Monday, July 22, 2013

Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel: Only Technology Can Save the World from Tyranny

How do dictators maintain and expand their power? Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion who is now a political, educational and human rights activist, says that dictators control the natural resources within their realms and/or they have something of value to trade for such resources in order to sustain their countries. Kasparov fervently believes that the best--indeed the only--weapon to defeat such dictators is the proper use of technology to lessen the value of the resources controlled by these dictators. That, Kasparov asserts, is how the West defeated the Soviet Union during the Cold War. "Progress," as Kasparov summarizes it in one word. Dictatorships restrain creativity and ingenuity and hence they cannot fuel progress in the long term.

Kasparov is very pessimistic about the approach being taken by liberal democracies. He feels that progress has stagnated and that dictators like Russia's Vladimir Putin are taking advantage of this to become more powerful and more dangerous. In a fascinating discussion with entrepreneur Peter Thiel, Kasparov talks about his "technology thesis" and about how much resistance he meets when he brings this up in front of a variety of audiences ranging from Google executives to Obama administration officials (Kasparov has a very low opinion of President Obama, who he calls a "community organizer" who can "deliver a great speech" but is not capable of actual, meaningful leadership in terms of identifying real problems and proposing viable solutions). You can watch the entire Kasparov-Thiel discussion here, including their visit to the famous Marshall Chess Club (Thiel is a strong Master level player):

Some of the most fascinating--and disturbing--exchanges happen near the end of the video. At one point, Kasparov asks Thiel if he can foresee an "optimistic scenario" for the world's future. Thiel mentions a vision of a world that is saved by technological progress that fuels the development of liberal democracy, whereupon Kasparov scoffs, "Let's wait for Martians to save us. That's more realistic than what you described." While Kasparov believes that technological progress is indeed the solution, he is very pessimistic that this solution is going to be applied in time.

Thiel shares Kasparov's concerns--and it is disconcerting, to say the least, that two of the most brilliant people on the planet strongly believe that human society is racing headlong into the apocalypse. What Thiel expects to happen is a worldwide depression in which the value of all currency is completely destroyed; Kasparov believes that this has already begun and he agrees that it is the most likely apocalyptic scenario. Other Thiel scenarios include a devastating World War--possibly precipitated by a rogue power detonating a nuclear weapon--and a worldwide shift to the left politically, resulting in government confiscation of private wealth.

A major challenge is that, as Kasparov mentions, for the United States it is a great tragedy to lose even one soldier, while the United States' enemies do not place such a high value on the worth of one person's life. How can liberal democracies defeat such enemies without stooping to their level? Thiel quotes Osama bin Laden: "We will win because we value death more than you value life." Education and progress are the best weapons against tyranny, which is why one of the first things that any despot does is imprison and/or kill members of the intelligentsia; scientists, artists, writers and philosophers are the people who dictators fear the most.

After a wide-ranging conversation about the challenges that liberal democracies face to survive in the modern world, Thiel asks Kasparov what keeps him going since Kasparov has such a pessimistic view of what the future holds. Thiel notes that most people tend to give up at some point if they are sure that things will turn out badly. Kasparov responds, "It is against my nature. I am an optimist by nature and I still believe that this world has a purpose." That belief keeps Kasparov fighting but while he may harbor optimism in his heart his mind understands that human society faces grave and possibly fatal challenges: "A lot of people will keep asking questions," he responds when Thiel suggests that questioning how we got into this mess is the first step toward getting out of it. "And there will be very few to provide answers."

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