I’m excited to announce that The Roots of Progress is now a nonprofit organization.
The Roots of Progress started in 2017 as a side project, not much more than a blog. After Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison published their call for “progress studies”, and the progress community started to form, it became my full-time job. For the first year or so I was an independent writer, supported by grants. Now I have enough support not only to fund myself, but also to hire help and sponsor programs. The new nonprofit organization is the vehicle for this.
The mission of The Roots of Progress is to establish a new philosophy of progress for the twenty-first century. The world needs a clearer understanding of the nature of progress, its causes, its value and importance, how we can manage its costs and risks, and ultimately how we can accelerate progress while ensuring that it is beneficial to humanity.
My focus now is on two priorities. First is the intellectual content, the history and philosophy of progress itself. I’m writing a book on this topic, The Story of Industrial Civilization, and the new organization is sponsoring this work. But much more is needed: more books, articles, talks, journals, documentaries. We need more histories of different aspects of progress, to make the story accessible to a broader audience. We need progress-oriented solutions to the problems facing the world, such as poverty, climate, pollution, job loss, and pandemics. And we need an ambitious, inspiring vision of the future, of where progress can take us. If you’d like to write on any of these topics, get in touch.
My second priority is building out and strengthening the progress network and community. Stay tuned for announcements here.
For advice and governance, I’ve formed a board of directors. The people I invited, while not in the limelight of the progress community, have been some of my strongest supporters: Ray Girn, CEO of Higher Ground Education (which commissioned my high school progress course), and Anil Varanasi, CEO of Meter. Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen are serving as advisers (as they have informally, ever since I was considering going full-time).
Our first-year fundraising goal is $500,000, and thanks to generous donations from Patrick and John Collison among others, we’re already more than halfway to that goal. You can support us through Patreon, or get in touch to talk about a larger or one-time contribution. (We’ve filed for IRS recognition of our status as a 501(c)(3) public educational charity. In the US, donations to such organizations are tax-deductible. The recognition is expected later in 2021, and will be retroactive to our founding in May.)
The Roots of Progress is working towards a world in which the idea of progress is communicated through education and journalism, creating industrial literacy among the public. A world with a positive vision of the future, embodied in optimistic sci-fi and new World’s Fairs. A world where young people see progress as a meaningful career, and where new organizations for science, research and development give them the career paths they need to build the future.
Thank you for joining us on this journey!
Cool! I've read and enjoyed many of your most popular essays.
I'd like to see RoP investigate the role of unpaid work in human progress. I have the impression that many of the famous scientists and polymaths of the 19th century (and earlier) were wealthy, often via inheritance rather than entrepreneurship (correct me if I'm wrong). This implies that free time enabled their scientific hobbies which drove human knowledge forward. (Meanwhile, I'm an open-source developer who has put thousands of volunteer hours into free software that corporations would not normally produce.) So, among all the work our economy doesn't reward, how much of it is important, and how can society arrange to do more important work of this sort?
In my opinion there is a particularly important underappreciated category of work that can be done to hasten progress, work that one of Scott Alexander's old stories alludes to...
Humans must spend a lot more time than necessary learning before they can advance any "state of the art" further than it has ever gone (this is especially true for the non-geniuses like myself, those of IQ 110 or 125 — these brains greatly outnumber the geniuses, so there is value to society in harnessing them). Plus I feel like the whole LessWrong project of sorting out the truths from the falsehoods feels unnecessarily slow and laborious, and mostly futile: having discovered a truth, sharing it with others is only occasionally useful, as others will normally go on believing whatever they believed already. For reasons such as these, I believe that "Improving Human Intellectual Efficiency" will be one of the pillars of future progress (but I've greatly procrastinated at publishing anything about this, and can only offer a draft).
It's true in the past, that many scientists and engineers were independently wealthy (and yes, often though not always through inheritance). Others had patrons or got jobs as assistants to other scientists. More here: https://rootsofprogress.org/funding-models-for-science-and-innovation
Today there's a set of institutions to support science and a whole career path based on them. What remaining important work is there that's not being rewarded? I don't know off the top of my head. My guess is that it's something that most people don't think about and that doesn't have a prominent role in society—like science itself in the 17th/18th centuries.
On your second point, I agree that improving intellectual efficiency is an important part of progress. But I think that pretty much all of information technology, from the first writing system to the Internet, has been part of that effort.
Academic science works for learning about objective knowledge. It works less well for learning subjective knowledge like skills. If we look at the question like how one becomes a good software engineer, academia does pretty purely at answering the question.
We have inadequate equilibria where nobody is payed to solve it but it's possible for someone who's not payed to organize solving it.