Big Think magazine has a special issue on progress out today, featuring writers including Tyler Cowen, Charles Kenny, Brad Delong, Kevin Kelly, Jim Pethokoukis, Eli Dourado, Hannah Ritchie, Alec Stapp, Saloni Dattani, and yours truly.

My piece is a revised and expanded version of “We need a new philosophy of progress,” including material from “Why do we need a NEW philosophy of progress?” and from recent talks I’ve given. Here’s an excerpt from the opening:

The title of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was “A Century of Progress”; the 1939 fair in New York featured “The World of Tomorrow,” and people came back from it proudly sporting buttons that said “I Have Seen the Future.” In the same era, DuPont unironically used the slogan “better things for better living… through chemistry.”

In the 1950s and ‘60s, people looked forward to a future of cheap, abundant energy provided by nuclear power; Isaac Asimov even predicted that by 2014, appliances “will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes.” A 1959 ad in the Los Angeles Times sponsored by a coalition of power companies referred to “tomorrow’s higher standard of living”—without explanation, as a matter of course—and illustrated the possibilities with a drawing of a flying car.

Today, the zeitgeist is far less optimistic. A 2014 editorial in The Atlantic asked “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” Jared Diamond has called agriculture “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Economic growth is referred to as an “addiction”, a “fetish”, a “Ponzi scheme”, or a “fairy tale.” Some even advocate a new ideal of “degrowth”.

We no longer assume that tomorrow will bring a higher standard of living. A 2015 survey of several Western countries found that only a small minority think that “the world is getting better.” The most optimistic vision of the future that many people can muster is one in which we avoid disasters such as climate change and pandemics. Young people are not even that optimistic: in a recent survey of 16- to 25-year-olds in ten countries, more than half said that “humanity was doomed” from climate change.

What happened to the idea of progress?

Read the whole thing at Big Think.

New Comment
2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:17 AM

Thanks! I've only just started reading and there's really good stuff here.

My own take: in order for the zeitgeist to be optimistic on progress, it has to seem possible for things to get better. And for things to get better, it has to be possible for them to be good. But in most forums, I find, it's almost impossible to call anything good without being torn to shreds from multiple sides. We've raised the bar beyond what mere mortals can achieve, and retroactively damn the past's achievements by applying standards that even now are very far from universal. It's like Calvinist predestination, but the total number of the elect is zero, so there's not much social incentive to bother trying to improve things. Thankfully, most people try to be and go good anyway, based on their understanding of what that means.

> Control-f "cold war"

> No results found

Asimov and the Apollo engineers grew up benefiting from progress; their children grew up doing duck-and-cover exercises, hiding from it under their desks.  Of course they relate to it differently!

This theory predicts that people who grew up after the cold war ended should be more prone to celebrate progress.  I think that's true: if you go to silicon valley, where the young inventors are, messianic excitement over the power of progress is easy to find.  Isaac Asimov wanted to put an RTG in your refrigerator, and Vitalik Buterin wants to put your mortgage on the blockchain; to me they have very similar energies.