Progress, loosely defined by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison, is “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 implies direction. Progress towards what? Does this require alignment of values? Is progress enabling us to better express our identities?

Progress isn’t equal, it’s multiplicative. It’s “a mixed blessing—one that resulted in technologies that have allowed many people to live longer, safer lives, but that has, simultaneously, destroyed global ecosystems, caused the extinction of many living species, facilitated rampant population growth, and wreaked havoc on climate systems, the effects of which will be an increase in droughts, floods, storms, and erratic weather patterns that threaten most global societies.” Source

There are no ‘thought leaders’ in bleeding tech, only in established fields. Everyone at the edge of a field is a ‘pioneer’ in a sense.

After a subject gets established, how do we continue to make progress through research? A new DARPA perhaps?

History of Progress


Why might people in the past have been hesitant to embrace the idea of progress? The main argument against it was that it implies a disrespect of previous generations.

Is progress a result of a more creation focused lens rather than a maintenance focused one? Finding answers through working on new things rather than what was revealed in the past

So many historically ‘truthful’ sources like the Church and classical science were wrong about fundamental aspects of the universe (e.g. Earth being the centre of the universe). “By 1600, much of ancient wisdom had crumbled.”

Skepticism as the taproot of all knowledge, heavily Cartesian

However, writing, the printing press, and other tools allowed us to extend our mind and conceive of knowledge as cumulative.

Progress Studies

The study of the how and why of progress.

There are ecosystems that are better at generating progress than others, perhaps by orders of magnitude. What do they have an in common?

What enables progress? “Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong? Can we deliberately engineer the conditions most hospitable to this kind of advancement or effectively tweak the systems that surround us today?”

How can we enable useful progress in the future?

From a more epistemlogical standpoint, how much of progress just comes down to good:

  1. pedagogy
  2. networks (re: social graphs)
  3. chance and circumstance

”Organizations as varied as Y Combinator, MIT’s Radiation Lab, and ARPA have astonishing track records in catalyzing progress far beyond their confines. While research exists on all of these fronts, we’re underinvesting considerably.”

What might a a new DARPA to catalyze progress look like?

Jasmine has a really good potential curriculum outline:

  1. History and causes: How do we make progress?
    1. History of science and technology: How were useful discoveries made? What was the relationship between funding and knowledge?
    2. Philosophy of technology/ technological progress: How, why, and when do particular technologies emerge?
    3. Meta-science / science of science / social epistemology of science: How do we educate, train, and incentivize scientists?
    4. Mechanism design + incentive design: How do we design incentives to elicit certain behaviours and aggregate specific information?
    5. Cultural components of change-making: How have humans organized change in the past around ideas and processes?
    6. Cause prioritization: How do we decide what to focus on?
  2. Definition and measurement: What sort of world(s) should we be we building towards?
    1. Visions of the future: What type of future/utopia do we want to live in? Is progress to one person necessarily progress to the collective? rel: The ones who walk from Omelas
    2. Progress definition and measurement: How do we define progress and metrics?
  3. Drawbacks of progress: What are the risks incurred by progress? How do we make differential progress?
    1. Costs of progress: Can progress be too fast? How do we mitigate risks (esp those that are irreversible and existential)?
    2. Robust decision-making and better prediction under uncertainty: How can we better predict the impacts of our actions?
      1. (re: catch 22 and the Collingridge dilemma)

What type of Progress?

Do we care more about technological progress or social progress? We can measure social progress via, maybe, Gini coefficient (measuring income/wealth inequality). Technological progress might be measured by our ability to impact the universe, the physical world around us.


Happiness isn’t necessarily highest in the places with the most technological progress

Is it wrong to try to measure progress in terms of people’s happiness? What about the hedonic treadmill, will we eventually just regress to a new ‘normal’?

A humanistic take

Source: How does progress happen? by Kelsey Piper

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.