of what we don’t know and of what is possible in the future. Thank you, Emma, for having this conversation with me as always.
EV: Yeah. Thank you, Zachary.
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