In recent essays I’ve outlined the intellectual-historical need for a progress movement, and the core ideas that I think the budding 21st-century progress movement is based on.

What would a thriving progress movement look like, in terms of activities, programs, and institutions? Here’s what we might see within the next decade or so:

Dozens of public intellectuals writing books and giving talks about the history, nature, and philosophy of progress.

  • Academic recognition of “progress studies” as a valuable interdisciplinary field. As Collison & Cowen said when they coined the term, this wouldn’t mean reorganizing academic departments, but “a decentralized shift in priorities among academics, philanthropists, and funding agencies,” including journals and conferences.
  • School curricula to teach the history of progress at the K–12 and undergrad level. I’ve created a high-school progress course; a curriculum like this should be at every high school in the world.
  • Art & entertainment that sounds themes of progress, such as optimistic science fiction, or biopics about great scientists, inventors, and founders. (I would start with Norman Borlaug.)
  • More journalism about progress, and more journalists exhibiting industrial literacy.
  • Political debates framed in terms of progress and growth, rather than primarily or exclusively in terms of redistribution.
  • Experiments in new models of funding, organizing, and managing scientific and technological research, such as the efforts covered recently in Endpoints and The Atlantic (see also the Overedge Catalog for a broader list).
  • Scientists, engineers and founders drawing inspiration and courage from this movement, and seeing their work as having the potential to be part of a grand and noble quest to improve the human condition.

The foundation of all of this is intellectual work: a lot of hard research, thinking, writing and speaking. The philosophy of progress has barely begun to be elucidated. To succeed, this movement will need much more than just “yay progress!” or “look at this hockey-stick graph!” Those notions are the beginning of this body of thought, not the end. As I wrote recently, we need to answer the challenges that arose in the 20th century and caused many people to sour on the idea of progress. Without more serious intellectual work here, we risk falling back on the naive 18th- and 19th-century notions of progress that proved wrong and led the world to start questioning the entire enterprise.

I see at least four major areas for progress intellectuals to work on:

  • History: The story of progress has never properly been told for a general audience. History is the motivation for this entire enterprise, and it is the empirical foundation that the whole thing rests on. Examples in this genre include the first two parts of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the bulk of Enlightenment Now, and most of this blog.
  • Theory: addressing the questions I outlined as making up a “philosophy of progress”. Examples here include The Beginning of Infinity, A Culture of Growth, the last three chapters of Enlightenment Now, and McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy.
  • Solutions to problems of the modern world: climate, pollution, job loss, safety, etc. This is necessary as a proving ground for theory, to overcome the objections of skeptics and opponents, and most importantly because many of these problems are real, and solving them is part of progress itself. One example on my future reading list is Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
  • Vision for the future: What kind of world do we want to create? This complements history, taking the arrow of the past and extending it into the future. Futurism serves as motivation and inspiration: both for those working to promote progress generally, and especially for those working on the front lines of science and technology to advance it. A prime example here is Where Is My Flying Car?

My main contribution to the above efforts is the book I’m working on, The Story of Industrial Civilization: Towards a New Philosophy of Progress for the 21st Century. But as an organization, The Roots of Progress will be working to help make all of the above happen, both by empowering intellectuals and creatives who want to advance this program, and by building community, both online and off.

This is the work of a generation. In large part this is a program to change a culture, and cultural change is slow. But the goal is worth it, and we are in for the long haul.

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:27 PM

A wonderful initiative, best of luck with your book, I’m already looking forward to it!

I believe there are two-fold hindrances for wider acceptance and adoption of such progress-positive ideas, which of course come back to things already mentioned in your posts, and in comments to them. 

First of all, the 18th-19th century progress movement came on the back of tangible progress on multiple fronts of society, from population growth, technological development, increasing military/political strength vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and broad-based improvements in income and quality of life across the population. All of these things in their own way supported an ideology of optimism, growth and progress; since everything was actually improving, it was quite natural to believe in further and greater progress too. 

Yet, most of the same trends today are either stagnant, absent or even on negative, rather than positive, trajectories. In that sense, a generally positive or optimistic outlook is that much harder to come by, even in a more narrow technological or scientific sense, where progress remains clear. In another way, this perhaps means that an optimistic philosophy of progress could also be more valuable than ever, if it should supply reasons to invest and work for the future despite a bleaker outlook. 

Secondly, much less importantly, progress or progressivism as words may have certain political connotations among many people, which may in some cases deter interest or adoption due to confusion or association with politics (and in other cases be a positive factor). 

Personally I am currently very interested in the way ideas and values can guide broader success and failure of societies - as such this seems like an extremely interesting project! The way I see it one of the key problems in the west presently is a broad lack of positive vision and future expectations, on the back of the troubling trends mentioned. From your post, it obvious you’re aware of the same issues and looking to solve them. A philosophy of progress could be a key part in of amending the situation, thus immensely valuable. 

Progress studies is really interesting to me, because if one actually believes that it has a >0 chance of working, the EV is so huge that we should be directing huge amounts of funding towards it. As we are not [0], this implies that most organizations/people either think it has no chance of working, or haven't heard of it. 

There's an analogy to be made to internal tooling at most companies. All companies I've been part of radically underfund their internal tooling, even though it has a direct and quantifiable ROI. I don't know why this is. Increasing the 2nd derivative is so massively valuable that it seems obviously worth doing.


[0]: Where we = the government, private donors, universities.

This may come off as snarky, but I mean it entirely sincerely. How do you know the companies you worked for underfunded their internal tooling?

The reason I ask is that I also suspect the lab I work in in my grad program underfunds its internal tooling. But that’s just based on informal observation and speculation about the counter factual benefits that greater investment might bring.

Is that also the basis for your claim? Or do you have more in the way of legible evidence?

I'm sorry that I missed this. 

I don't have a great answer for you. It is largely speculation about counterfactual benefits. I would like to delude myself into thinking it's good counterfactual speculation, but that's probably just my ego talking. 

I'm mostly basing this around things that continue to be problems for years. For instance, I work as an AI research engineer at a large industry lab, and a common task is to launch experiments that use O(100) GPUs. We have a system that automatically schedules these jobs on different data centers depending on availability. It does not have the ability to choose a data center that satisfies constraints on both spot instances and on-demand instances. The scheduler can only do one of these. As a result, we have to manually choose cells. It has been like this for >4 years. 

I have a bunch of additional examples like this that have gone unsolved for years. This is a log way of saying that, to directly answer your question, I don't have much more than speculation. 

Thank you for the response.

Somehow, it seems difficult, yet valuable, for employees of a company, or members of a lab, to think of themselves as living in a small island economy. Somehow, all their efforts go into producing goods and services for export. They do virtually no production, no trade with each other, to grow the economy on the island itself.

That's a really great way to think about it- thank you for that metaphor.

This comment is not to be taken very seriously, but I saw something interesting:

In the description of the Bourgeois Trilogy, it identifies a new “dignity and liberty for ordinary people” as being the idea which drove the general increase in wealth.

I have on my list of books to read a different subject entirely which touches on this same subject. It is Eye for an Eye by William Ian Miller, about the logic of the lex talionis. One of the claims made in the book is that life among biblical civilizations or the vikings at the time of the sagas was more valued than the life of a modern man, and that justice was therefore much more expensive for people. The review I read contains the following quote from the book about the consequences:

Honor societies tended to be small and poor, and the cost of the tough virtue I so admire was in part their poverty; they seldom generated enough surplus to support lordship, let alone expensive governmental institutions. And they made sure that no one did too well for too long because that way lay serious inequality. Remember: they clipped the wings of those who were getting too big for their breeches. And prudent people might keep their talents and ambitions within limits that would prevent eliciting murderous envy from their jealous neighbors. This tough policing of the conditions of rough equality comes at enormous social cost – to innovation, to experimentation, to certain forms of productive ambition.

Taken at face value this produces an interesting trade-off between people's lives being too valuable to allow for the accumulation of much wealth or capital, and at the other end being to cheap to allow the growth of much wealth or capital.

Another claim that I see advanced which feels relevant to this question is that chattel slavery in the American South actively harmed economic growth there (and I'd be shocked if the impact wasn't more severe on the welfare scales).