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To make progress, we need to study it

The progress studies movement asks a big question — and warns against taking the future for granted.

A miniature ladder leans against a stack of books. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Progress studies,” a new and growing intellectual movement focused on figuring out why progress happens and how to make it happen faster, has what should be one clear advantage: On their own, nearly all the policy proposals that fall under its umbrella should be highly popular.

We should figure out how to build buildings cheaper and faster? Yeah, definitely! We should invent more stuff so that consumer goods get cheaper and people get richer? For sure! We should make better vaccines and cure more diseases? Sign me up!

But the fact that the ideas coming out of progress studies are generically popular on their own doesn’t mean that they’re actually getting done. For all the politicians promising health care reform, health care keeps getting more expensive. Most components of Build Back Better may have polled well, but it’s still stalled in Congress. Even efforts to build out the clean energy infrastructure badly needed to fight climate change are increasingly meeting opposition at the ground level.

The seeming popularity of such ideas in theory butts up against hard limits in practice. Sure, better vaccines sound nice, but can you get a spending bill through Congress that pays for it? Cheaper housing is a popular idea — except when people learn it means developers in their neighborhoods building buildings they might not like the look of.

And sometimes we know what’s broken and want to fix it, but don’t know how. Case in point: Productivity growth seems to have slowed in recent years, which is very bad — but you can’t pass a law that says “fix productivity growth.”

All of which raises the question: If the concept of progress is so generally popular, why is it the US and so many other countries seem to struggle with actually creating the conditions and policies for progress to happen? But a key idea of progress studies is that progress hasn’t been the default in human history. When progress isn’t prioritized, it doesn’t happen. And prioritizing progress is not at all the same thing as vaguely thinking it would be nice.

That’s one reason why Caleb Watney, a researcher who has worked at the Progressive Policy Institute and the R Street Institute on technology and innovation policy, helped found the new DC think tank Institute for Progress, which is focused on translating ideas from progress studies and related intellectual movements into a format that policymakers can use to actually solve problems.

Progress studies, Watney told me, “is a more focused and dedicated look at the question of why and how progress happens, and how can we encourage a new set of institutions to increase the pace of progress today.”

Does progress studies make any sense?

In 2019, economist Tyler Cowen and Stripe CEO Patrick Collison wrote an Atlantic article that served as a manifesto for a new discipline: “There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study.”

The internet reaction was instantaneous and largely negative. Wasn’t progress studies just “tech bros” reinventing the wheel? Isn’t this just economic history, or development economics, or merely another name for interdisciplinary studies in general?

But Watney told me that “progress studies is supposed to be a bit more like medicine than like biology.” Economic historians might be invaluable in nailing down why the Industrial Revolution started where and when it did, but they don’t tend to try to answer the question of how we kickstart growth now. Progress studies, Watney adds, “should be trying to pull from all of those disciplines — economic history, econometrics, psychology.”

At the root of all the internet unease, I suspect, is something other than strong feelings about economic history: a sense that progress studies is at odds with our current national attitude of pessimism. Surveys find high rates of young people who are fundamentally skeptical about technology, industry, the global economy, and the idea that getting richer will solve the world’s problems.

While progress studies might superficially be made up of popular ideas, it runs the risk of coming across as something deeply unpopular: generic optimism for an audience of pessimists. Progress studies is popular in Silicon Valley, which is naturally enthusiastic about the value and promise of tech, and it’s easy to assume that adherents believe that the modern economy is working great and the only thing needed is more of what we’re doing already.

Pessimistic critics might be more satisfied, though, with a fuller articulation of progress studies, which is much less optimistic than a glance at their policy proposals might suggest. “A lot of what we’re saying is that things aren’t working,” says Watney. Tech ought to be sweeping the world and making us richer than ever before — but in important ways, it doesn’t seem to be (at least, not in rich countries). Productivity growth isn’t keeping up. The cost of living isn’t falling. Progress in technology should mean more than just going from 140 character tweets to 280 character ones.

Progress studies, then, is less a love letter to Silicon Valley as it stands and more a frustrated cry for it to be something better. To respond to progress studies with “what has all this recent ‘progress’ gotten us” is missing the point — the last few decades haven’t gotten rich countries the real, meaningful affluence and freedom that this much wealth ought to enable, and progress studies is in significant part about trying to figure out why.

A fairer criticism, I think, is that the cross-disciplinary questions posed by progress studies are simply too broad to be answerable. Maybe our inability to build cheaply or halt the rising cost of medicine or accelerate the slowing pace of technological innovation are three problems that don’t really have all that much to do with each other, and there’s little point in building a movement around fixing all of them.

Progress studies advocates counter that in liberal policy circles, the fundamental argument that “abundance and prosperity are good” is actually a much harder sell than it might seem. There’s a lot of doubt that growth in itself is good. It’s that doubt that fuels the degrowth movement, which holds that we must shrink the economy to reduce carbon emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change. Instead of growing the pie, we should focus on more equitably dividing it up. And while the degrowth movement isn’t politically credible — good luck finding a politician who runs on its tenets — the vague unease it speaks to is genuinely widespread.

But while we need economic redistribution in an increasingly unequal world, a focus on redistribution in a world without growth is zero-sum, contentious, and ultimately ugly; our unease makes sense, but it fails to cohere into a policy agenda that would actually work.

Progress studies could achieve a lot just by taking the growth ideals lots of people pay lip service to and making them actionable and appealing — and by separating out, Watney told me, the argument that growth is important and good from the argument that present-day industry should be unquestioningly backed. Right now, people are justly skeptical of Silicon Valley’s ambitions. But throwing out the entire concept of growth and prosperity as a response would be a serious mistake — and arguably immoral.

Progress studies is then, perhaps, best understood as an effort to fish the baby out of the bathwater, preserving a space to celebrate the power of technological progress and material abundance while acknowledging that it doesn’t happen by default and might, right now, not be happening nearly as much as is needed.

Weaving disparate strands together

One of the points of any intellectual movement is to unite lots of disparate threads of concern as part of a single tapestry, and part of the point of any political movement is to unite lots of interest groups as part of the same faction.

Right now, many of the individual efforts to break through the loggerheads in our current system and make construction cheaper, or build massive new vaccine factories, or fix health care, or totally transform how we fund scientific research, tend to run aground amidst forces that keep us tied to an unsatisfying status quo.

Those forces have proven very intractable to try to fight one by one, as anyone who has followed California’s tortured efforts to accelerate housing, or the decades-long fight for rural internet access, can attest. So enormous gains could be won by conceptualizing all of those separate fights as planks of a single larger policy agenda, backed not by the generic and nearly universal conviction that progress is probably important but by a specific conception of it.

Progress studies argues that progress is as fragile as it is important. Progress is not the default state of human societies and has been far more the exception than the rule throughout human history; it won’t happen unless there is deliberate and concerted work to make it happen.

And whether or not progress happens has the highest of stakes for humanity’s future. Abundance and material prosperity, Watney said to me, doesn’t simply produce higher incomes and greater comfort; it ideally also produces “moral growth.” A society where housing is cheaper has less homelessness and more compassion for the homeless that remain; one where job growth is strong might be more open to immigrants and more resistant to toxic populism.

We’ll see if progress studies can offer a conviction that replaces generic pro-growth sentiment, or policy prescriptions that actually get things done. I hope it does, and I plan on watching closely.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!