Progress Studies

September 16, 2019 • #

A few weeks back, Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison co-authored this piece for The Atlantic calling for research into the study of progress1. From the thesis of the piece:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean 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. For a number of reasons, 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. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

This is an idea I’ve been increasingly interested in with my reading selection and my content here on the website — from contemporary works in the camp of embracing the enlightenment and its benefits like Nick Christakis’s Blueprint and Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, to the political philosophy of The Federalist Papers and historical background in The Origins of Political Order. Common threads emerge in optimism and a desire to understand the dynamics that have allowed humans to flourish over the course of the past few centuries.

Jasmine Wang from OpenAI wrote this excellent follow up post full of related prior art and links to past literature on the theme of scientific progress. As she says in the post, the goal is for it to become a “wiki” of sorts to establish an organic review of the state of what we know about how we make progress — How does it happen? How do we measure it? What are its drawbacks?

The list of books and articles is a gold mine of interesting material. A few I’ve bookmarked for future reading:

If you’re also interested in joining up in this conversation, there’s a Slack group that’s formed, now at about 300 members. In the week that I’ve been following along the conversation, it’s showing some signs of hope that it could be one of those rare corners of the internet with civil conversation and discussion on a broad range of topics. I’ll keep following this thread and see where it leads.

  1. Linked in an edition of Weekend Reading last month.