Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?

A growing and influential intellectual movement aims to understand why human progress happens – and how to speed it up. Garrison Lovely investigates.

You’re a typical American in 1870. You live on a rural farm. If you’re a man, you likely began a lifetime of manual labour as a teen, which will end when you’re disabled or dead. If you’re a woman, you spend your time on labour-intensive housework. If you’re Black or any other minority, life is even harder.

You’re isolated from the world, with no telephone or postal service. When night falls, you live by candlelight. You defecate in an outhouse.

One day, you fall asleep and wake up in 1940. Life is totally different. Your home is “networked” – you have electricity, gas, telephone, water, and sewer connections. You marvel at new forms of entertainment, like the phonograph, radio, and motion picture. The Empire State Building looms over New York, surrounded by other impossibly tall buildings. You might own a car, and if you don’t, you have met people who do. Some of the wealthiest people you encounter have even flown in a plane.

These transformations emerged thanks to a “special century” of unusually high economic growth between 1870 and 1970. They were documented in the economic historian Robert Gordon’s 2016 book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth – and are detailed in a forthcoming book by the philosopher William MacAskill called What We Owe The Future. And it wasn’t just a US story – the industrialised nations experienced dizzying transformations during the early 20th Century.A vision of the future from the 1940s - a world where home automation boosted leisure time (Credit: Getty Images)

A vision of the future from the 1940s – a world where home automation boosted leisure time (Credit: Getty Images)

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

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One of the first ways to understand the progress studies movement is to understand its fears. Over the past few years, a number of researchers and economists have raised concerns that scientific and technological progress could be slowing down, which they worry will cause economic growth to stagnate.

To illustrate this more tangibly, Gordon invites his readers to reflect on the rate of progress between the mid-late 20th Century and 2020s. Imagine after that first nap as a typical American, you had taken a second one in 1940, waking up in the 2020s. Your fridge now has a freezer, and your new microwave lets you reheat your leftovers. You are refreshed by air conditioning. You are far more likely to own a car now, and it’s safer and easier to drive. You have a computer, TV, and smartphone. These are impressive inventions, and some seem like magic, but over time, you realise that your living standards haven’t transformed quite as much as when you woke up in 1940.  Faster, cheaper, better? (Credit: Getty Images)

Faster, cheaper, better?

Gordon claims that the staggering changes in the US of 1870-1970 were built on transformative, one-time innovations, and therefore Americans can’t expect similar levels of growth to return anytime soon, if ever. The remarkable thing is “not that growth is slowing down but that it was so rapid for so long”, he writes. In Gordon’s view, this slowdown isn’t anyone’s fault: “American growth slowed down after 1970 not because inventors had lost their spark or were devoid of new ideas, but because the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by then already been achieved along so many dimensions.”

Gordon builds on fears made famous by economist Tyler Cowen in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation. Cowen similarly argues that the US ate most of the “low-hanging fruit” that enabled consistent growth in American median incomes, and that the country can’t expect to grow like it used to.

So, have all the low-hanging fruit gone? Are “ideas” getting harder to find? A team of economists from Stanford and MIT posed this exact question in a 2020 paper. They found that research and development efforts have significantly increased, while per-researcher productivity has declined. In other words, we’re getting less for our time and money. A lot less. In his analysis of the paper, MacAskill estimates that each doubling of technological advancement requires four-times as much research effort as the previous doubling.

Have all the low-hanging fruit gone? Are “ideas” getting harder to find?

Why? Some from the progress community point to sclerotic funding bureaucracies, which eat nearly half of researcher time and create perverse incentives. This may explain some of the drop-off, but the paper authors found that US research productivity has declined more than 40 times since the 1930s. Is it plausible that US scientific funding became that much less efficient?

Instead, the authors favour Gordon and Cowen’s low-hanging fruit arguments: we’ve found the easy discoveries and now put more effort towards what remains. For instance, compare the insights that Albert Einstein made as a patent clerk, or that Marie Curie unlocked in a rudimentary lab, to multibillion-dollar megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider or James Webb Space Telescope.

We have partially compensated for this decline by increasing the share of the population going towards research, but this, of course, can’t go on forever. Global population growth may help, but this is expected to slow and then reverse before the end of the century. It’s also possible that artificial intelligence (AI) could help reverse the decline – or even initiate a new era of explosive growth – but some researchers fear that superintelligent AI could bring other risks that harm progress, or worse.Is progress slowing down? And if so, what should we do about it? (Credit: Getty Images)

Is progress slowing down? And if so, what should we do about it?

The stagnation hypothesis is not universally accepted. Ideas can be combined and recombined, creating a combinatorial explosion of new innovations, an effect that counters the gobbling of low-hanging fruit. And some have pointed out that if you measure research productivity and benefits differently, the picture is much rosier.

Nonetheless, fear of stagnation is a central motivation for many people in the progress community. Unlike Gordon, however, they are optimistic about their capacity to change it – which leads us to the story of how the progress studies movement was founded.

The origin of progress studies

Around 2016, Cowen received an out-of-the-blue email from Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, who was interested in his book, The Great Stagnation. A few years earlier, Collison had cofounded the online payments company Stripe and now wanted to talk about bigger issues. The pair had a few dinners together in San Francisco and hit it off.

Both Cowen and Collison are infovores. Collison has posted his entire nearly 800-volume bookshelf to his personal site (though he admits he’s only read about half of them). Cowen’s practice of ruthlessly scouring books for the information value they contain and abandoning them – sometimes after five minutes – may make some completionists shudder.

Cowen’s information-production is nearly as prolific as his consumption. The 60-year-old economist has authored nearly 20 books, 40 papers, six years of Bloomberg columns, over 150 episodes of his podcast, and nearly 20 years of blog posts on his popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. During our conversation, Cowen’s voice was hoarse from the marathon of interviews he conducted to promote his most recent book. In 2020, Cowen ranked 17th on a list of the top 100 most influential economists.

Collison, nearly three decades younger and running the fourth-most valuable private startup in the world, has written less, but still found time to publish collections of links on topics like air pollution, culture, growth, Silicon Valley history, and, of course, progress. Stripe’s nearly $100bn (£83bn/€95bn) valuation puts Collison’s net worth north of $11bn (£9bn/€10.5bn). The online payments company combines the lofty “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups with the mundane, competent pipes-building of an infrastructure company.

During the pair’s meetings, Cowen tells me, “we were both talking about the ideas, finding we had common ideas, and somehow hit upon the notion of an article”. So, in 2019, they co-authored an essay in The Atlantic, which argued for “a new science of progress”.

“There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study,” they wrote. “We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘progress studies.'”Science and technology have brought great changes to human life - many of them undoubtedly positive (Credit: Getty Images)

Science and technology have brought great changes to human life – many of them undoubtedly positive (Credit: Getty Images)

Their essay generated criticism. Classicist Amy Pistone tweeted that this was just another example of Silicon Valley reinventing the wheel (or in this case, the humanities). Historian Monica Black tweeted that they ignore the harms of “progress”, a term whose subjectivity means it will reflect the biases of the people invoking it. And Shannon Dea and Ted McCormick, professors of philosophy and history respectively, wrote that, “‘progress’ is a situated and often interested claim about human efforts, not a natural good or a divine gift. It needs critical assessment, not headlong zeal”.

But between Cowen’s intellectual heft and Collison’s ample fortune, progress studies stuck. The pair believe that, unlike past academic fields, progress studies should prescribe action, writing that it, “is closer to medicine than biology: the goal is to treat, not merely to understand”.

What progress studies believes

Since Cowen and Collison inaugurated the field, others have elaborated on what progress studies could look like, and its core principles. Among the most influential is entrepreneur Jason Crawford, who had been writing about progress for years before “progress studies” was coined. His blog, the Roots of Progress, explores examples of scientific and technological development, like why internal combustion beat steam. He also opines on ideas like why progress studies is a “moral imperative” and why people are more “smart, rich and free” than their ancestors.

Crawford has sought to systematise what progress studies means. He argues that the movement holds three premises to be true. First, that progress is real. Material living standards have enormously improved in the last 200 years or so, and that, for whatever reason, “something obviously went very right”. Second, that the good from progress is defined in humanistic terms: “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.” Finally, that societies have the capacity to speed it up or slow it down: “continued progress is possible, but not guaranteed.”

When described like this, progress studies’ beliefs seem so broad that almost anything could fall under its sprawling umbrella. After all, many movements claim to be in favour of improving human welfare. So what exactly is progress studies for and against? It’s still early days, but there are emerging common themes. 

For one, progress studies doesn’t desire a world where humans live more harmoniously with nature. As Crawford writes: “Humanism says that when improving human life requires altering the environment, humanity takes moral precedence over nature.” It doesn’t necessarily want a world with less inequality and prefers to focus more on growing the pie than on how it’s divided. It also doesn’t care much for societal norms that stand in the way of what it conceives of as progress – even ones shared by all cultures. (For example, in the magazine Works in Progress, the researcher Aria Babu recently made a case for artificial wombs to end the burdensome norm of pregnancy.)Many scientists spend a lot of time on administration, rather than doing science - should we seek to change that? (Credit: Getty Images)

Many scientists spend a lot of time on administration, rather than doing science – should we seek to change that? (Credit: Getty Images)

While Crawford and other leaders of the progress community are careful to include squishier things like moral advancement in their definitions of progress, in practice, the organisations and writers that make up the community almost exclusively focus on material advancements, such as boosting economic growth, improving and accelerating scientific research, and increasing housing supply (“Yimby-ism”) and immigration (particularly “high-skilled”).

The worldview of the progress community can also be inferred from not just what they focus on but where. Progress studies broadly prioritises growth on the technological frontier in rich, democratic countries like the US, rather than the catch-up growth that makes poor countries wealthier. This would seem to be at odds with the movement’s concern over stagnating growth and human flourishing: after all, most of the world’s poorest people live in economies that are failing to grow. The movement, to date, has also been relatively uncurious about the enormous economic growth seen in China since the 1980s, which lifted 800 million people out of poverty (although Cowen, to his credit, has made it a priority to understand China’s growth better.)

The typical progress adherent – at least so far – lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and likely works in tech (the Bay Area meetup channel in the progress Slack has three-times more members than any other city). The influence of people like the investor Peter Thiel, who famously declared, “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”, is significant in these communities.

Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the progress community is more excited about revolutionising scientific grantmaking (see “Improving Science”) than digging into the development economics literature on why some countries remain poor.

IMPROVING SCIENCE

Many of the greatest scientists in the world spend nearly half their working time applying for funding, a process that diminishes creativity, collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches and encourages poor research practices. 

What would a better funding model look like? This is the question the progress-inspired Arc Institute wants to answer. The non-profit research organisation aims to deploy its $650m (£537m/€620m) in funding to “accelerate scientific progress and understand the root causes of complex diseases”. Arc investigators will receive full funding for their laboratories for eight years, with no strings attached. Stanford biochemist Silvana Konermann leads the Institute, which is funded in part by Patrick Collison (who is also married to Konermann). 

Ultimately, Arc aims to lead by example. Collison relayed his hopes that “other funders, other institutions, other stakeholders in our prevailing systems, are compelled to themselves pursue other experiments and other models”.

Crawford and Cowen, the two leading intellectual figures of the progress community, come from the objectivist and libertarian traditions, respectively. On a panel at AynRandCon, Crawford described progress studies as adjacent to objectivism, the philosophical system outlined in 20th Century philosopher Ayn Rand’s fiction. Objectivism posits that pursuing one’s own happiness is the proper moral purpose of life and advocates for laissez-faire capitalism, among other things. Crawford also hopes progress studies will lead to “political debates framed in terms of progress and growth, rather than primarily or exclusively in terms of redistribution”. 

Crawford and Cowen also have a specific view of what kind of well-being they are aiming to encourage through progress. It’s not happiness – or even the more established metric of “life satisfaction” – instead, their top priority is increasing “GDP per capita”. Cowen’s 2018 book, Stubborn Attachmentsargues that “sustainable economic growth” should be the world’s civilisational north star. As progress studiers routinely point out, GDP per capita correlates positively with all kinds of things they see as desirable, like consumption, leisure, longevity, and even moral progress. What this account leaves out is that GDP per capita has long been an objective for governments. And as critics routinely point out, it also correlates with less desirable changes like increased fossil fuel and meat consumption. Also, while GDP per capita does correlate with self-reported happiness at first, globally and within countries, average happiness levels stubbornly stay put as nations get richer.

In sum, progress studies deploys a framing and language for progress that appears to be global and all-encompassing, but in practice, it is underpinned by a particular set of social and political worldviews. It’s only one idea of progress, and one idea of what human flourishing means.

Progress and risk

Another fundamental belief of the progress community is that faster technological progress is better. But what if it’s not?

Humanity survived natural extinction threats for hundreds of thousands of years and only gained the power to theoretically end our species in 1945, following the Manhattan Project. The atomic bomb and the unprecedented destruction caused by the war it ended highlight the dark side of progress.

Holden Karnofsky, who leads the foundation Open Philanthropy’s work on improving the long-term future, thinks that, on balance, technology has made human life better in recent history. But he, “doesn’t necessarily think that translates to the future”. He worries that accelerating technological development may increase risks of catastrophes that would wipe out or permanently cripple humanity.

Pointing to rates of violent death, Karnofsky says, “you could tell a story where instead of things getting better, what we’re seeing is that a lot of what’s bad is getting concentrated into unlikely, infrequent but enormously bad events”. (The 20th Century was the third bloodiest of the last 2,500 years, by his accounting.)What is the best response to climate change? For progress studies, stopping growth is not the priority (Credit: Getty Images)

What is the best response to climate change? For progress studies, stopping growth is not the priority (Credit: Getty Images)

Karnofsky wants the progress community to question one of its fundamental premises, saying that it’s important to ask, “do we want more scientific and technological advancement? What kinds do we want?”. (He has been “encouraged” by how much engagement he’s seen from the progress community on these questions.)

While trying to find the crux between progress and the risks it raises, Crawford writes: “My take is that tech progress is default good, but we should be watchful for bad consequences and address specific risks.” Likening humanity to passengers on a road trip in, “a car traveling down the highway of progress”, Crawford posits that existential risk researchers think, “that the car is out of control and that we need a better grip on the steering wheel”.

“We should not accelerate until we can steer better, and maybe we should even slow down in order to avoid crashing,” he adds. On the other hand, progress studies, “thinks we’re already slowing down, and so wants to put significant attention into re-accelerating”. 

“Sure, we probably need better steering too, but that’s secondary,” he says.

This philosophical difference has practical implications. Consider biotechnology, perhaps the greatest source of existential risk in the near future. Biotech advances, like the plummeting cost of DNA synthesis, have made it easier than ever to make diseases more transmissible and deadly. Many progress studiers favour broadly accelerating biotech research by reforming funding models and loosening restrictions on researchers, pointing to the diseases that can be cured with our new knowledge. But the fruits of faster progress in this domain could also advantage bad actors or increase the risk of catastrophic accidents. Risk-oriented approaches to biotech, like those funded by Open Philanthropy, focus on developing defensive capabilities first, like tests that can detect novel pathogens or better PPE.

Or consider the progress-focused approach to tackling climate change, which differs significantly from environmentalist movements (see “Climate Differences”). Crawford has suggested that with, “some highly advanced kind of nanotechnology that gave us essentially, like, terraforming capacity, climate change would be a non-issue. We’d just be in control of the climate.” However, he doesn’t acknowledge until challenged that this technology may increase risks more than it mitigates them.

CLIMATE DIFFERENCES

The past two centuries of growth have been powered by burning carbon, which will most harm people in poverty and future generations. The “degrowth” movement points to these facts as reasons we should deliberately slow economic growth. Pro-growthers respond that dozens of countries have managed to decouple their growth and emissions, and cheap, large-scale carbon-removal can extend the trend. 

The problem? Carbon-removal is expensive, and there’s barely a market for it. A progress-inspired approach? An advanced market commitment (AMC), which guarantees a market for a not-yet-existing technology, which would, in theory, spur large investments in carbon-removal. In April, Stripe launched a carbon-removal AMC with $925m (£764m/€882m) committed by large corporations. Stripe’s climate lead, Nan Ransohoff, helms the project. 

The idea combines different elements of progress studies: a belief in the capacity of technological solutions to big problems, the recognition of a market failure, and significant private funding.

This exchange reveals something important about the intuitions that underlie a lot of the thinking in the progress community. There is an entrepreneurial bias towards action. The prospective benefits of a new technology dominate considerations of what a bad actor might do with it. The fear of missing out overwhelms the fear of losing everything.

Crawford does discuss safety as an important priority and a core part of progress. But, ultimately, as he acknowledges, thoughts about safety and risk are tacked on to progress studies, rather than baked into its DNA.

The future of progress studies

In their Atlantic manifesto, Cowen and Collison subtly reference Karl Marx’s famous quote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Despite the name, then, they are not content to merely study progress; they want action. (Cowen says that Marx was “obsessed with progress studies”.)

In February, Crawford outlined his vision of a thriving progress movement in the next 10 years, hoping for, among other things, academic recognition of progress studies as a valuable interdisciplinary field and a progress studies curriculum in every high school in the world. Crawford sees progress studies as much more than a political movement, telling me: “I think the change we need is at a much deeper, philosophic level.”

Ultimately, the progress community wants its followers to believe that they can do better. Multiple sources paraphrased the slogan “a better world is possible” in our discussions. For Crawford, the vision of that world animates him: “I want humanity to regain its self-esteem and its ambition, to figuratively and literally reach for the stars. I want us to dream of flying cars, fusion energy, nanotech manufacturing, terraforming planets, exploring the galaxy. So it’s not just about policy, but about people’s fundamental attitudes towards humanity and our place in nature.” 

If you fell asleep for another 70 years, might Crawford’s world await you? Would you be living a happier, richer life? Perhaps. But whether you consider this vision to be progress or not will probably depend on your definition of what progress actually means.