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How does progress happen?

The discipline of “progress studies” wants to figure out what drives discoveries and inventions so we can supercharge human flourishing.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915.
Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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.

What makes inventions and discoveries happen? Are they mostly the work of lone geniuses? The product of highly productive universities and research centers? Is funding, public and private, the best way to jumpstart innovation, or will it happen at its own idiosyncratic pace no matter how much money you throw at R&D?

These are very difficult questions to answer. But there’s a budding new area of research — its practitioners are calling it “progress studies” — dedicated to answering them, or at least to push them toward the forefront of our thinking.

The progress studies movement is very small — mostly a handful of bloggers and researchers — but it’s one of the more intriguing intellectual movements out there. One of its leading figures is Jason Crawford, the author of a blog called The Roots of Progress that explores the history of important inventions and discoveries. Recent posts have been wide-ranging: an explanation of an 1857 proposal to crowdfund a transcontinental railroad; a collection of horrifying stories about factory accidents and how workplace safety eventually grudgingly won the day; the story of steam-engine cars and why internal combustion engine cars beat them.

Crawford worked in tech when he started Roots of Progress, and launched it as a nonprofit and full-time project only recently. I sat down with Crawford to talk about what progress is, what the progress studies movement brings to the table, and what he thinks is missing from our national conversation about inventions, discoveries, and the societies that succeed at encouraging them.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey Piper

What is progress to you?

Jason Crawford

Progress is anything that helps human beings live better lives: longer, happier, healthier, in mind, body, and spirit. And more choices about how we want to live our lives: our careers; where we live; if, when, and who we marry; whether to have kids or not. Fundamentally, I judge progress by humanistic standards.

Now, sometimes in the progress community, especially when we talk about it, we’re using it as a shorthand for a narrower concept of progress, which is more material progress, progress especially in technology and industry and the economy. And that is, I would say, the most obvious form of progress, the most tangible and the easiest to prove and point to and measure. But we should always remember that it’s not the only form, nor is that the ultimate form.

Kelsey Piper

That actually was one of my big questions for you. You do mostly focus on material progress. Why is that? Is that a particularly big or just a particularly measurable component of progress?

Jason Crawford

It’s most tangible and clear. In 1800, the average person on the planet was living on the equivalent of about $3 a day, translated into modern dollars and purchasing power. Living standards for most of the world have risen significantly over those hundreds of years.

This rise in living standards, especially for such a broad part of the population, is absolutely unprecedented in history. It is one of the biggest and most important facts in all of human history.

And I think if you care about the well-being of humanity, you have to look at that fact, and you have to be really interested in it.

Kelsey Piper

So what makes progress studies different from, like, history? Obviously, you study many of the same questions historians study.

Jason Crawford

The existing discipline that it’s closest to is probably economic history. Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison coined the term progress studies in an article that ran in the Atlantic about two years ago. They conceived of it as an interdisciplinary field that would cut across economics, history, economic history, the history and philosophy of science, the psychology of industrial organization, and so forth.

Their call was for something that was interdisciplinary across those fields that would be more prescriptive and a little less focused on [being] purely descriptive. A lot of those fields tell us how the world is. And [Cowen and Collison] were calling for something that would tell us a little bit more: “Well, what should we do?”

My take is that progress studies is not a separate field or academic discipline, exactly. It’s more of a set of basic premises and values that condition how anybody would go about pursuing any of those fields.

Premises such as progress is real and important, but it is not automatic or inevitable. It is something that comes about in significant part because of human agency because we choose to pursue it. All of this leads you fundamentally to the idea that we should study the causes of progress in order to preserve them, protect them, and enhance them, so we can make more progress for everybody.

One of the most prominent economists who’s talked about progress in recent years, Robert Gordon, wrote The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which is a really excellent study of the last 150 years or so of US economic history and technological and industrial progress. At the end of that book, he essentially concludes that the very high rates of progress that we saw over that period were, frankly, a fluke.

And so I think progress studies would approach the same set of facts with a different set of starting premises or assumptions. We might say that, no, actually there’s something here that is not entirely a fluke, that is at least somewhat within human control. And we can keep this trend going if we figure out how.

Kelsey Piper

Gordon’s conclusion — that there were high rates of progress in the past but that’s over now — might surprise people, but that’s actually a stance a number of people have argued, right?

Jason Crawford

This is sometimes referred to as technological stagnation or the stagnation hypothesis. And it’s been put forth in different ways by different people.

Peter Thiel was talking about it at least a decade ago. Tyler Cowen wrote a book about a decade ago called The Great Stagnation. Again, Robert Gordon has put out his own take on it in that book and his other work.

Essentially what it says is that the last 50 years or so — say, since approximately 1970 — have seen slower progress in technology and industry as compared to the previous, say, 100 years. (To be very clear, stagnation does not mean zero progress.)

I was skeptical about this stagnation idea at first, especially when you look at the amazing progress of computers and the internet, until I started studying progress more broadly. And eventually, I came around.

What convinced me was simply looking at how many different parts of the economy were making progress as rapid as computers and the internet, about 100 years prior. If you take the 1970-through-2020 period where we had computers and the internet, and you compare that to 1870 to 1920, in that period you had an equivalent revolution in communications technology with the telephone and radio.

Four children sit in a row under a chalkboard that reads, “Polio immunization here.”
Children await their polio vaccination, 1956.
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

At the same time, you also had about an equal magnitude revolution in electricity with the electric generator, motor, and light bulb. You had an equivalent kind of revolution in the internal combustion engine and the automobile and the airplane. You had the first synthetic fertilizers with the Haber Bosch process, you had the first plastics, with Bakelite. Plus, that was also the period in which the germ theory was developed and applied in the first chlorinated water systems, and vaccines for new diseases. You have, like, five revolutions all going on at the same time.

Computers and the internet are as big as any one of those revolutions. But as big as all five of them stacked up together? I don’t think you can really make that case.

Kelsey Piper

If I were trying to imagine what’s going on there, I would wonder, was it obvious at the time that these five things were revolutionary? Is it possible that, you know, in 2060 or 2160, when we’re looking back on the 2020s, we’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the time when there were five simultaneous revolutions in synthetic biology and in artificial intelligence and in some other things”? Maybe it’s hard to tell at the time which inventions are big ones?

Jason Crawford

You might be right. Certainly, the two you named are probably the most promising things [in terms of], “if we pull out of stagnation in the coming decades, where would it come from?” But the things that I named were clearly revolutionary at the time. What we’re seeing today is potential breakthroughs on the horizon. They’re just not quite here yet.

At the same time, you know, we can also look back over the last 50 to 70 years, at the revolutions that people thought were coming and didn’t quite arrive, or arrived and then failed.

An aerial view of Calder Hall in Cumbria, Britain’s first nuclear power station, which opened in 1956.
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

And so the three big ones that I think of off the top of my head are nuclear power, space travel, and supersonic air travel. I think that the people of the 1950s would be amazed if you told them that nuclear power today, 70 years later, only supplies about 10 percent of world electricity. That is sort of a stunted revolution.

Space travel, of course — we went to the moon and then Apollo was canceled. The Concorde never became really economical, and certainly never became affordable to a wide audience, and ultimately ended up getting canceled. There’s a gap of decades where there was no progress or even regress in those fields.

Kelsey Piper

On the human well-being front, people talk a lot about how it doesn’t necessarily seem like life is a lot better than it was 40 years ago (at least in rich countries — obviously poor countries have been growing in recent decades and that’s really important). Is that part of the stagnation hypothesis?

Jason Crawford

Yeah, absolutely. I would also clarify that the stagnation hypothesis is really about the technological frontier. It’s not about catch-up growth in other countries, which has been good.

Life expectancy is something where [the world] made a ton of progress in the last century and a half or so. A lot of that progress came from the conquest of infectious disease. Just about 150 years ago, we figured out germ theory.

We were also able to develop new vaccines — there was a gap of almost a century from the first vaccine for smallpox in 1796 to the second human vaccine for rabies in 1885. After that, we’ve gotten on average one or two vaccines per decade, continuing to the present day.

And then the third major thing really was the antibiotics revolution. The golden age of antibiotics from the late ’30s to the early ’50s or so was huge. Prior to the late ’30s, mortality rates in the US are declining at something like 2.7 or 2.8 percent per year. And then when you hit that period, they start declining at about 8 percent per year. And then after that, again, it goes back to a 2 percent per year decrease until the 1980s.

So those three things — sanitation, vaccines, and antibiotics — were the big things driving life expectancy in the 20th century. But we’ve hit something of a plateau.

Kelsey Piper

So what is the diagnosis of progress studies about all of this? What do you see as the key drivers of progress? How is that applicable to ending stagnation today?

Jason Crawford

I don’t think there’s consensus within the folks who look at progress. But I have three basic hypotheses.

One is, at the most basic level, cultural attitudes toward progress. In the 19th century, especially the late 19th century, Western culture in general was extremely positive on progress, deeply believed that it was something that everybody can see happening around them. And they felt it was that technological and industrial progress, in particular, the scientific progress underlying that, were fundamentally a good thing for humanity. And all around people can see the improvements to well-being coming from progress.

In the 20th century, this pendulum swung the other way. Especially in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, many people in the West became much more fearful, skeptical, distrustful of technology and industry and perhaps even science. Sci-fi turned much more dystopian.

The environmentalist movement was also extremely concerned about overpopulation, and some of the movement’s leaders opposed any advance in energy technology. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, said, “Giving society cheap, abundant energy ... would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

Fundamentally, a society gets what it values, and when it stops valuing progress it stops getting it, even if that takes a generation or two for you to see the full effects.

Another part is essentially the burden of overregulation. Jerusalem Demsas had an article recently about why we can’t build that touched on this: We’ve grown up just an enormous layer of bureaucracy and regulations around getting anything done.

I think this is a good hypothesis that this was a major factor in the nuclear industry. The regulators (the AEC, and later their successor the NRC) ended up ratcheting radiation standards well beyond what is necessary to protect human health, which caused the costs of nuclear to skyrocket. Community opposition added (in some cases) years of delays, which caused projects to run over schedule and face increased financing costs. By the mid-1970s, nuclear just became unprofitable, and we stopped investing in it.

A man in a lab coat uses tongs to take a substance out of a test tube held behind a shield.
A chemist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, established in 1947 in Upton, New York, dissolves lithium nitrate so radioactive fluorine 18 can be separated out.
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The rationale behind that is preventing harm and protecting people’s rights. But very often, the types of regulations that we have, I think, are not actually giving us safety, they’re giving us safety theater.

The third major factor that I see is the way that we have organized the funding and management of scientific research and overall R&D since about World War II. Since then, starting in around the ’50s and ’60s, we’ve seen a major consolidation of research funding into a small number of centralized government agencies, especially the NIH, which is now our biggest.

The thing about scientific research is that the character of what is going to be the next scientific breakthrough, the next paradigm-busting discovery, is just so hard to predict that I think anytime you have a centralized, homogenous mechanism for directing research, you end up with the potential for blind spots. You end up with the potential for sort of quashing something that would be the next breakthrough because it doesn’t fit the status quo.

So I suspect that we have somewhat hamstrung ourselves by having too much centralization. And in particular, NIH and NSF have been criticized, and I suspect rightly, for relying too much on consensus mechanisms like committee-based peer review. I think there is a case to be made for, if nothing else, less of a monoculture and much more diversified mechanisms for funding research and development.

Kelsey Piper

Our society doesn’t value progress? Silicon Valley is very enthusiastic about “start a company and change the world.” Elon Musk is at least sometimes the richest person in the world, and nobody can argue that he hasn’t been inventing lots of stuff. In what sense are we failing to value progress in a way that we would if we still had the late-19th-century attitudes about it?

Jason Crawford

I think the modern mindset is very mixed about it and very conflicted. We see some of the value of progress, but the immediate reaction to any new development is to worry about how it could go wrong or be misused.

I do think [that skepticism] is because the late-19th-century view of progress was somewhat naive. People were oblivious to the real risks and problems of progress.

We can’t go back to the 19th-century sort of naive optimism. We have to go forward with a new synthesis that combines a fundamental optimism about progress with a more mature and wise and prudent approach to the risks and problems of technology.

In the 19th century, people talked unequivocally and unapologetically about the conquest of nature. Nature was seen as not a loving mother, nurturing and protecting us, but rather an enemy to be fought. People believed uncontroversially that it was possible for humanity to improve on nature.

There were efforts to improve on nature by importing species of plants and animals from non-native habitats. This ended up causing a lot of problems in terms of introducing invasive pest species. We realized, oh, we actually have to be really careful about just importing species willy-nilly and “improving on nature.”

Kelsey Piper

Another example of the “progress mindset” doing terrible harm that comes to mind is the eugenics movement of the 1920s.

Jason Crawford

This is the other huge important theme, which is that technology alone does not lead to a better world. It can only lead to a better world in the context of good moral and social systems.

One thing that I do deeply believe is that our scientific and material technology has raced ahead of our moral and social technology. We need some catch-up growth in moral and social technology.