Progress Studies

Writing in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen call for the creation of a new academic discipline: “Progress Studies”:

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.

The idea that things can (and do) get better over time has been central to Western culture for a long time. However, perusing social media like Twitter often makes me feel like many people have given up on the idea of progress — despite evidence to the contrary.

That’s not to say everything’s rosy. Progress in one area (e.g., cheap energy) can be lead to other areas falling behind (e.g., international conflicts, a polluted environment.) Also, we often ignore second-order effects; what appear to be advances in the near term can lead to serious issues down the line. Things are more complex than they seem on the surface.

Still, it’s worth striving to make things better. Studying what progress is, how we measure it, how we can incentivize it, and what we can do to minimize the downsides, seems like a worthwhile way of going about it.

We Need a New Science of Progress