2022 was another big year for me and for The Roots of Progress. This is my annual review—the one post a year (other than timely announcements) where I go meta and give an update on this project. If you want stuff like this more frequently, you can support me on Patreon or make a donation to get my monthly supporter update.
This year had several highlights. We announced a major expansion of this nonprofit effort and hired a CEO to lead it. I concluded my lecture series, “The Story of Civilization,” and am now writing a book based on the same content. I was interviewed for major publications, spoke at some of the top progress conferences, and co-hosted a couple of events myself. Most importantly, I had a couple of banger tweets.
But I’m going to bury all of those ledes in order to start, as is my tradition, with what I suspect is more interesting to my audience: a selection of this year’s…
The book that fascinated me most this year was American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970, by Thomas P. Hughes, a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer. The book is not only about the century of technological enthusiasm, but also about how that enthusiasm (in my opinion) went wrong, and how it came to an end. My review of this book was so long that I broke it into two parts: one on American invention from the “heroic age” to the system-building era and one on the transition from technocracy to the counterculture. (I may at some point do a third part, on the aesthetic reaction to modernism.) Among the more mindblowing facts I learned from this book are that Stalin made “American efficiency” a part of Soviet doctrine, and that Ford’s autobiography “was read with a zeal usually reserved for the study of Lenin.” Overall this greatly strengthened my understanding of technocracy, one of my themes for this year (see below).
A close runner-up for favorite book I read this year was The Control of Nature, by John McPhee. The book tells three stories: about the dams and levees that control the flow of the Mississippi River, the 1973 Eldfell volcanic eruption in Iceland, and the periodic landslides in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. It’s fascinating to reflect on how nature is truly indifferent to human needs. Even something we take for granted, such as the course of a river, has to be actively, artificially maintained if it matters to humans.
I also finished reading The New Organon and New Atlantis, both by Francis Bacon. In addition to the parts everyone knows (“knowledge is power,” “nature to be commanded must be obeyed,” etc.), most of Organon is devoted to explaining a long list of specific ways that scientists should observe nature and types of evidence they should collect. In some ways he is amazingly prescient (he figures out, essentially correctly, that heat is a form of motion); in others he is surprisingly behind (he rejected the heliocentric theory as late as the 1620s). Most relevant to my work is his argument for why we should expect progress to be possible: he cites previous inventions and discoveries, including the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press, and extrapolates from these to imagine that there are more inventions waiting to be discovered—which there were. Continuing the theme of historical works, I also read some of Philosophical Letters: Or, Letters Regarding the English Nation, by Voltaire, including the letter on smallpox inoculation.
A major research theme of mine this year was economic growth theory. Highlights from my research here include:
“Paul Romer: Ideas, Nonrivalry, and Endogenous Growth,” by Chad Jones (2019). Explains Romer’s Nobel-winning work and places it in historical context.
Paul Romer’s blog. “It is the presence of nonrival goods that creates scale effects…. if A represents the stock of ideas it is also the per capita stock of ideas.“ (From this post, emphasis added.)
“Endogenous Technological Change,” by Paul Romer (1990). The paper that established the importance of the “nonrivalry” of technology, and won Romer the Nobel in 2018.
“The Past and Future of Economic Growth: A Semi-Endogenous Perspective,” by Chad Jones (2022). Key quote: “Despite the fact that semi-endogenous growth theory implies that the entirety of long-run growth is ultimately due to population growth, this is far from true historically, say for the past 75 years. Instead, population growth contributes only around 20 percent of U.S. economic growth since 1950. … This framework strongly implies that, unless something dramatic changes, future growth rates will be substantially lower. In particular, all the sources other than population growth are inherently transitory, and once these sources have run their course, all that will remain is the 0.3 percentage point contribution from population growth. … the implication is that long-run growth in living standards will be 0.3% per year rather than 2% per year—an enormous slowdown!”
Two classics: “A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth” (1956) and “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function” (1957), both by Robert Solow, for which he won the Nobel prize in 1987. In the first, he defines a model of the economy that includes technical change as well as capital and labor; he shows that capital accumulation alone can’t support long-term economic growth, but technological progress can. In the second, he shows how to measure the effects of technical change, and finds they are much larger than the effects of capital.
The much-discussed “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?,” by Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb (2020). Sustaining exponential growth requires exponentially increasing inputs as well, as we continually pick off more of the low-hanging fruit.
“The New Kaldor Facts: Ideas, Institutions, Population, and Human Capital,” by Jones & Romer (2010). A review of what growth theory has accomplished so far, in terms of the facts it can explain, and what the agenda should be going forward.
A few interesting papers on very long-run growth: “Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. To 1990” by Kremer (1993) and “Long-Term Growth As A Sequence of Exponential Modes” by Robin Hanson (2000).
“On the Mechanics of Economic Development,” Robert Lucas (1988). This bit from the introduction has been widely quoted: “I do not see how one can look at figures like these [the widely varying income levels and growth rates around the world] without seeing them as representing possibilities. Is there some action a government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow like Indonesia’s or Egypt’s? If so, what, exactly? If not, what is it about the ‘nature of India’ that makes it so? The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.”
Continuing with some noteworthy books:
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. The definitive, Pulitzer prize–winning account. I learned new things about the development of nuclear physics and of the industrial and managerial challenge of building and testing the bomb. For instance, creating the first critical pile of uranium was a serious technical challenge even after the basic physical theory had been worked out (you have to get very pure materials, build it in just the right shape, etc.) The book also presents both the abject horror of the bomb’s effects on Hiroshima, and also the reasons why the US felt they had to use it—a fair treatment in my opinion.
Nanofuture, by J. Storrs Hall (author of Where Is My Flying Car?) Gave me a clearer idea about how nanotech could possibly work, and what amazing things it might make possible. One misconception I had was that nanomachines would be small molecules. In fact, even a single component like a gear or bearing will consist of dozens if not hundreds of atoms (e.g., see this diagrammatic illustration of nanogears).
How the World Became Rich, by Koyama & Rubin. A book-length academic literature review of economics & econ history work on the key questions of what caused the Great Enrichment, why some countries have caught up to the West, and why others have not. See reviews by Joel Mokyr and Davis Kedrosky.
The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson. A history of the Broad Street cholera outbreak and John Snow’s pioneering epidemiology work. I knew that the early sanitation reformers, such as Edwin Chadwick, didn’t necessarily believe in the germ theory and guided their sanitation efforts by sensible qualities such as sight, taste, and smell—I hadn’t realized that Chadwick was a committed miasmatist, so much so that in his crusade to get human waste out of the trenches and cesspools of London, he dumped it into the Thames, fouling that river and actually exacerbating cholera epidemics, the opposite of his stated goal.
Dreams of Iron and Steel, by Deborah Cadbury. I read the chapter on Joseph Bazalgette and the London sewer system, from which I learned that steam engines were key to the system, pumping sewage from lower levels to higher ones so it can flow downhill.
Flintknapping, by John Whittaker. A guide to how stone tools are made, written for both the archaeologist and the hobbyist. Probably much more than you want to know about stone tools, but it helped me understand one of the first technologies.
The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon, by Stephen Sass. Exactly what it says on the tin.
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein. An interesting book that doesn’t quite live up to its title; it’s at most a history of financial risk.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates. A good summary of the techno-optimist/ecomodernist approach to climate change.
The Economy of Abundance, by Stuart Chase, who coined the term “New Deal”. I’ve only glanced through this one but it was enough to have an interesting conversation with Jason Feifer on his podcast. Pair with the classic “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, by John Maynard Keynes (1930).
The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx. Unlike Das Kapital, you can read this is one sitting. I learned less than I was hoping for about Marx’s critique of capitalism; I learned more than I expected about his critique of all other socialists.
Interesting articles and papers:
“The Great American Fraud,” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. A series of articles that ran in Collier’s 1905–06 on the fraudulent practices of the patent medicine industry. Many of the medicines did not work, some were actively harmful, and many made fraudulent claims of being able to cure tuberculosis, cancer, and many other diseases.
“Notes on The Anthropology of Childhood,” by Julia Wise. Children today get far more love, attention, and developmental help than those in primitive societies.
“Coffeehouse Civility, 1660-1714: An Aspect of Post-Courtly Culture in England,” by Lawrence Klein (1996). In the 1600s, coffeehouses were the equivalent of social media—a place to chat, gossip, and hear the news—and they received many of the same criticisms. Coffeehouses were denounced because they ”allowed promiscuous association among people from different rungs of the social ladder,” ”served as an unsupervised distribution point for news,” and ”encouraged free-floating and open-ended discussion” (which today we call “unfettered conversations”). One writer called them “the midwife of all false intelligence” (which today we call “misinformation” or “fake news”). King Charles II almost banned coffeehouses in 1675.
“The Mechanics of the Industrial Revolution,” by Kelly, Ó Gráda, and Mokyr (2022). The title is a pun: it’s about both the details of how the Industrial Revolution happened, and the craftsmen with machine-building skill who were crucial to it. Davis Kedrosky has a good summary.
“Time is money: a re-assessment of the passenger social savings from Victorian British railways,” by Timothy Leunig. Estimates that “railways accounted for around a sixth of economy-wide productivity growth” in the period 1843–1912.
“Development work versus charity work,” by Lant Pritchett. “I am all for the funding of cost-effective targeted anti-poverty programs. But while it is optimal to do both, we development economists should keep in mind that sustained economic growth is empirically necessary and empirically sufficient for reducing poverty (at any poverty line) whereas targeted anti-poverty programs, while desirable, are neither necessary nor sufficient. Advocates of poverty programs say things like ‘growth is not enough’ or that poverty programs are ‘equally important’ as economic growth but these claims are just obviously false.” (Thanks to Patrick Collison for bringing Pritchett’s work to my attention.)
“A Shameless Worship of Heroes,” by Will Durant. ”For why should we stand reverent before waterfalls and mountain tops, or a summer moon on a quiet sea, and not before the highest miracle of all—a man who is both great and good?” (Hat-tip: Nico Perrino.)
Finally, I don’t read much fiction these days, but over winter vacation I indulged in a few novels. The Lighthouse at the End of the World, by Jules Verne, is not a science-fiction story but rather something of a naval adventure, taking place on an island at the southern end of Tierra del Fuego. Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp, is a sci-fi classic about an archaeologist who is zapped back in time to just after the fall of the Roman Empire, and who makes it his quest to prevent the Dark Ages.
Books I’m in the middle of and will probably feature in next year’s list include Robert Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, and Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies.
My bibliography, I’m afraid, is hopelessly out of date; I’d love to update it with the last couple years of reading in 2023.
I wrote 28 essays (including this one) in 2022, mostly published here on the blog—over 50k words in total, a bit more than last year.
My top essays by views were:
Some themes this year included:
The progress movement. Key essays here include a feature I wrote for Big Think magazine, “We need a new philosophy of progress,” and pieces on the key concepts of progress, humanism, and agency, on the meaning of the term “philosophy of progress”, and on what a thriving progress movement would look like.
The drivers of growth and progress. My framework here is one of overlapping flywheels, which I applied to explain why progress was so slow for so long. I also wrote about a framework for thinking about inventions that seem to have arrived late, and about how we have to consider a very wide range of developments in order to understand progress in any area. Diving into the academic literature on economic growth theory (see reading above), I also drafted a long essay on “ideas getting harder to find”, which I posted for comment but haven’t revised yet.
Technocracy, the idea that progress should be pursued via top-down control by a technical elite (which, to be clear, I do not endorse). I wrote first about a few threads in my reading that made me aware of this concept, followed up with one more thread from the Space Race, and went into much more depth in my review of American Genesis.
In 2022, rootsofprogress.org got almost 135k unique visits and over 250k pageviews. My email newsletter, which is now on Substack, grew almost 30% to about 7,400 subscribers. (If you have a Substack yourself, and you enjoy my writing, I’d love a recommendation—thank you! Here are the Substacks I recommend.)
My big writing project is a book. It’s about the major discoveries and inventions that created industrial civilization and gave us our standard of living, and why technological/industrial progress can and must continue.
Last year, I began a series of talks based on the outline of the book, going through it chapter by chapter. This year, I wrapped that up. Through that process, I completed the first pass of research for the book, and developed a more detailed outline and plan for each chapter.
Right now I’m talking to literary agents and working on a book proposal. I hope to have a book deal with a publisher by Q1 of 2023.
My goal is to make this book a cornerstone of the progress movement, laying the foundation for the new philosophy of progress.
Another major project this year was laying the foundation to take The Roots of Progress, as an organization, to the next level.
Last year, I announced that this blog was becoming a one-man nonprofit research organization. Early in 2022, seeing how much much energy and support there is for my mission, it became clear to me that this organization shouldn’t remain focused solely on my own research and writing. So I spent a lot of time and energy this year planning a major expansion of our activities: the launch of a new progress institute.
One thing we needed was a strategy: a way to focus and prioritize our efforts on a set of programs that would have a real, measurable impact. Prodded by some thoughtful advice from Tyler Cowen, we decided that our initial focus should be on creating the public intellectuals who will build this foundation. Our flagship program will be a “career accelerator” fellowship for progress writers with ambitious career goals. The fellowship will help them hit those goals by providing money, coaching, marketing and PR support, and connection to a broader network. Our vision is that in ten years, there are hundreds of progress intellectuals who are alums of our program and part of our network, and that they have published shelves full of new books in progress studies.
The other thing we needed was a CEO to lead this effort. I was very happy recently to announce that we have found a CEO: Heike Larson. Heike has been following my work for a long time, and shares my passion for human progress. She also has excellent qualifications, including 15 years of VP-level experience in sales, marketing, and strategy roles in a variety of industries, from education to aircraft manufacturing. She will take on all management and program responsibilities; I will remain President and intellectual leader of the organization. I’m excited for her to start in January!
We’re at an exciting moment in history. Momentum is growing for progress studies and the “abundance agenda,” and there is a chance for this to shape the 21st century. But the movement needs a driving force, and careful steering. That is where we hope to contribute.
Another big thing this year was the launch of the Progress Forum, the online home for the progress community.
The primary goal of the Forum is to provide a place for long-form discussion of progress studies and the philosophy of progress. It’s also a place to find local clubs and meetups. The broader goal is to share ideas, strengthen them through discussion and comment, and over the long term, to build up a body of thought that constitutes a new philosophy of progress.
I’m very pleased with the quality of content we’ve gotten so far. Original submissions include:
- Why progress needs futurism, by Eli Dourado
- Nature of progress in Deep Learning, by Andrej Karpathy (Director of AI, Tesla)
- Guarantee Funds / Leveraged Philanthropy, by Anton Howes
Some writers post drafts on the Forum for comment before publishing them to a wider audience, such as:
- The Democracy of the Future, by Tomas Pueyo
- Pre-publication draft of “Death is the Default: Why building is our safest way forward”, by Gena Gorlin
Plus some cross-posts of great essays from Twitter threads and from other blogs and publications:
- Defending Dynamism and Getting Stuff Done, by Virginia Postrel (author, columnist, former editor of Reason magazine)
- Is Innovation in Human Nature?, by Anton Howes
- New Industries Come From Crazy People, by Ben Landau-Taylor
- Where are the robotic bricklayers?, by Brian Potter (cross-posted from Construction Physics)
- When should an idea that smells like research be a startup?, by Ben Reinhardt (PARPA)
- Science is getting harder, by Matt Clancy (Senior Fellow, Institute for Progress)
- It’s time to build: A New World’s Fair, by Cameron Wiese
- The Terrapunk Manifesto - a Solarpunk alternative (highly recommended), by Jack Nasjaq
- Bombs, Brains, and Science, by Eric Gilliam
- One Process (on the nature of innovation, highly recommended), by Jerry Neumann
- Wait, Environmentalists Are Anti-Technology?, by Alex Trembath (The Breakthrough Institute)
- Interland: The Country In The Intersection, by Maxwell Tabarrok
- Effective Altruism and Progress Studies, by Mark Lutter
Huge thanks to the people who worked to create the Forum: Lawrence Kestleoot, Andrew Roberts, Sameer Ismail, David Smehlik, and Alec Wilson. Thanks also to Kris Gulati for nudging this project along, and to Ruth Grace Wong for helpful conversations about community and moderation. Special thanks to the LessWrong team for creating this software platform, and especially to Oliver Habryka, Ruby Bloom, Raymond Arnold, JP Addison, James Babcock, and Ben Pace for answering questions and helping us customize this instance of it. And finally, thanks to Ross Graham, who has been helping recruit great users and content.
Interviews and speaking
Probably my most prominent interview this year was with the BBC, who ran an article on progress studies and quoted me as a spokesman for the movement, along with Tyler Cowen, Holden Karnofsky, and others. It was well-researched and, although somewhat critical, pretty fair in how it represented the progress community.
I did about twenty interviews and fireside chats in all this year, including with the Tony Blair Institute, the Foresight Institute (twice), Jim Pethokoukis (twice), Jason Feifer’s Build for Tomorrow, and the French-language Canadian magazine L’actualité (“Le bien-être de l’humanité passe par le progrès”). I think the most fun and interesting interview, however, was on the podcast Hear this Idea, with Fin Moorhouse and Luca Righetti.
Turning the tables, I played host and interviewed economist and author Erik Brynjolfsson for an Interintellect salon on Automation, Productivity, Work, and the Future.
I also spoke at most (all?) of the top progress conferences ths year, including the Foresight Institute’s Vision Weekend, the Future Forum, Breakthrough Dialogue, and Ignite Long Now. I was also on a panel moderated by Ramez Naam at the Breakthrough Science Summit (no relation to the other “Breakthrough”).
Those are just the highlights. You can see all my published interviews and speaking events here.
My top tweets (500+ likes) of 2022:
- “One ship today carries 3.47 times more than the whole English fleet did 440 years ago”
- Did any sci-fi predict that when AI arrived, it would be unreliable, often illogical, and frequently bullshitting?
- Pretty much every criticism of Twitter / social media today was also leveled against 17th-century English coffeehouses
- I've realized a new reason why pessimism sounds smart
- Air conditioning is underrated
- “The size of cities is determined by transportation technologies”
- “Who knows whether, when a comet shall approach this globe to destroy it, as it often has been and will be destroyed, men will not tear rocks from their foundations by means of steam, and hurl mountains, as the giants are said to have done, against the flaming mass?” Byron, 1822
(Thanks to Perplexity for making this query easy)
This year I grew my Twitter following by 22%; in August, I crossed 25,000 followers.
I also started doing a weekly digest of my best Twitter content on the blog. If you’re not on Twitter much, subscribe by RSS or email and read those digests instead.
Reminder that I also have a Reddit group (subreddit), Facebook page, and LinkedIn page, if that’s what you’re into.
This year I co-hosted two workshops at UT Austin together with Greg Salmieri.
The first was the Moral Foundations of Progress Studies. For me personally, this discussion brought several issues into sharper focus, and I can already see how it will inform my writing. I’m more clear on different views of well-being now, and how those relate to some of the issues that are discussed around progress—such as the Easterlin paradox (that self-reported happiness and life-satisfaction scores don’t seem to increase with rising wealth over the long term). For the group as a whole, I think it broadened people’s awareness of what alternate moral approaches are out there.
The second was a small, informal, half-day workshop on the concept of “industrial literacy” and how we could promote it in education, for instance, by making the history of progress a part of the curriculum in schools. We brought together a number of educators and edtech entrepreneurs for this. My main takeaway was that there are, broadly speaking, two strategies: (1) Top-down, you can try to change the required curriculum standards, or the standardized tests (e.g., imagine an AP test in the history of technological innovation and economic growth). (2) Bottom-up, you can create materials that you market directly to parents, or (at older ages) the students themselves. Strategy (1) is basically political; strategy (2) is basically a media venture.
These events were good, but one thing I’d like to do in the future is make sure that things like this generate tangible, longer-lasting output that can reach an audience well beyond the event itself.
There were also a few local meetups I hosted or co-hosted in the San Franciso area, and one I spoke at in Boston.
I was named to the Vox Future Perfect 50: “The scientists, thinkers, scholars, writers, and activists building a more perfect future.” They did a little feature on me. The list also includes Jennifer Doudna, Max Tegmark, and Max Roser.
Moving to Boston
On a personal note, I’m moving to the Boston area in January. While the move is primarily for my wife’s work, I’m looking forward to the chance to build a new progress network there—the home of MIT and Harvard, of metascience efforts like Convergent Research and New Science, and of many biotech startups. Being on the East Coast will also make it easier to network in DC and New York, and being on Eastern time will make it easier to collaborate with folks in Oxford/London and the rest of the UK and Europe. If you’re in the Boston area, or know people I should meet there, please reach out!
2022 was great, and 2023 is positioned to be even better: diving into the actual drafting of my book, Heike coming on board as CEO, and us launching a new institute and set of programs together.
It’s been six years of The Roots of Progress now—just over three of them full-time—and it’s the most meaningful and impactful thing I’ve done in my life so far. I feel like a “quixotic rider cantering in on his own homemade hobby horse” to intercept the world and its problems at an odd angle, and everything I do is possible only because my “eccentric hobbies” seem to resonate with all of you. Thanks for listening, for reading, for commenting, even for arguing, and for all of your support and encouragement.
I have misunderstood your vision, which appears to be to create a new branch of history:
I had thought you were interested in trying to figure out how to reinvigorate the rate of progress, which some consider to have stalled.
I'm a little surprised and confused by that comment. It seems a bit like telling Sloan Kettering, “I have misunderstood your vision, which appears to be to create a new branch of biology… I had thought you were interested in trying to figure out how to cure cancer.”
Certainly, I am ultimately interested in sustaining and accelerating progress. (I would be whether or not it had stalled—indeed, I was skeptical of the stagnation hypothesis until I was a couple of years into this project.) I think that in order to do that, we need intellectual work to better understand and appreciate progress.
I wouldn't call it a new branch of history, but maybe an interdisciplinary area that combines history, economics, and philosophy.