You are a typical American in 1870. You live on a farm. If you’re a man, you probably started a life of manual labor as a teenager, which will end when you’re disabled or dead. If you are a woman, you spend your time on housework that requires a lot of work. If you are black or any other minority, life is even harder.
You are isolated from the world, without a telephone or postal service. When night falls, you live by candlelight. You defecate in a toilet outside the house.
One day, you fall asleep and wake up in 1940. Life is totally different . Your house is “connected to the grid”: you have electricity, gas, telephone, water and sewage.
You marvel at new forms of entertainment, such as the phonograph, radio, and movies. The Empire State Building looms over New York, surrounded by other impossibly tall buildings. You may have a car, and if you don’t, you’ve met people who do. Some of the richest people you know have even flown on planes.
These transformations came about thanks to a “special century” of unusually high economic growth between 1870 and 1970. They were documented in economic historian Robert Gordon’s 2016 book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth.” – and are detailed in an upcoming book by philosopher William MacAskill titled “What We Owe The Future.”
And it wasn’t just an American story: Industrialized nations underwent dizzying transformations during the early years of the 20th century.
For most of history, the world got better at a slow pace, when it got better. Civilizations rose and fell. Fortunes were accumulated and squandered. Almost everyone in the world lived in what we would today call extreme poverty.
For thousands of years, global wealth – or our best approximation of it – barely budged .
But starting about 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy rose from under 30 to over 70. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved just as dramatically.
The story may not be a positive one for all , or the benefits may not have been equitably 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 stalls? And if so, can we do something about it?
These are the key questions of “progress studies,” a nascent academic field of a self-styled intellectual movement , which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.
Founded by an influential economist and billionaire businessman, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological progress and economic growth, so their ideas and beliefs are not exempt from criticism.
One of the first ways to understand the progress studies movement is to understand its fears. In recent years, a number of researchers and economists have raised concerns that scientific and technological progress may be slowing down, which they fear will cause economic growth to stall.
To illustrate this more tangibly, Gordon invites his readers to reflect on the pace of progress between the mid-to-late 20th century and the 2020s.
Now imagine that after that first nap as a typical American in 1870, you would have taken a second nap in 1940, waking up in the 2020s.
Your refrigerator now has a freezer and your new microwave allows you to reheat leftovers. The air conditioning cools you down. Now you’re much more likely to own a car, and it’s safer and easier to drive. You have a computer, a TV and a smartphone.
They are impressive inventions, and some seem magical, but over time you realize that your standard of living has not transformed as much as it did when you woke up in 1940.
Gordon argues that the staggering changes that occurred in the US between 1870 and 1970 were based on one-off, transformative innovations, so Americans cannot expect them to achieve similar levels of growth again anytime soon, if ever. you get it.
What is surprising is “not that growth is slowing, but that it has been so fast for so long ,” he writes. In his opinion, this phenomenon is nobody’s fault:
“American growth slowed after 1970 not because inventors had lost their spark or were short of new ideas, but because the basics of a modern standard of living had by then been achieved in many dimensions.”
Gordon builds on fears made famous by economist Tyler Cowen in his 2011 book, “The Great Stagnation,” in which he similarly argues that the US ate up most of the ” ripe fruit” that allowed steady growth in US median income, and that the country cannot expect to grow as before.
We have found the discoveries easy and now we try harder for what is left.
For example, compare the discoveries Albert Einstein made as a patent clerk, or Marie Curie made in a rudimentary laboratory, with multibillion-dollar megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider or the James Webb Space Telescope.
We have partially offset this decline by increasing the proportion of the population engaged in research, but this, of course, cannot last forever. World population growth may help, but it is expected to slow and then reverse before the century is out.
It’s also possible that artificial intelligence (AI) could help reverse the decline — or even usher in a new era of explosive growth — but some researchers worry that superintelligent AI could bring other risks that could hurt progress, or worse .
The stagnation hypothesis is not universally accepted. Some have pointed out that if the productivity and benefits of research are measured differently, the picture is much brighter.
Nevertheless, the fear of stagnation is a central motivation for many in the progress community. Unlike Gordon, however, others are optimistic about his ability to change it, which brings us to the story of how the progress studies movement was founded.
The origin of progress studies
Around 2016, Cowen received an unexpected email from Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, who took an interest in his book on stagnation. A few years earlier, Collison had co-founded the online payments company Stripe, and now he wanted to talk about bigger things. The two had dinner together in San Francisco and hit it off.
Cowen is a 60-year-old economist, the author of some 20 books and 40 articles , six years of columns on Bloomberg, more than 150 episodes of his podcast, and nearly 20 years of posting on his popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. In 2020, he was ranked 17th in a list of the 100 most influential economists.
Collison, nearly three decades younger and running the world’s fourth most valuable private startup , has written less but has still found time to post collections of links on topics like air pollution, culture, growth, the history of Silicon Valley and of course progress.
Stripe’s valuation of nearly $100 billion puts Collison’s net worth at around $11 billion . The online payments company combines the lofty “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups with the mundane, competent pipeline construction of an infrastructure company.
During their meetings, Cowen tells me, “we were both talking about ideas, finding that we had common ideas, and somehow we hit on the notion of an article.” Thus, in 2019, they co-authored an essay in The Atlantic that advocated “a new science of progress.”
“There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress , nor directed to the deeper goal of accelerating it. We believe it deserves a specific field of study,” they wrote. “We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘progress studies’.”
Since Cowen and Collison pioneered the field, others have elaborated what progress studies and their underlying principles might be.
Among the most influential is the businessman Jason Crawford, who had been writing about progress for years before “progress studies” were coined. His blog, Roots of Progress, explores examples of scientific and technological development, such as why internal combustion overtook steam.
Crawford has tried to systematize what progress studies mean . He maintains that the movement sustains three premises. First, that progress is real. The material standard of living has improved tremendously in the last 200 years or so, and for whatever reason, “something has clearly gone very well.”
Second, that the good of progress is defined in humanistic terms: “what helps us lead a better life: a longer, healthier and happier life; a life with more options and opportunities; a life in which we can prosper and flourish.
Finally, that societies have the ability to speed it up or slow it down: ” Continuous progress is possible, but it is not guaranteed .”
When so described, progress studies beliefs seem so broad that almost anything could fall under its broad umbrella. After all, many movements claim to be in favor of improving human well-being. So what exactly are progress studies? It’s still early days, but there are common themes emerging.
all for GDP
On the one hand, progress studies does not want a world in which humans live more harmoniously with nature . As Crawford writes: “Humanism says that when the improvement of human life requires altering the environment, humanity has moral priority over nature.”
He doesn’t necessarily want a world with fewer inequalities and prefers to focus more on the growth of the pie than on how it is divided.
Nor does she care much about social norms that stand in the way of what she conceives of as progress, even those shared by all cultures (for example, in Works in Progress magazine, researcher Aria Babu recently advocated artificial wombs to end the onerous norm of pregnancy).
Although Crawford and other leaders of the progress community are careful to include more subtle things like moral advancement in their definitions of progress, in practice the organizations and writers that comprise it focus almost exclusively on material advances , such as promotion of economic growth, the improvement and acceleration of scientific research, and the increase in the supply of housing and immigration (especially the “highly qualified”).
Crawford and Cowen also have a specific view of the kind of well-being they seek to promote through progress. It’s not happiness – not even the more established metric of “life satisfaction” – but its top priority is increasing “GDP (gross domestic product) per capita.”
Cowen’s 2018 book “Stubborn Attachments” argues that “sustainable economic growth” should be the north star of world civilization . As scholars of progress routinely point out, GDP per capita is positively correlated with all sorts of things they find desirable, such as consumption, leisure, longevity, and even moral progress.
What this narrative omits is that GDP per capita has long been a target for governments. And, as critics routinely point out, it also correlates with less desirable changes, such as increased consumption of fossil fuels and meat.
In short, progress studies deploys a framework and language for progress that appears to be global and all-encompassing, but in practice is underpinned by a particular set of social and political worldviews. It is just an idea of progress and an 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 isn’t?
Humanity survived threats of natural extinction 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 reveal the dark side of progress.
Holden Karnofsky, who leads the Open Philanthropy Foundation’s work to improve the long-term future, believes that, on the whole, technology has improved human life in recent history. But he worries that accelerating technological development could increase the risk of catastrophes that wipe out humanity or cripple it permanently.
Karnofsky wants the progress community to question one of its fundamental premises, saying that it is important to ask “do we want more scientific and technological advances? What kind of advances do we want?”
Trying to find the crux of the issue between progress and the risks it poses, Crawford writes: “My view is that technological progress is good by default, but we need to be vigilant about bad consequences and address specific risks.”
Comparing humanity to passengers on a road trip in “a car traveling down the highway of progress,” Crawford argues that researchers who want to reduce the risks of progress think “that the car is out of control, that we need a better grip on the steering wheel, that we shouldn’t speed up until we can steer better, and maybe even slow down to avoid crashing.
Progress studios, on the other hand, “think we’re already slowing down, and so they want to put significant attention on getting back up to speed.”
“Sure we also need better management, but that is secondary,” he says.
This philosophical difference has practical implications. Consider biotechnology, perhaps the greatest source of existential risk in the near future.
Many students of progress are in favor of vastly accelerating biotech research by reforming funding models and loosening restrictions on researchers, pinpointing diseases that can be cured with our new knowledge.
But the fruits of faster progress in this area could also benefit actors with shadowy interests or increase the risk of catastrophic accidents.
Or consider the progress-focused approach to tackling climate change. Crawford has suggested that with “some type of very advanced nanotechnology that would essentially give us the ability to terraform (processes aimed at the intervention of a planet, natural satellite or other celestial body to recreate in it the optimal conditions for life), the change would not be a problem. We would just control the weather.”
However, he does not recognize -until he is questioned- that this technology can increase the risks rather than mitigate them.
This exchange reveals something important about the intuitions that underlie much of the thinking in the progress community. There is a business bias towards action .
The potential benefits of a new technology dominate considerations of what a bad leader might do with it. The fear of missing something outweighs the fear of losing everything.
Crawford speaks of safety as a top priority and a critical part of progress. But ultimately, as he acknowledges, reflections on safety and risk are added to studies of progress, rather than being etched into his DNA.
In their manifesto for The Atlantic, Cowen and Collison make a subtle reference to 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 satisfied with studying progress; they want action (Cowen says that Marx was “obsessed with progress studies” ).
In February, Crawford outlined his vision for a thriving progress movement in the next 10 years, hoping, among other things, for academic recognition of progress studies as a valuable interdisciplinary field and a progress curriculum in all high schools. of the world.
Crawford sees progress studies as much more than a political movement: “I think the change we need is at a much deeper, philosophical level.”
Ultimately, the progress community wants its followers to believe that they can do better. In our conversations, several sources paraphrased the slogan “a better world is possible” .
Crawford is encouraged by the vision of that world: “I want humanity to regain its self-esteem and ambition, to figuratively and literally reach for the stars. I want us to dream of flying cars, fusion power, nanotech manufacturing, terraforming planets, exploring the galaxy. So it’s not just about politics, it’s about people’s fundamental attitudes toward humanity and our place in nature.”
If you fall asleep for another 70 years, could the world of Crawford await you? Would you live a happier and richer life? Perhaps. But whether or not you consider this vision to be progress will probably depend on your definition of what progress really means.
- Garrison Lovely
- Special for BBC News