|What is The Portal?
|19 July 2019
|6 September 2019
What is The Portal?
Eric Weinstein: Hi, it's Eric Weinstein. Um, just to put it simply, we're blown away. We've just released the first episode of The Portal, which is my new show. And, we had a response and reaction that we really couldn't have imagined. So while we have several shows in the can and we have some great interviews lined up, instead one of the producers asked me to simply come in and do an extended extemporaneous riff to say what the show is likely to be about. Now, there was no script, there was no preparation, and there'll be a little bit of light editing, but more or less, what we thought might be interesting is to have you in on the ground floor.
If you're listening and subscribing at this point in our history, you deserve to know how we're thinking, what's up next without having all of the rough edges rounded and polished for your listening pleasure. So it's going to be a little bit imperfect, but I hope you'll enjoy what comes next, which is an improvisational riff on where we may be going with the show, The Portal. I hope you like it.
What The Portal is About
Hello, I'm Eric Weinstein, and you've found The Portal. This is our second episode, and perhaps you caught our first one, in which I interviewed my friend Peter Thiel. In that conversation, Peter and I discussed a great many things, but one of the, let's say, overarching themes is that somehow the world around us seems to have been completely misexplained and not only misexplained for a short period of time, but perhaps misexplained for decades without anyone much noticing.
At least that was our contention. The contention is that because of a dizzying amount of change in a small number of sectors, we have misinterpreted what is going on much more generally as change across a great number of sectors. Likewise, while we have generally enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity, we have been somewhat inured to the growing danger that comes from the sheer amount of violent potential that has so far been kept under wraps in the stasis that followed World War II.
So these two features of our world–that is, a generally peaceful world in which the potential for violence and destruction has gotten ever greater, in a world in which a small number of sectors are advancing at a breakneck pace, but leaving behind the majority of sectors where nothing much seems to be happening, seems to be a relatively uncommon picture to be discussed, at least in official channels.
What The Portal is going to be about is breaking this bubble. This is a bubble that we believe, in some sense, has been around since the early 1970s, and almost all of us have grown up having our lives defined and determined by this set of common misconceptions about the world in which we live. So what is The Portal?
The Portal is an attempt to end this bubble, to look beyond the intellectual laziness and stasis that is available everywhere, through the institutional media, through, let's say, legacy sense-making structures, and to start listening in on a different conversation, perhaps a conversation that many of you are relatively unfamiliar with, in which different players, different names, are rotated into the spotlight and the familiar pundits and talking heads are rotated out.
Old Promises for a New Future
Now, what is it that this group of people is thinking about? What are they working on? What do they believe? Well in part, many of them are worried about the idea of complacency and excited about the idea of breaking through a portal into a different space. Sometimes that's in an area like radical life extension, where so far, up until the present, almost no one has gotten beyond the biblical age of Moses, set at 120 years by convention.
If that's been the hard stop, some people are now dreaming about life expectancies that could go into 200 or 300 years if we could only find access to the right molecular mechanisms. Likewise, in areas like physics, we have the possibility that there are two main dominant theories that are irreconcilable and therefore incomplete.
What if we had an ability to bridge those theories and come up with a much more detailed and accurate theory that spanned both the phenomena covered by Einstein's general relativity and the quantum theory known as the standard model? Would there be something to do, something wholly unexpected? We don't know.
We also dream of limitless energy. Perhaps fusion technology, or incredible storage devices, would allow us to harness, you know, much greener energy sources. Perhaps we would find some way of living in a world of abundance in which we could print things, freeing us from drudgery using artificial intelligence and machine learning, and learn to have much more harmonious and fulfilling existences.
Or perhaps this would unleash some sort of economic problem, whereby very few of us would be able to earn a living in this new world and that the abundance that we thought we craved would in fact be a curse in disguise. What I want to do is to talk to you very simply and plainly about the problems that we currently face that almost no one is willing to discuss, and that is that we have a world largely built for rapid growth in which that kind of broad growth is no longer found easily, simply by looking with better instruments, with more patience, and more detail at the world in which we live.
Let me give you a slightly different picture of where we are as a society, one that you've probably not thought of. Imagine somebody who has graduated from high school, but one, two, three years later hasn't found something else to do with their life and they're hanging around the same high school as fewer and fewer of the students that they once knew continue to attend classes. Effectively, this is getting creepier and creepier, and I think that that's in large measure where we are with the technological revolutions that we have undertaken.
At some point it was incredibly cool to figure out how to place a long distance call between continents, but this has become commonplace. Likewise, many of the fantastic things that once got us excited about the release of every new iPhone now has us relatively unexcited about the new suite of apps and features that every new phone promises will be slightly different than the one before.
So I think what's important to think about is how optimistic we once were. What did we think we were going to do? I think we thought we were going to be curing diseases. Wouldn't it be great not to have lost anyone in your family from cancer when we declared a war on cancer in the early 1970s? What did we think we were going to be doing with energy? Didn't we think that fusion was around the corner?
If you think about all of the things that we could be doing, we've learned in most of these areas that it is no longer mature to hope, to imagine that somehow we are going to be able to make the future very different than the present. Yes, things will get a little bit better, but are they going to get dramatically better? Are we going to be leading a life in our here, in our now, that would allow a kind of escapist lifestyle that we saw on Star Trek, or even in Star Wars, which came out in the '60s and '70s respectively?
Dreaming and Rotten Sense-making
I think that in general, most of us have realized that these dreams have remained dreams for so long that we've consigned them to the world of children. Perhaps very dim people believe these things. What I'm interested in is trying to get the smartest, most dynamic, and most agentic people in our society once again talking to each other, and ignoring the people who are most focused on dampening all of our enthusiasm. Now perhaps, you think, 'Look, this doesn't sound very scientific. Shouldn't we be relying on the best systems we have? For example, isn't peer reviewed science the gold standard?'
Well, I would say no. Peer review is a relatively recent invention, and I would even say an intrusion into the hard sciences. In 1953 when the double helix was elucidated by Watson and Crick, they submitted it to the journal Nature. But it was never a peer reviewed. Why? Because an editor's job was to figure out whether it was worthy of publication. And in fact, the editor at the time, if I recall correctly, said that anybody who saw this paper would be so influenced by it, that he couldn't take the risk sending it out for any kind of review.
Well, if that's true, let's say peer review isn't really the centerpiece of our science. Is the scientific method the centerpiece of our science? Well, at some level, sure, it's like proof checking, but a lot of the work that we do in science has been incredibly imaginative. And you might even say it's been irresponsible until it comes into final form and can be reconciled with experiment.
But instead, we've developed a culture in which, immediately upon proposing something, we are told that the sine qua non of science is that there be an agreement between theory and experiment. Well this is wholly untrue. In fact, if you go back to Paul Dirac's great Scientific American article in the early sixties, he says that it is much more important that a physical theory have mathematical beauty, and that we learn to trust a theory even when it doesn't agree with experiment, if it has a kind of intellectual coherence to it. But how often are people pointed to something like Dirac's 1963 paper? In fact, you could look to Jim Watson, who's told us that in order to make great advances, we have to be irresponsible.
Now, this is a very odd feature of the world. Many of our top people do not seem to play by the rules that have been set for everyone else. And the question is, if we are in a situation in which we have unleashed such incredible destructive power, as we did with the hydrogen bomb, and in potentially unlocking the cell, why is it that we are so incredibly timid about what it is that we might do next? We have all the destructive power that we need already at our fingertips. What we don't have is the ability to escape our fate.
In fact, what we need is to find The Portal, to find a way out, to find new economic vistas that will allow far larger numbers of people to participate without causing an ecological disaster. If you take all the people, let's say, in India, China, and Bangladesh, what have you, who are leading lives at a far lower economic level than we are, if you were to elevate them to our current level as we have in the United States, you would be causing an ecological disaster. Well clearly, we are not going to leave these people behind. We need them to be full participants in whatever beautiful future we're trying to create. And that future has to be ecologically sound because we don't have the ability to despoil the planet as we dream about universal human prosperity. So what are we going to do?
Well, I think that the most irresponsible thing to do is to stop dreaming, to get our dreams to be so small that we're not embarrassed to share them in public. I think what we need to do is to start dreaming much more aggressively, dream much bigger, and start dreaming in public with each other–harmoniously if we can, or have our dreams fight each other–but at least start unlocking the potential of human imagination and not immediately grounding every new idea in some sort of race to see whether we can invalidate it, give it enough of a room to grow. You know, this is how we used to talk about protecting infant industries before we decided that free trade should always be the rule of the day and that we should have no barriers to protect new ideas in a nursery, where they might learn to thrive, before testing to see whether they can survive as adults.
What we're going to do in this program is effectively to declare war. War on stasis. War on group think. War on everything that has enervated our society, and we're going to do it because we have the ability now to compete with the networks that previously grew up to distribute whatever it was that was portrayed as sense-making.
You can tell that there's something wrong with both CNN and Fox. If you're reading the New York times carefully, you can tell that the narrative arcs in the daily newspaper clearly have to have been thought out to cover many days and long before the facts are known. Somehow we are living in somebody else's reality.
What we need to do is to return to our own future. Now, there is no question that we might make some serious mistakes. People may die, there may be very serious consequences of experimenting. But it's certain that if we stay here and we do not attempt to grow beyond the problems that we've previously created for ourselves in decades past, that the future is not going to be appealing or powerful enough to evade some of the fates that some people are seeing as being nearly inescapable.
If we cannot create a larger pie, we're going to have to engage in a lot of zero-sum games. We're going to have to deal an incredible amount with some kind of social engineering project which, quite frankly, I don't see having any hope of succeeding. We're barely able to hold a conversation. Could we actually hold a constitutional convention if our new technology required that we rethink the boundaries of what constitutes search and seizure? Whether hate speech should be included with free speech in our foundational documents? Have we really gotten to a place in which we can only look back because we are afraid to look forward? The Portal is going to attempt to answer these questions.
Making The Portal Self-Supporting
So it might well be asked, how are we going to try to do something different on The Portal that might actually have a significant impact on our society? And I'm going to begin in a kind of unexpected place. How are we going to get The Portal to be self-supporting?
Well, oddly, when we proposed this podcast, a friend of the program decided that he was in a position through business success to fund The Portal, and to in fact remove the need for advertising from our desire to broadcast. And I thought about this long and hard–of course, it's very appealing to imagine that somebody cares so much about what's happening on the program that they're willing to bankroll it. However, I think we've decided against it, at least initially, and I wanted to share some of my reasoning.
The reasoning is that very few programs could possibly afford to do that, and as important as this program is, it's really not about me, it's about what can we do with sense-making done individualistically and outside of any kind of institutional control. My belief is that the more people are able to podcast, the more people are able to use these new channels for outreach, the greater the likelihood that we can create an ecosystem of interesting, disruptive ideas to change everything.
So in fact, it's much more important that we figure out some way of fixing the business model, where all of these podcasts are somehow delivering value that people are at least initially unwilling to pay for, because we've all been taught to expect that these things that we consume electronically are free.
Well, we want to have the same problem, at least initially, as everyone else so that we can work on it. Can we teach advertisers and capitalists to stay the course when somebody says something controversial but responsible, to weather a storm of a boycott? Can we create what I've called riskvertisers, who actually pledge some loyalty to the people that you most want to see talking about the issues you most want to hear discussed if they can do so responsibly? These riskvertisers are people that we're going to go in search of.
So if you have a product that you think is terrific, and you want to reach people with tremendous brand loyalty, I hope you'll consider being a riskvertiser for The Portal Podcast. And that means, effectively, getting to know us, our audience, and not immediately buckling at the first sign that there's some sort of social media storm coming your way.
Communicating High-Level Science
Furthermore, I think we're going to talk about science, and we're not going to be dumbing it down. I'm very frustrated that very often when you see top quality scientists going into, let's say, public outreach mode, that they very often adulterate the subject matter in an attempt to make it more understandable.
Now of course, that's inevitable when you have people specializing in very difficult subjects that they've studied for years. But I also feel that partially what happened is that we got into a habit of underestimating the intelligence of the audience. Rather than giving the audience the need to look up some terminology, to make some forays of their own with the search engine, we've gotten them into a complacent state where if they don't immediately understand something, then somehow the fault is with the broadcaster.
Well, I think we reject this for a very simple reason. Do you remember when TV was called the idiot box? I know that I'm of an age that that was a very common thing to do once upon a time, but if you look at all of the amazing things that have been happening on TV, it's totally changed the format to watch something like Game of Thrones, or The Sopranos, or Madmen. And why is that? Because the character lines, and the storylines, and the development are so much more complex than anything people are able to do in a smaller format that in fact television, quite surprisingly, became the most distinguished media in which one can now write. Well, likewise, I think we need to do the same thing for the public discussion of science.
We need to draw more of you in and count on the fact that we've been underestimating the intelligence of our followers for quite some time, and start playing up to your level. And we may lose you along the way, but I have faith that with our ability to monitor your comments and listen to your feedback, that we can find an entirely new level of explication in which many of you will find that far from being left behind by specialists, you are actually able to participate in conversations that have previously been restricted only to experts. So I think we're going to try to pitch it at a higher level. We're going to try to rescue a business model, so that we can get more people with the ability to experiment in front of a camera as I'm doing now, but we've also decided to explore some topics that I think could break some serious ground.
Exploring Ground-Breaking Topics
In particular, I think that one of the things we're really interested in doing is talking about a couple of new economic models that have been shared with the world rather narrowly up until now, one of which involves a, what might be called Coasian immigration, which I'll explain later, shows that simply opening borders is in no way a free market solution, that you have to securitize rights and allow people to trade them in order to get free market economics to work in the immigration area. Another of which has to do with bilateral trade, and the geometry of markets culminating, eventually, in a model of humans in which they are allowed to change their tastes.
Now, it sounds very strange to say that economic theory falls apart when human beings change their tastes. But since at least the late 1970s, we've had an excuse in place in the work of Becker and Stigler that allows us to make assumptions about human beings that are known to be wildly untrue. And the way out, strangely enough, is through differential geometry, the differential geometry of markets. So that's something that I think we're going to be very interested in bringing to you.
I don't know whether the idea of geometric markets is something that can be easily explained to a mass audience, but this theory of geometric marginalism is in fact a starter theory that, if that is successful, might allow us to discuss an even more profound attempt, which would be this concept that I've called Geometric Unity. Now, when I talk about getting off the planet, I have no idea whether or not it is in fact possible to go beyond the solar system. Nobody's ever done it, it's been relatively irresponsible to think in these terms ever since we've understood what we're up against, in particular in the form of Einstein's restrictions, through the general and special theories of relativity, but I do know this: if we are to have a hope of visiting all of those exotic locations we can see in the night sky, when we're far from a city and the moon is not blocking out all of the stars and galaxies, I do know that if we are going to have a hope of visiting someplace truly remote, it's probably going to come through a better understanding of the source code of reality.
Now, up until this point, we've talked about this in terms of the so-called theory of everything, and if you'll notice, we have a very funny pattern about this. A very small number of highly regarded physicists have been entitled to talk and dream openly about a theory of everything, most commonly in the form of string theory. Yet the current string theoretic revolution, which began in 1984 with something called the anomaly cancellation, has largely petered out. True, some people, diehards in the field, will continue to say that this is the best time to enter theoretical physics, and that even if some of the original hype was misplaced, that there's no reason to think that the long term prospects are dim.
Well that's not true. We all know that that's not true. Why? Well, we had to buy an enormous accelerator in Geneva in which to test some of our earlier theories, and in fact, while it found the, what appears to be the Higgs particle, it's found very little else beyond the Standard Model. In fact, nothing of significance. Are we going to continue to fund such machines when our successes become more remote? Are we going to continue to be able to attract the top minds as we have always been able to attract them into theoretical physics?
Again, I think that as other occupations continue to offer more money and physics offers less stability and less interest and excitement as a field, it's going to be very difficult to compete for talent. If we're going to do something, now is the time. We still have the expertise, we still have enough of the infrastructure. Sure, in my opinion, it may be decaying, and I don't even really particularly get along with this community, but this is the community of greatest agency of greatest intelligence, and it has to be reinvigorated.
We need to get this community more money, we need to get them more security, and we need to get them, once again, dreaming up the future. Now, they brought us the future when they brought us the world wide web, which came out of CERN. When they developed the semiconductor. They effectively invented molecular biology as a side project. They ended World War II, and they gave us the communications technology in which our phones communicate with remote towers and allow us to connect to people a world away with very little delay.
In essence, our entire economy owes itself to theoretical physics. And are we going to let this field wither and die on the vine because it hasn't been able to succeed in roughly 45 years? I would say that this is the place that we have to bring the fight. People have not understood how vulnerable we are when we start to lose our most dynamic communities, and we find ourselves incapable of fighting for the resources, either in terms of neurons, or in terms of dollars, that are necessary to sustain our hope of progress.
Early Theorizing on Edge.org
Further, I think we're going to explain a lot of our theorizing, some of which has been covered in the annual Edge essays for edge.org, in which, effectively we've engaged in a 10 year strategy. I've always wondered, 'What would be the best way of sneaking a weapon through airport security?' Even though I've never attempted to do anything like that, I always thought that the best way of doing it would be to do it in pieces, where each piece is not entirely understandable as being part of something that is being screened for. Well, that's what I chose to do in the Edge essays that we'll be discussing. I think the first essay I wrote was called Go Virtual Young Man, which was in response to what I was just learning about in terms of Bitcoin.
Another one was about kayfabe, or the system of lies that is the substrate of professional wrestling. That was about my fear of an election cycle in which effectively everyone would know that everything was fake, but we would still be somehow dependent on the pantomime and theatrics in order to conduct the business of our society.
Another one was on Russell conjugation. Now Russell conjugation, if you don't know, has to do with how we emotionally shade our language so that people can understand what our content is, but they don't realize that we are emotionally coercing them to feel differently about things than they would if they simply thought about them from first principles.
So there's a large number of essays that I want to discuss with you, including one on anthropic capitalism. Now, the question of anthropic capitalism is simply this: was the last 200 years an anomaly? Was it a very bizarre time in which, effectively, markets were without parallel in organizing human activity? And is it possible, when we say something like late-stage capitalism, that we've actually blown through this period, where capitalism is itself a danger to our society?
Now, we have nothing else to pick up from it. If we look outside our windows in any major metropolitan area, we'll see that people are engaged in some self-organizing activity. And if our only two possibilities of keeping that going are either to allow the market to run relatively unfettered, or to begin telling people what to do as if central command was viable, then we're in a really tough spot.
I think we're going to have to start thinking about new systems, and I don't know what those systems will be. But since we've been able to reach major candidates, like the up and coming Andrew Yang on the Democratic side, I'm at least hopeful that there are places in which these new ideas might have a hearing.
So, to sum up, what is The Portal? The Portal is a search for some way out of the stasis in which we have lived. If our lives have largely been lived in an intellectual bubble that dates from the early seventies, it's time to pop that bubble and to find out what's on the outside. I hope you'll join me trying to find The Portal, and we can go through it together.