Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?

From The BBC:

You’re a typical American in 1870. You live on a rural farm. If you’re a man, you likely began a lifetime of manual labour as a teen, which will end when you’re disabled or dead. If you’re a woman, you spend your time on labour-intensive housework. If you’re Black or any other minority, life is even harder.

You’re isolated from the world, with no telephone or postal service. When night falls, you live by candlelight. You defecate in an outhouse.

One day, you fall asleep and wake up in 1940. Life is totally different. Your home is “networked” – you have electricity, gas, telephone, water, and sewer connections. You marvel at new forms of entertainment, like the phonograph, radio, and motion picture. The Empire State Building looms over New York, surrounded by other impossibly tall buildings. You might own a car, and if you don’t, you have met people who do. Some of the wealthiest people you encounter have even flown in a plane.

These transformations, documented in the economic historian Robert Gordon’s 2016 book, The Rise and Fall of American Growthemerged thanks to a “special century” of unusually high economic growth between 1870 and 1970. And it wasn’t just a US story – the industrialised nations experienced dizzying transformations during the early 20th Century.

. . . .

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

. . . .

One of the first ways to understand the progress studies movement is to understand its fears. Over the past few years, a number of researchers and economists have raised concerns that scientific and technological progress could be slowing down, which they worry will cause economic growth to stagnate.

To illustrate this more tangibly, Gordon invites his readers to reflect on the rate of progress between the mid-late 20th Century and 2020s. Imagine after that first nap as a typical American, you had taken a second one in 1940, waking up in the 2020s. Your fridge now has a freezer, and your new microwave lets you reheat your leftovers. You are refreshed by air conditioning. You are far more likely to own a car now, and it’s safer and easier to drive. You have a computer, TV, and smartphone. These are impressive inventions, and some seem like magic, but over time, you realise that your living standards haven’t transformed quite as much as when you woke up in 1940.

. . . .

Gordon claims that the staggering changes in the US of 1870-1970 were built on transformative, one-time innovations, and therefore Americans can’t expect similar levels of growth to return anytime soon, if ever. The remarkable thing is “not that growth is slowing down but that it was so rapid for so long”, he writes. In Gordon’s view, this slowdown isn’t anyone’s fault: “American growth slowed down after 1970 not because inventors had lost their spark or were devoid of new ideas, but because the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by then already been achieved along so many dimensions.”

Gordon builds on fears made famous by economist Tyler Cowen in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation. Cowen similarly argues that the US ate most of the “low-hanging fruit” that enabled consistent growth in American median incomes, and that the country can’t expect to grow like it used to.

So, have all the low-hanging fruit gone? Are “ideas” getting harder to find? A team of economists from Stanford and MIT posed this exact question in a 2020 paper. They found that research and development efforts have significantly increased, while per-researcher productivity has declined. In other words, we’re getting less for our time and money. A lot less. They estimate that each doubling of technological advancement requires four-times as much research effort as the previous doubling.

. . . .

Why? Some from the progress community point to sclerotic funding bureaucracies, which eat nearly half of researcher time and create perverse incentives. This may explain some of the drop-off, but the paper authors found that US research productivity has declined more than 40 times since the 1930s. Is it plausible that US scientific funding became that much less efficient?

Instead, the authors favour Gordon and Cowen’s low-hanging fruit arguments: we’ve found the easy discoveries and now put more effort towards what remains. For instance, compare the insights that Albert Einstein made as a patent clerk, or that Marie Curie unlocked in a rudimentary lab, to multibillion-dollar megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider or James Webb Space Telescope.

We have partially compensated for this decline by increasing the share of the population going towards research, but this, of course, can’t go on forever. Global population growth may help, but this is expected to slow and then reverse before the end of the century. It’s also possible that artificial intelligence (AI) could help reverse the decline – or even initiate a new era of explosive growth – but some researchers fear that superintelligent AI could bring other risks that harm progress, or worse.

. . . .

The origin of progress studies

Around 2016, Cowen received an out-of-the-blue email from Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, who was interested in his book, The Great Stagnation. A few years earlier, Collison had cofounded the online payments company Stripe and now wanted to talk about bigger issues. The pair had a few dinners together in San Francisco and hit it off.

Both Cowen and Collison are infovores. Collison has posted his entire nearly 800-volume bookshelf to his personal site (though he admits he’s only read about half of them). Cowen’s practice of ruthlessly scouring books for the information value they contain and abandoning them – sometimes after five minutes – may make some completionists shudder.

Cowen’s information-production is nearly as prolific as his consumption. The 60-year-old economist has authored nearly 20 books, 40 papers, six years of Bloomberg columns, over 150 episodes of his podcast, and nearly 20 years of blog posts on his popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. During our conversation, Cowen’s voice was hoarse from the marathon of interviews he conducted to promote his most recent book. In 2020, Cowen ranked 17th on a list of the top 100 most influential economists.

Collison, nearly three decades younger and running the fourth-most valuable private startup in the world, has written less, but still found time to publish collections of links on topics like air pollution, culture, growth, Silicon Valley history, and, of course, progress. Stripe’s nearly $100bn (£83bn/€95bn) valuation puts Collison’s net worth north of $11bn (£9bn/€10.5bn). The online payments company combines the lofty “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups with the mundane, competent pipes-building of an infrastructure company.

During the pair’s meetings, Cowen tells me, “we were both talking about the ideas, finding we had common ideas, and somehow hit upon the notion of an article”. So, in 2019, they co-authored an essay in The Atlantic, which argued for “a new science of progress”.

“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,” they wrote. “We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘progress studies.'”

Link to the rest at The BBC

PG is reminded of a conversation he had at an annual meeting of The American Bar Association in the 1990’s (he thinks).

It was a fascinating discussion of Future Studies which sounded then to PG a little like Progress Studies as described in the OP. The guy PG spoke with (PG apologizes for not recalling his name) was the head (and, PG suspected the only employee) of something called The Future Studies Project at Harvard University. The last time PG checked, there was a Department or an equivalent entity that was involved in future studies.

There’s even a Wikipedia entry for Future Studies.

The idea of Future Studies and Progress Studies is that we need to think about and make plans regarding Progress and the Future.

While PG finds nothing inherently bad about this class of endeavors, he thinks that chance and ideas/forces coming out of left field will continue to affect the future and progress to a greater extent than academic studies of those topics.

There are also unexpected political and leadership factors that, as the West considers Russia, China, Ukraine, etc., cause or allow a variety of startling events.

PG would love to know whether any Russia/Communist/Asian/Eastern European/etc. experts predicted the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. This event doesn’t seem like something Progress Studies or Future Studies would predict other than on a level so general that the predictions would be of any value before the event took place.

4 thoughts on “Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?”

  1. Seems they define progress as a continuation of the kind of things that have happened before.

  2. Oh yes.
    It has been predicted for years. In generalities all century.
    Specifically since 2008, when Putin moved to carve out chunks of Georgia (the country, not the state 😉 )

    More, Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014, when Russia carved out Crimea and the US prez did nothing. So this year’s war was expected. Expected enough that tbe US Green Berets and UK commandos have been training the Ukrainian army to fight the NATO way instead of the Soviet WWII way since the Crimean invasion. At the time Ukraine had one of the worst militaries in eurasia.

    What nobody was expecting was for the russian military to be seriously FUBAR. Instead of a quick romp it has turned into a two-way blood bath that will not end until Ukraine is destroyed or Putin dies.

    The reason it was expected is that Ukraine in an intermediate step along one of nine historic invasion routes that Putin claims still matter and thus must be occupied to ensure Moscow security from land attack. If they take Ukraine and still have something ressembling an army, the next steps are Estonia and Latvia to the north, Moldova to the southwest of Ukraine, and the primary target: Poland.

    Which is why Poland is building the biggest most powerful modern army of the region. They won’t stop until they can beat the pants off Russia, Germany, or both. Long memories in that region. The rise of Poland is a prediction of a book I got back in 2009.

    Geopolitics isn’t an exact science but it is accurate enough to predict generalities like Putin wanting to reconstitute Peter the Great’s Empire.

    As for predicting the future *in detail*, serve with a pound of salt.

    BTW, this is my current read. 75% so far.

    Surprisingly breezy read.
    He is a pretty good writer (or has a good ghost).
    His data is convincing. His predictions, plausible, even probable, but I’m not ready to buy into all of them. He seems to be neglecting the impact of US IdiotPoliticians™ and genocidal CCP thugs.
    Still a good read and good world building material.

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