Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Conference panels are often sedate, friendly affairs. But that wasn’t the case when Google chairman Eric Schmidt went up against Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, investor and well-known libertarian gadfly.

The debate at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen Monday night tackled the question of whether technology has improved our lives over the past 30 years. Schmidt argued that it had; Thiel claimed progress had stagnated because tech has largely retreated from the real world into a virtual one.

“Google also has $50 billion in cash,” Thiel added. “It has no idea how to invest that money in technology effectively … if we’re living in an accelerating technological world, and you have zero percent interest rates, you should be able to invest all of your money in things that will return it many times over. The fact is you’re out of ideas.”

Schmidt countered that the company had no deficit of business models, but instead suffered from real-world constraints. “What you discover in running these companies is that there are limits that are not cash,” he said. “There are limits of recruiting, limits of real estate, regulatory limits.”

“Then the intellectually honest thing to do would be to say that Google is no longer a technology company,” shot back Thiel. “It’s basically a search engine developed a decade ago … That’s why all these companies are building up hordes of cash, because they don’t know what to do with it, but they don’t want to admit they’re no longer tech companies.”