[Normative] Progress Studies


Progress, as defined by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison, 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”1.

Progress is ‘pre-paradigmatic’; for researchers to conduct ‘normal research’, a research agenda must be set. This is a first attempt at thinking about the relevant literature to inherit from in thinking about scientific and technological progress. Besides agenda-setting, progress studies requires a set of accepted tools, methods, and procedures, which is beyond the scope of this document.

This is a living rough draft; it currently represents a very particular view of the world, and I’d love for it to be shored up as a fuller curriculum, possibly under different organizing taxonomies. The vision is for this document to evolve into a wiki of ‘pointers’ pointing to others’ work on these topics, starting with more thorough literature reviews on specific questions. Also - please suggest alternative taxonomies for organizing research on progress. If you’d like to join the discussion and/or work directly on these questions (inspired by an extra-institutional format like Credibility Coalition), join this Slack 😊.

Also - folks have pointed out that I am referencing material inconsistently (eg missing ‘et. al’s where appropriate) - will fix this in the next pass!

*Nov 2 2019: I apologize for the incorrect citing here, I haven’t had time to fix it – I’ve also received tons of excellent feedback to this post, which I haven’t incorporated yet. In many ways this is a naive

Organizing framework

What would studying progress entail, and require? Three questions seem fundamental:

  1. History and causes: How do we make progress?
  2. Definition and measurement: What sort of world(s) should we be we building towards?
  3. Drawbacks of progress: What are the risks incurred by progress? How do we make differential progress?

Literature review

1. History and causes: How do we make progress?

History of science and technology

How were societally-useful discoveries made? The relationship between funding and knowledge production, and different funding schemes.


Philosophy of technology / technological progress:

Science creates knowledge; technology develops and employs knowledge. Understanding the relationship between scientific and technological progress could inform the structuring of the feedback loop between the two disciplines. What accounts for the emergence and deployment of particular technologies? For example, why were digital computers developed only during the second half of the twentieth century even though their basic principles were understood more than a hundred years earlier?


Meta-science / science of science / social epistemology of science

The study of incentives in knowledge-producing institutions could generalize to societal structuring as a whole. It seems particularly important to understand how to educate, train, and incentivize scientists since key empirical-knowledge producers. There have additionally been fairly rapid transformations in the ideas, politics, and labor system of science as compared to other disciplines, making this community easier/more useful to study.


Mechanism design + incentive design

Humans operate in societies governed by institutional mechanisms that elicit certain behaviours and aggregate certain information.

Cultural components of change-making

How have humans organized in the past, around geographies, ideas, processes, aims? How has this changed over time? Missing literature on the geographic pockets of innovation - eg. China & Middle East by 1100, Renaissance Florence, Northern England in late 18th and early 19th century, Andalusia / Islamic Golden Age.


Cause prioritization

This has been employed mostly by the effective altruist community, and causes are evaluated on “importance, neglectedness, and tractability”, with the lens of “making the world a better place.” At meta-level, the study of methodology of problem choice and agenda-setting; the effective altruist community has done an excellent job of creating a coherent evaluation framework and attracting talent to direct work on prioritized causes.


2. Definition and measurement: What sort of world(s) should we be we building towards?

It is too general a definition to think of progress as pure delta from our current state. We should at least be approximating the progress measure with some set of end goals in mind. Anchoring too heavily on ideal worlds / ideal theory can produce errors but some sense of the telos is important for benchmarking progress.

Visions of the future

As Diane Coyle noted in her response to the original article on Progress Studies, “the debate about progress therefore raises profound political and philosophical questions about the kind of societies we want.” Much of the current discussion about progress falls into ‘instrumental rationality’ - the ‘how’; does/should progress does have a telos?.


Progress definition and measurement

Developing various taxonomies of progress / regress + indicators for each, as well as ways to measure variables that are hypothesized to proxy or cause progress, is important because you make what you measure - this creates common ‘metrics’ and clarifies definitions of progress by factorizing them.


3. What risks are incurred by progress? What are the failure modes of progress?

Scientific and technological progress brings about new possibilities that the world must react to. How can we make the world (natural, built, and digital environments; and their inhabitants) more robust to these changes, and how should we reason about risks in the context of progress?

Costs of progress

Can progress be ‘too fast’? What are the costs of progress-supporting actions (eg. scientific openness)? How can we ensure we invest sufficiently in technological safety in a competitive world? Perhaps the worst risks, and therefore the most important ones to consider, are those that are irreversible, such as existential risks.

Robust decision-making and better prediction under uncertainty

Both those directly involved in progress-actuation, as well as those who study and attempt to shape progress, make decisions and attempt to predict outcomes under uncertainty. “Ethical assessment in the incipient stages of a potential technological revolution faces several difficulties, including the unpredictability of their long‐term impacts, the problematic role of human agency in bringing them about, and the fact that technological revolutions rewrite not only the material conditions of our existence but also reshape culture and even – perhaps – human nature.

Thanks for reading! I compiled this syllabus fairly quickly because I was interested in organizing my thinking under this framework - if you’re interested in thinking / working together with other folks in this - join this Slack 😊.

*Thank you to Tyler Cowen, Michael Akilian, Jason Crawford, Jose Luis Ricon, Maran Nelson, Humphrey Obuobi, Afika Nyati, Gareth Gransaull, Luca Rade, and Cameron Najafi for reading over earlier drafts, and giving feedback and comments! All mistakes + errors mine.

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