Bringing a new field of study into cultural relevance is a tall order. But behind the scenes of the rise of “progress studies” — an interdisciplinary field focusing on economic, scientific, and cultural advancements that drive up living standards — is Tamara Winter, curating ideas, stories, and resources for a more optimistic culture of progress.
Winter is on the brand communications team at Stripe, an online payments platform that aims to “increase the GDP of the internet,” and is the commissioning editor for Stripe Press, a publishing company that bills itself as a hub of “ideas for progress.” It republishes past works that have renewed relevance, draws scattered existing works together, and sometimes publishes entirely new material.
Patrick Collison, Stripe’s CEO and co-founder, co-authored the essay that helped launch progress studies. With the economist Tyler Cowen, he published a surprising claim in the Atlantic in 2019: that despite society surfing a long wave of rising living standards and technological innovations, we know little about the phenomenon of such progress itself. “There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up,” they wrote.
In the years since, the field of progress studies has been taking shape across a growing coalition of both private and public actors. To be sure, many of the field’s constituent parts, from economic growth to biomedical innovation, have long-running academic fields and tomes written about them. But as a standalone discipline, progress studies has gained prominence precisely because it manages to engage a wider audience than academic journals and conferences tend to reach, from Silicon Valley titans to New York Times columnists.
In addition to publishing progress-oriented writing for general audiences — like J. Storrs Hall’s Where Is My Flying Car? — Winter hosted a limited Stripe Press podcast series, Beneath the Surface, which took on the herculean task of making infrastructure, like transit systems and supply chains, interesting to a wide audience. Previously, she led communications for the Charter Cities Institute, a nonprofit working on new governance systems to help accelerate economic growth in developing countries.
Winter is also a board member of the think tank Institute for Progress, which, as its name suggests, is focused on advancing progress studies. Its existence demonstrates the maturation process of progress studies from blogs and scattered researchers to official partnerships with the US government, like helping the National Science Foundation experiment with better ways of funding and supporting innovation.
Ultimately, making progress on progress requires more than research alone. It requires a culture that embraces institutional experimentation, tolerates risk and learns from failures, and generates enough buy-in to have political impact. And, crucially, it requires a vision that steers technological progress toward shared prosperity to tie it all together. Winter is working to imbue that vision with optimism. When so many imaginings of the future lean dystopian, she aims to question “the fundamental assumptions that we have about the world that we’re going to live in tomorrow,” as she put it in a 2020 panel discussion. That, in turn, makes it easier to believe that the future can be as abundant and convivial as we might sometimes, in moments of lapsed pessimism, allow ourselves to imagine.