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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Human Progress
Our research note on Jason Crawford
If anyone is qualified to talk about the past, present & future of human progress, it’s.
As the Founder & President of the Roots of Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century, Jason has spent over six years reading, researching, writing & talking about progress.
Why? In Jason’s words, “[the] progress of the last few centuries—in science, technology, industry, and the economy—is one of the greatest achievements of humanity. But progress is not automatic or inevitable. We must understand its causes, so that we can keep it going, and even accelerate it.”
By now, many of you may have listened to Jason’s excellent appearance on the show, which dropped in your feeds last week (click here to listen to the full episode).
Well, there’s more. Ahead of Jason’s visit, we delved into around 100 of Jason’s essays and distilled some of his key recurring ideas & arguments into five easily digestible sections.
Let’s dive in…
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Founder & President of the Roots of Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century.
Themes (each unpacked below)
I. Why We Need a Progress Movement | II. The Psychology & Philosophy of Progress | III. The History of Progress | IV. The Components of Progress | V. Constraints on Progress
I. Why We Need a Progress Movement
“In order to make progress, we must believe that it is possible and desirable. The 19th century believed in the power of technology and industry to better humanity, but in the 20th century, this belief gave way to skepticism and distrust. We need a new way forward.”
“We need to learn to appreciate progress—both what we’ve already done, and why we can’t stop now. We need to tell the amazing story of progress: how comfort, safety, health, and *luxury* have become commonplace, and what a dramatic achievement that has been. We need to learn where progress comes from, to understand its causes. And we need to pass all that knowledge on to the next generation.”
We live in an age of lost optimism. We used to have a profoundly positive attitude to growth, but following the horrors of the 20th century society is largely anti-progress and anti-growth. The progress movement pushes against that. “We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. One that teaches people not to take the modern world for granted. One that acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly, and offers solutions. And one that holds up a positive vision of the future.”
The story of progress has never properly been told. Most books on industrial progress are inadequate.
Very few of us have an intuitive understanding of what progress actually is. We take the modern world for granted and don’t appreciate how far we’ve come and why and how we have progressed. “And so we all have a civic duty to give ourselves a remedial education in industrial civilization. To learn the underpinnings of the standard of living we all enjoy. To understand and appreciate how we got here, and what it took—the vision, effort, ingenuity, industriousness, struggle, and courage of those who came before us. And ultimately, in some small way at least, to keep it going and pay it forward to future generations.”
We are complacent and entitled. We have forgotten that life used to be literally full of crap.
Historical progress has had numerous spiritual benefits. We have far more vocational choices, cities are “excellent for social, emotional, and intellectual life,” far more people go to school, and literacy is much wider. “My conclusion is that material progress, far from degrading our spiritual life, has *elevated* it—at least, for those who choose to take the most advantage of the opportunities it affords.”
The old models of progress “foundered on the shoals of the 20th century.” We therefore need a new way forward, a new model of progress.
A progress movement will enable us to become more ‘industrially literate’:
Industrial literacy means that we will appreciate and value things that would otherwise appear boring, for example: “Without industrial literacy, hearing about “a 6% increase in battery energy density” sounds boring and technical. With it, you know that a dozen such improvements mean a doubling; that a doubling in energy density means that our machines and devices can be lighter and cheaper, or that their charge can last longer, or both; that this translates to cost, convenience, and reliability; that those things make a difference in the capabilities and freedoms we enjoy. When you make all those connections, a 6% improvement in energy density can be downright exciting.”
Industrial literacy requires seeing things in their full context – not just focusing on side effects or certain properties.
Industrial literacy is the responsibility of every citizen. A lack of industrial literacy means that industrial civilization becomes one big Chesterton’s fence – people criticize things without understanding why it’s there in the first place.
By understanding and studying progress, we can achieve progress:
Progress is a trend with definite, substantive causes and can continue far into the future. To understand it as a trend, we need to study it in its own right.
We are culturally hostile to progress. This is self-perpetuating: it makes progress harder. To progress, we need to believe in and aim for the next 200 years of progress.
We need future generations to be motivated to pursue progress, to be inspired to carry the banner forwards. We need people to have optimistic visions of the future. Progress needs to be defended and promoted.
Progress is the best way to protect ourselves against future disasters. “No matter the odds, applied intelligence is our best weapon against disaster.”
Technology is increasing our power, but is philosophy increasing our wisdom proportionately? If we stop seeing technology as the problem and instead start seeing the problem as making sure that we are sufficiently wise to use the technology, then the solution then becomes ‘get wiser’. How can we ‘get wiser’? By progress studies! “Understand how progress is made, where it goes wrong, and how we fix it. Get better at anticipating problems, and better at pre-emptive rather reactionary solutions. And devote the same intelligence and ingenuity to politics, education, and markets as we do to steel, power plants, and computer networks.”
II. The Psychology & Philosophy of Progress
“For my part, no matter how great the challenges, no matter how hard the effort, no matter how slim the chance of success, I will work for solutions.”
Optimism & Agency
Optimism requires believing in unknown future breakthroughs (our hardest problems cannot be solved by known solutions – that’s why they are our hardest problems!) Believers in progress maintain that humans are “universal explainers” and that progress can be driven by human agency. We have control over our own destinies.
The opposite view is that progress is not due to agency, it is down to luck. If this is true, then questions of agency become materially less relevant.
Jason doesn’t describe himself as an optimist – he sees himself as a solutionist (see next bullet point heading). “The risk of adopting an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” mindset is the temptation to take sides on an issue depending on a general mood, rather than forming an opinion based on the facts of the case.”
“There is no power outside of humanity. We are the masters of our fate, for better or for worse. If there is to be a 21st-century philosophy of progress), it needs to be based not on an Idea or a Dialectic, but on human agency.”
Prescriptive rather than descriptive optimism: “Prescriptive optimism is a philosophical attitude that orients us towards confident action. Descriptive optimism is a prediction about where things are headed—which is contingent on the facts of any given case. If these two forms of optimism are conflated, it can cause confidence to slip into complacency.” Prescriptive optimism is a decision to work to make good things happen. Descriptive optimism is the expectation that good things will happen.
“Descriptive optimism on its own can lead to complacency, Panglossianism, and other cavalier attitudes—progress as coasting. Prescriptive optimism calls for boldness, courage, and vigorous effort. When the two are combined, they call for expansive, ambitious plans. When prescriptive optimism is combined with descriptive *pessimism*, they together call for grit, determination, and fighting spirit.”
Progress is about problem-solving. If something is physically achievable, then progress is the route by which we can make it happen. “But, to quote David Deutsch, anything not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. No law of physics says diseases must exist. And so, if human knowledge, technology, wealth, and infrastructure continue to progress, I believe humanity will see the end of disease.”
Problems are real but solvable. We should vigorously advance against problems.
Progress studies needs to be solution driven. It can’t get trapped in theory.
Consumption isn’t prima facie bad. As opposed to the conservationist argument that we should find ways to reduce consumption, we should find ways of growing consumption (without destroying ourselves in the process).
When people criticize consumption, they are often bringing in various philosophical and aesthetic judgments around tradition, nature, stability, etc.
Historic predictions of catastrophic shortages rarely come true. There have been lots of predictions of catastrophic resource shortages, but not too many of these have born out. “Overall, the trend seems to be towards *better* resource management over time. The most devastating examples are also the most ancient. By the time you get to the 18th and 19th centuries, society is anticipating resource shortages and proactively addressing them: sperm whales, elephants, [guano]), etc. (Although maybe the [transition off of whale oil was not perfect]”
Economic growth is ultimately driven by ideas. And ideas aren’t like physical resources. “The per-capita stock of ideas is the total stock of ideas.” If progress comes from ideas, then the only limit to progress is our own ingenuity.
In the 19th century sustainability was based on growth and progress. It now means something different.
Sustainability needs to be remodelled so it is about sustaining growth and progress. “To my mind, any solution to sustainability that involves reducing consumption or lowering our standard of living is no solution at all. It is giving up and admitting defeat. If running out of a resource means that we have to regress back to earlier technologies, that is a failure—a failure to do what we did in the 19th century and replace unsustainable technologies with new, improved ones that can take humanity to the next level and support orders of magnitude more growth.”
“With continued progress, we are not limited by land area and fossil fuels. We are not even limited to planet Earth. We are limited only by the speed of light, the Hubble expansion constant, and the heat death of the universe. If we hit those limits, I’d say humanity had a pretty good run.”
“Sustaining exponential growth requires exponentially increasing inputs as well, as we continually pick off more of the low-hanging fruit.”
Humanism says that the good is that which helps us lead better lives: longer, healthier, happier lives; lives of more choice and opportunity; lives in which we can thrive and flourish.”
“Opposition to humanism often comes from some form of *romanticism.* One form is the romanticization of nature: nature as a loving, protective “mother”; or a “natural” lifestyle as clean, safe, and healthy. Another is the romanticization of the past, of “simpler” times or of lost traditions. Thus progress is criticized from the left because it encroaches on the environment, and from the right because it represents modern “materialism” and “decadence.””
Humanism holds that humanity takes moral precedence over nature and tradition.
“The advocates of “harmony with nature” constantly conflate these two senses, as if every attempt to overcome the randomness of indifferent nature were an attempt to flout some natural law, the supposed “limits to growth.” But it isn’t. We can improve on nature. We have done it in so many ways: fertilizing and irrigating our fields, building canals and levees for our waterways, heating and air-conditioning our homes, sanitizing our water supply. To assume that we can’t continue to solve problems like this is simply defeatism, unsupported by the facts—or it is a cover for anti-humanism.”
“To command the natural environment, we must obey natural law.”
Materialism & the frontier
Frontier growth is fundamental. Those on the frontier give the rest something to catch up to. The frontier is underrated relative to developmental growth.
By understanding the growth of the frontier, we can better understand how other countries can catch-up.
Material progress – economic growth – is underrated. GDP per capita is the most important metric as it is absolute. Other metrics, such as happiness and life satisfaction, are relative.
We should think big. Nuclear power, space exploration, quantum computing. Curing aging. Controlling the climate. We shouldn’t just focus on current, visible inefficiencies, must focus on bigger, long-term revolutions.
But – although we should focus on material progress, progress itself isn’t driven primarily by material resources (see ‘components of progress’ below).
Based in liberal philosophy. “The truth is the opposite: liberal philosophy has worked. It has created abundance, empowerment, and safety for all. It offers a compelling vision for the future, and the solutions to our problems and fears. Explicating this argument is central to defending the values of a free society”
Progress studies is interdisciplinary, combining elements from the stagnation debate, the broader history of economic thought, the economics of resources, the philosophy of humans as problem-solvers vs resource-creators, and the philosophy of sustainability.
Progress studies is intertwined. “Progress in science, technology and economics depends on progress in politics and perhaps vice versa. The story of human progress is a single, integrated story.”
Optimism & Agency:
Materialism & the frontier
III. The History of Progress
“Even though we talk of eras coming and going, they never completely leave us. Influences from each of these past eras are still around. The countercultural environmentalist movement is still around, in the opposition to fossil fuels and in the “degrowth” movement. Technocracy is still around, in Operation Warp Speed and quantitative easing and much more. Big private capitalist industrial systems are still around: think of Google’s network of data centers or Amazon’s network of fulfillment centers. Even the age of the heroic independent inventor-entrepreneur may still be with us: think of Elon Musk.”
History is the empirical foundation upon which progress studies rests.
History can be told in facts and dates, stories, cause-and-effect narratives, and big-pictures. Jason is trying to do something different, to tell “problem-solution” history, which, as well as saying what happened and why it happened, says “why we decided to make it happen.” The aim is to show how almost every aspect of the modern world is a solution to a problem that humans previously faced.
The idea of progress is fairly new. Most of history “has consisted of static societies where no one believed that anything would, could, or *should* change.”
Progress can be slowed, stopped, reversed, or lost. “Science, art, and government all suffered and declined during the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. China famously destroyed its own naval capacity in the 1400s.”
In Europe by 1700, there was a widespread belief that useful knowledge could be discovered and would lead to improvements in life.
The Enlightenment was an age of optimism. It was a philosophy of progress. The 19th century was similarly dominated by a belief in the power of human reason, science, and technology.
The first Industrial Revolution (1700s to mid-1800s) progress was defined by two fundamental advances: mechanization and the steam engine.
The Second Industrial Revolution (mid-1800s to mid-1900s) was characterised by greater influence of science: chemistry, electromagnetism, and microbiology. The world was transformed. These were the most productive decades in American history.
“Since then, the “third Industrial Revolution”, starting in the mid-1900s, has mostly seen fundamental advances in a single area: electronic computing and communications. If you date it from 1970, there has really been nothing comparable in manufacturing, agriculture, energy, transportation, or medicine—again, not that these areas have seen *zero* progress, simply that they’ve seen less-than-revolutionary progress. Computers have completely transformed all of information processing and communications, while there have been no new types of materials, vehicles, fuels, engines, etc.”
Pre the World Wars, we had a pretty positive attitude toward growth. We even had progress poetry!
Optimism and faith in reason were shattered by the harsh realities of the 20th century. They were replaced by a rise in radical social movements that distrusted technology.
The anti-tech reaction in the 20th century was also, in part, a reaction against ‘the system’ as something that oppresses the individual.
The 1930s – 60s were “characterized by the attempt to achieve progress through top-down control by a technical elite.” Progress was no longer trusted to the masses – instead it was to be achieved by a technical elite. This was the technocratic era.” Progress got mixed up with the social idea of technocracy, centralization, and top-down control.
The technocratic movement was exposed as a fallacy by the harsh reality of the 70s and 80s and the onset of stagnation.
Today, we have a profoundly different attitude to growth than what we did previously. Something has changed in our attitude toward growth.
IV. The Components of Progress
“First, there is a fundamental distinction between discovery and creation; between the pursuit of knowledge or understanding, and the attempt to make or produce something. Science is in the former category; invention, engineering, and business are in the latter.”
Safety is a component of progress, not something that stands separately from it.
Safety is one dimension of progress. Improvements in safety constitute progress. Sometimes safety is seen as something outside of progress. This is wrong.
Many inventions were motivated by safety, e.g., the air brake for locomotives.
Safety must be actively achieved. It is not automatic – needs to be engineered for.
There are trade-offs between safety and other values. Progress is multivariate, and safety is one dimension of it.
“The more we go forward, the more we need to anticipate risks in advance. Partly this is because, as the general background level of risk decreases, it makes sense to lower our tolerance for risks of all kinds, and that includes the risks of new technology.”
Safety goals will usually be driven top-down rather than bottom-up.
The path to safety is domain specific rather than via across-the-board slowdowns of progress. It needs domain-specific tools, techniques, protocols, and standards. It needs the people who are developing the technologies to be alert to the risks and responsible for them.
General progress helps us guard against general classes of risk – “Science helps us understand risk and what could mitigate it; technology gives us tools; wealth and infrastructure create a buffer against shocks. Industrial energy usage and high-strength materials guard against storms and other weather events. Agricultural abundance guards against famine.”
The history of progress is, in many ways, the history of safety. As certain things have progressed, they have become safer. “The factory system, including its harsh discipline, was needed to pull the pre-industrial world out of the poverty it had been mired in for millenia. In this telling, there’s no way the problems could have been avoided in the early period—and their solution was natural and inevitable in the later period. It was economic progress itself, not muckrakers and labor unions, that solved them.”
Leadership: the eradication of smallpox shows us how important it can be to have a competent leader who is convinced that it is their job to achieve something. “The key is possessing intelligence and competence, credibility and authority, probably at least a modest budget, and a full-time focus and commitment to the goal.” “we should recognize and value *direction-setting* as a crucial role in driving progress.”
Science & Invention
Science is the foundation for invention. But the impact is long-term and often impossible to forsee. Investments in science should, therefore, not be prioritized by immediate practical impact. We should seek models that closely intertwine science and invention.
We need ambitious programs of invention that are willing to push the frontiers of knowledge. Broad goals and loose timeframes. Not enough people doing this now.
We need to bridge invention and science. Scientific research should be done by people who can seize the opportunity for invention when it comes along.
Scientists should shuttle between science and invention. The work environment should be supportive of both. Bell labs and the development of the transistor is a historical precedent for this.
Invention does not have a functioning career path today. We need to change this.
What matters as much as the invention is what happens after the moment of invention.
Exponentials & the Flywheel
Exponential growth should be our baseline expectation.
“In theory, yes, exponential growth of the economy can’t continue *forever*. But the hard limits are so far away that for almost all practical purposes today they can be treated as infinite. The limits only seem close when restricting one’s view to current technologies. But we have been consistently breaking technological limits for hundreds of years.”
Progress compounds. This is why progress is exponential – progress begets progress. This takes the form of a number of self-reinforcing cycles/feedback loops.
“The Industrial Revolution was a massive feedback loop: progress begets progress; science, technology, infrastructure, and surplus all reinforce each other. By the 20th century, it’s clear how much progress against smallpox depended on previous progress, both specific technologies and the general environment.”
Progress is super-exponential. We kick into a new, higher growth mode periodically, and it takes less time to do so with each fundamental shift.
Examples of flywheels: technology (many technologies enable themselves), wealth (as surplus builds up, we have more to invest in business, invention etc, which begets progress which then raises productivity and gives us more surplus), science (science enables advanced technology which in turn enables scientific progress), government (nations with better legal support for progress become wealthier, stronger, and thus able to defend themselves).
Progress is a result of layering S-curves over one another.
Progress isn’t driven primarily by material resources. Key inventions of the Industrial Revolution, e.g., textile automation, didn’t require any fuel at all.
To evaluate progress, we must look at the overall effects of technology, not just side effects. Context is key.
“Evaluate products as a function of all attributes, including convenience and cost—not just one attribute taken in isolation.”
“Note that often the problem is failing to notice how wide a phenomenon is and hypothesizing causes that are too narrow, but you can make the mistake in the opposite direction too, proposing a broad cause for a narrow effect.
When people point to just, e.g. ‘coal’, as the reason for the Industrial Revolution, they miss the big picture. We must think much wider. “And that is why I am sympathetic to explanations that invoke fundamental changes in thinking, such as Pinker’s appeal to “reason, science, and humanism””
Technology moves the efficient frontier. Cost goes down, quality goes up.
Exponentials and Flywheels:
Science & invention
Context & overall effects
V. Constraints on Progress
“But let me close with a note to anyone in science, engineering or business who has a vision for a *specific* way to make progress in a particular domain—whether anti-aging, space, energy, or anything else. My message is: Just go for it. Don’t let the funding environment, the regulatory environment, or the culture stop you. Work around barriers or break through them, whatever it takes. The future is counting on you.”
The last few decades have been defined by technological and economic stagnation. See Tyler Cowen.
This is due to a combination of centralization and bureaucratization of funding, over-regulation, and negative cultural attitudes.
Stagnation does not mean no progress. It means slower progress.
The digital revolution is amazing, but the advances have been focused on electronic computing and communications. We haven’t seen equivalent levels of progress in other key areas: energy, transportation, medicine & manufacturing.
Perhaps we ate all the low-hanging fruit (cf Tyler Cowen & Scott Alexander).
“Funding is required up front, long before a benefit is received, and even if the demand never materializes. This requires (1) accumulated capital (2) in the hands of people who think long-range, and (3) mechanisms for them to recoup their investment and ideally make a profit, at least on average.”
We need to develop better mechanisms for deploying capital towards worthy ends and profiting from the investment.
For-profit models are underrated. Revenue is scalable, you have the right incentives to drive effectiveness and efficiency, and you are more likely to fund high-risk, high-reward experiments.
“Money illuminates what is murky. It aligns interests. It keeps people honest. Money is, in fact, one of the greatest forces for social good. Instead of getting money out, we should find ways to bring money and profit *into* as many areas as possible.”
Progress only happens when people work on it. That always requires funding. Funding is uncertain – it’s hard to predict in advance which projects will succeed and how important they will be.
Progress can be accelerated by making funding available for it.
We need more brains! Brains push science and technology forward.
Economic growth is ultimately driven by ideas. And ideas aren’t like physical resources. “The per-capita stock of ideas is the total stock of ideas.” If progress comes from ideas, then the only limit to progress is our own ingenuity. More people = more ideas.
“But this cycle may have flipped from self-reinforcing to self-reducing (in engineer’s terms, from “positive” to “negative” feedback): By the 20th century, technology, wealth and education had lowered fertility rates as well. Now global fertility rates are falling, world population growth is slowing, and indeed total world population is set to level off or even begin declining this century. This may turn out to be a significant limiting factor on progress.”
“There is a hypothesis that as knowledge grows, it takes longer to reach the frontier, and so individual researchers have less time to contribute advancements. They are also forced to specialize—but breakthroughs often come from making connections across far-flung disciplines.”
Bureaucracy & regulation
“And then we need to get out of the way. Unwind the regulatory state. No matter where you fall on any political spectrum, acknowledge that the creeping bureaucracy has crept too far, and that it’s time to start untangling the thicket of regulations. We can maintain a reasonable and even continually increasing standard of safety, while at the same time valuing speed, efficiency, and cost, and most fundamentally, allowing for individual judgment.”
An invention will only happen if it is both technically possible and economically viable. At that point, the clock starts ticking. But even then, it takes time: people must decide to do something and have the means to do so. Unless a society rewards and enables people to do this, it will happen less frequently.
Curing Aging: How Curing Aging Could Help Progress