[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!
What would studying progress entail, and require? Three questions seem fundamental:
- History and causes: How do we make progress?
- Definition and measurement: What sort of world(s) should we be we building towards?
- Drawbacks of progress: What are the risks incurred by progress? How do we make differential progress?
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.
- Vannevar Bush, Science: The Endless Frontier
- Loren R. Graham, “Big Science in the Last Years of the Big Soviet Union,” Osiris 7 (1992): 49-71.
- Sari Pekkala Kerr, William Kerr, Çağlar Özden, and Christopher Parsons, “Global Talent Flows,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 30, no. 4 (Fall 2016): 83-106.
- Carl Frey, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation
- Richard Rhodes, Energy: A Human History
- Thomas P. Hughes, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm
- * David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity
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?
- J. Doyne Farmer: How Predictable is Technological Progress?
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Besomi, Daniele: Harrod on the classification of technological progress. The origin of a wild-goose chase
- Jacques Ellul , The Technological Society
- Martin Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology
- Santa Fe Institute
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.
- Kevin Zollman: The Credit Economy and the Economic Rationality of Science
- Felipe Romero: Novelty versus replicability - virtues and vices in the reward systems of science
- Michael Weisberg: New Approaches to the Division of Cognitive Labor
- H. David Politzer: Nobel Prize Lecture on The Dilemma of Attribution
- Ed Boyden: Research as a Community-Building Activity
- Alex Bell et. al
- Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
- Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge
- Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
- Metascience Symposium 2019
Mechanism design + incentive design
Humans operate in societies governed by institutional mechanisms that elicit certain behaviours and aggregate certain information.
- Mechanism Design Theory - 2007 Nobel Prize scientific background
- The Handbook of Economic Innovation - summary
- Scott Alexander: Meditations on Moloch
- Mancur Olson: Logic of Collective Action
- Elinor Ostrom (Nobel Prize winner), Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions)
- Radical Markets
- Al Roth’s blog
- Gillian Hadfield, Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy
- Joseph Schumpeter, The Theory of Economic Development
- Donald E. Campbell, Incentives: Motivation and the Economics of 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.
- Toward a Theory of Intellectual Change: The Social Causes of Philosophies
- The Evolution of Science-Based Business: Innovating How We Innovate
- M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine
- Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb
- Bruno Latour, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts
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’; if progress does indeed have a telos [final goal] it would be utopia. Teleological rationality could help coalesce workstreams and direct research agendas. Reading different visions of the future might also make us aware of gaps in our imagination and make available routes for progress that were previously invisible.
- Manifestos for the Internet Age - github repo with all manifestos
- A Truly Golden Handbook: The Scholarly Quest for Utopia
- Fredric Jameson, edited by Slavoj Žižek: An American Utopia - Dual Power and the Universal Army
- Jens Beckert, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics - the role of uncertainty and collectively imagined futures in market dynamics
- The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University
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.
- Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics
- Ricardo Hausmann, The Atlas of Economic Complexity: Mapping Paths to Prosperity
- Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom
- Manfred Max-Neef’s Human Scale Development
- Convergence: Theory and Evidence - “Considerations on growth theory inevitably raise the question of whether different economies converge to each other in terms of output, income, or related measures.”
- AI Index - an example of progress measurement at the level of a single (albeit general-purpose) technology
- Government definitions of progress: Human Development Index (methodology and measurement; UN website), Genuine Progress Indicator, Gross National Happiness
- World Happiness Report
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.
- Nick Bostrom, Existential Risks
- Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence
- Amanda Askell, Why Responsible AI Development Needs Cooperation on Safety
- Paul Christiano. On progress and prosperity
- Tom Wessels, The Myth of Progress
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.
- Nick Bostrom, Technological Revolutions: Ethics and Policy in the Dark
- On the Path-dependence of Economic Growth
- Jonathan Baron, Thinking and Deciding
- Phillip Tetlock, Superforecasting
Thanks for reading! I compiled this syllabus because I was interested in organizing my thinking under this framework - if you’re interested in thinking / working together with other folks interested in understanding how to make the world radically better - 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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