Discover more from Risk & Progress
What is Progress?
And why we need to talk about it.
Risk & Progress| A hub for essays that explore risk, human progress, and your potential. My mission is to educate, inspire, and invest in concepts that promote a better future for all. Subscriptions and new essays are free and always will be. Paid subscribers gain access to the full archives.
Why do we assume that technology always improves? Could it regress? Could the progress that humanity has thus far achieved be but a fleeting efflorescence? After all, this has happened before, Europeans of the Middle Ages lived amongst the ruins of Roman cities and the architectural wonders of an ancient civilization more advanced than their own. Could our future generations end up living in the decaying and overgrown canyons of early 21st-century cities?
This may sound hyperbolic and perhaps it is, but the point that needs to be impressed is that progress is not guaranteed, it flourishes under specific conditions and absent those conditions, may stall or even reverse. Indeed, we are seeing worrying signs that progress may be stalling in the modern world.
As an amorphous concept, “progress” can be fairly difficult to define. The simplest definition, one employed in Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen’s seminal article in The Atlantic, We Need a New Science of Progress, defines progress as “the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.”
Progress, by this broad definition, is the sum total of all cumulative advances in knowledge that humans have acquired and retained over thousands of generations. These advances include such simple discoveries as which kinds of wild berries are safe to eat, to the knowledge required to fashion the unimaginably precise lenses and high-powered lasers of the lithography equipment used to make the latest microelectronics. It includes the invention of education systems, political systems, and everything in between.
We may think of progress as the expansion of human individual opportunity. Every person who does not die of preventable disease has a greater opportunity to live, experience, and contribute to that shared human knowledge base. Every child who goes to school and learns basic literacy has new windows of opportunity opened to them that otherwise would not have been. Every household linked to the internet has access to more knowledge than entire libraries had just a few decades ago.
Indeed, for much of human history, basic mathematics and the written word didn’t even exist. This bottleneck confined the teaching of knowledge to oral stories that had to be memorized by storytellers. Even once writing was invented, the skill was reserved for only an elite few scribes. It was not until the 20th Century that most of us were able to read and write, a percentage that is improving by the day.
This acquired knowledge is a means to an end. Medical knowledge has advanced tremendously in the last few centuries. Women dying during childbirth, once a fairly common occurrence, is now rare. By the same token, the children that they give birth to are far more likely to reach adulthood. Our scientific advances from germ theory to the concept of inoculation, to modern mRNA vaccination, have eradicated entire diseases, including the scourge of smallpox, once a leading killer of our species.
At the same time, technological and organizational advances in the material realm have made us wealthier. In much of the world today, the poor live lives of relative luxury compared to the kings or queens of bygone centuries. The poor have access to proper sanitation, lighting at night, and affordable yet comfortable clothing. This is not to disparage the plight of today’s disenfranchised but to recognize relative improvement over time.
So why do we need to talk about progress now? For myself and others, Collison and Cowen’s article sparked something of a groundswell that properly framed a discussion and movement that was stirring and churning online. For years, I was fascinated by and enjoyed studying the confluence of political science, technology, and history. However, I lacked the terminology to precisely define what it is I was actually studying or hoping to achieve, but there it was, neatly defined in Collison and Cowen’s article: progress.
Armed with the proper framing, I must agree with Collison and Cowen that progress is indeed woefully understudied and generally misunderstood. There are no degrees, certificates, or formal fields of education that seek to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the dynamics of progress, how it came about, or what may threaten it. As a consequence, there is also no formal intellectual movement to understand how we can sustain or speed up the progress we have already made. This fact should alarm us all.
Nonetheless, the “Progress Studies” movement is developing organically online. Professors, educators, economists, and yes, some with no formal training or credentials whatsoever, are connecting with one another for a shared purpose; to understand the origins of human progress. Hopefully, armed with this understanding, we may be able to engineer the conditions that give rise to progress in more parts of the world, spreading and sustaining human advancement into the 22nd Century.
Humanity has reached a pivotal point in its history. While the Homo sapien species has walked this Earth for several hundred thousand years, most of our “progress” has occurred only in the last few hundred. Humanity now possesses the technological might to be able to destroy the very planet that we inhabit and depend on. At the same time, we have just enough progress behind us such that we are able to retrospectively study why this explosion in knowledge occurred in the first place. The goal of progress studies, as Collison and Cowen put it:
It would consider the problem as broadly as possible. It would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.
The above graph from Our World in Data illustrates what is at stake. It charts estimated global GDP over the last 2000 years, a sliver of human existence. The pronounced explosion at the end is us; a mere blink of an eye in the human experience. Yet, in that blink of an eye, food output soared, famines became more infrequent and less severe, literacy became commonplace, life expectancy surged, and material wealth exploded as extreme poverty plunged. Progress Studies seeks to understand and defend this exponential improvement in the human condition.
Risk & Progress
It was on the heels of that short article in The Atlantic that I launched the Risk & Progress newsletter. The goal of Risk & Progress remains simple; to read and absorb everything written on the topic of progress, including risks to human progress, and to compile the sum total of knowledge together in one place, while making it readable and accessible for non-academics. That last part is crucial because, should these ideas, concepts, and lessons be locked in an ivory tower or obscured behind a thicket of academic terminology, they will be of little use to the general public.
My desire to make this knowledge more accessible comes from a deeply-seated fear that human progress in the 21st Century is greatly at risk. Mitigating this risk and ensuring continued prosperity requires instilling the knowledge we have in as many people as possible, including policymakers who have the ability to draft legislation that determines the course of future history.
Progress is not inevitable, it does not march in one direction or arise spontaneously. Progress requires specific economic, social, and political conditions that allow for risks to be taken, experimentation, and yes, failure. This means, however, that progress is a choice. The human species is fully in control of whether or not we allow the progress of the last few centuries to continue. In this fact, I am comforted. The question is, do enough of us recognize the value and importance of progress to do so?
You also may like…