November 4, 2021
What is progress? How do we (and should we) measure progress? What are the most important questions to ask in progress studies? What are the factors that lead to progress? Why has large-scale progress taken so long (i.e., why did we not see much progress until the Industrial Revolution)? Why did industrial revolution, scientific revolution, and democratic revolution all seem to start within a relatively short period of time of each other? How can we prevent progress from slowing down, stopping, or even reversing? What factors have contributed to the slowing of progress in the last 50 years? What's the state of progress in nuclear energy? What is the history of attitudes towards progress? And why is it important for people to believe that progress is good?
Jason Crawford is the founder of The Roots of Progress, where he writes and speaks about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress. Previously, he spent 18 years as a software engineer, engineering manager, and startup founder. Follow him on Twitter at @jasoncrawford.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast. And I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Jason Crawford about the burgeoning field of progress studies, technological advancement, and the relationship between humanity and nature.
SPENCER: Jason, welcome.
JASON: Thanks so much for having me here.
SPENCER: So one of the most significant things that have happened in human history is this period, a couple of decades after the Industrial Revolution when it seems that the total amount of income and wealth produced just skyrocketed like it never before. And suddenly, you had vast numbers of people being lifted out of poverty. And if we think about this as essentially a way of progress, it naturally produces a question of how much progress are we making now? How can we make more progress that raises the quality of life even further, and ensure that you know the future continues to be better and better than the past? So this also ties in with this new field of research that you're really at the forefront of, which is this idea of progress studies, where we can ask questions about these topics, and try to find answers. So I'm really interested in digging into this with you today, to discuss how much progress were you making? How can we think about progress and so on?
JASON: Yeah, great. Well, it is a vast topic. So where shall we dive in?
SPENCER: Alright, so let's start with the idea of progress itself. What do you think about progress?
JASON: Sure. Maybe it helps to define it, because people always ask me, “Well, what do you really mean by progress?” and I just mean, very simply, that which helps us to live better lives. So I take human life and wellbeing as the foundation of the standard, anything that helps us live longer, happier, healthier lives, lives of more choice and opportunity, and ultimately, more happiness.
SPENCER: I like that because it gets away from the question of, well, you just mean money, or GDP or something like that.
JASON: Right. And sometimes, you know, when we say progress, sometimes we're actually talking about technological industrial progress, especially within progress studies. But we always have to remember that at the end of the day, it's human progress. It's progress in human wellbeing that matters and is the ultimate goal.
SPENCER: How did you become motivated to study progress?
JASON: I became motivated to study progress, in large part because I saw the fact of progress as foundational to my worldview when I think about what is important to me in life in society, what do I care about in sort of political and ideological issues, I found that this great fact of this enormous amount of progress in the last couple of 100 years, and that being really unprecedented in history, is something that was constantly weighing on me, that I was constantly aware of, to me, one of the most important questions we can ask a society is, how did that happen? Let's deeply understand it. And how do we keep it going, right? How do we make sure that progress doesn't slow down or stop or even reverse or be lost, you know, as it has been lost in the past, during times of civilizational collapse?
SPENCER: It's fascinating looking at some of these charts of the estimated wealth per person over time, or income per person over time. And if you look on this, like really long time horizon of, you know, 100,000 years, it's remarkable how little it goes up. And then suddenly, you get just past us for a revolution, and you just get this massive spike. And you know, this leads, some people say, you know, that was the most important time in history. And we really had this phase transition going from pre this industrial revolution to post it, and now everything's different and never going to be the same again. And so taking that perspective, it just seems like an incredibly important thing to try to understand.
JASON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the only other comparable event in human history, perhaps, is the origins of agriculture and settled societies, you know, two developments, which happened around the same time, historically speaking, around ten thousand years ago, which took us out of an even kind of slower mode of progress, right? You had a little bit of evolution in stone tools, maybe and other techniques, related techniques for like tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years. And then once we got into the phase of settled societies and agriculture, we were able to actually accumulate goods and possessions, build furnaces to you know, smelt metals and kill them pottery and that kind of thing. And so that kicked us into a higher level of progress. But even so, it was very slow. And I think the problem with that area really was we were in this Malthusian world, they call it or caught in a Malthusian trap, where all of the progress actually in productivity actually just led to higher levels of population and population density and didn't lead to higher per capita wealth. That's really the thing where we made no progress for thousands of years. And then in the last couple of hundred, the per capita wealth has started to grow.
SPENCER: Do you think we've seen a change in the zero-sum nature of society as well? Where maybe for a really long time in history, it was quite difficult to sort of creating widespread wealth and so often to become wealthy people had to take it from others. And then something flipped where now, it's possible to become very wealthy by actually benefiting a lot of people.
JASON: You know, I don't think we ever literally lived in a zero-sum world, I think there have always been some opportunities for positive-sum. Also, there's always been lots of opportunities for negative-sum through, you know, war and conquest. But yes, there, there was something, you know, something, I think it was the anthropologist C.R. Hallpike in his book, How We got Here pointed out that, if you were a craftsman, or you know, you were making things in the Middle Ages, and you got really good at it. The way to sort of get better and get wealthier was to make finer and more luxurious things for a very small elite, the aristocracy who could afford to pay for really well built whatever really ornately decorated clocks, or, you know, clockwork toys, or very fine robes, and you know, clothing, and so forth. The way to get rich was not by mass-producing commodities at a good price for a very large audience of the middle class because there was no middle class. And so yes, the evolution of a middle class and the ability to get rich through mass production of basic quality goods was something relatively recent, and was a very important in the overall in that increase in per capita wealth, rather than just, you know, again, making increasing luxuries for a very small elite.
SPENCER: So what are some of the questions you asked in progress studies?
JASON: Well, I think the most important ones are one, how did we get here? Like, what were the steps at a very object level? What were the key discoveries and inventions that created industrial civilization made the modern world and that actually made all those charts go up? So when you look at those charts, like GDP per capita, or you look at charts of life expectancy, or literacy rates, or maternal mortality, you know, going down all kinds of things like that, what actually drove the progress on those charts? So that's the first thing that I try to answer on my blog, The Roots of Progress. And then, you know, a second question is just like, why did it take so long? Did we have to wait where there are some necessary steps going tens or hundreds of thousands of years? Or like, could it in some sense have happened earlier? Or just like, how can we understand the very long slow period of human development before the last couple hundred years of progress? And then finally, as I said before, how can we protect this, right? How can we keep it going, and make sure it doesn't slow down, stop or reverse?
SPENCER: So you mentioned life expectancy. So I just want to comment on that really quick. Because there's this really interesting article by Luke Muehlhauser, perhaps you've seen called Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory.
JASON: Yep. That's a good one.
SPENCER: Yeah. So he looks at these five different measures of human welfare, one physical health, which he measures as life expectancy at birth. He looks at economic wellbeing measured as GDP per capita. He looks at energy capture, which is kilocalories per person per day, technological empowerment, which is essentially measured by we're making capacity. And finally, political freedom, which he measures as a percent of people living in a democracy, and that none of these measures are perfect. But the idea is that each of them is supposed to get at some aspect of human well-being. And then he plots them on this chart going back all the way to, you know, 1000 BC, roughly. And kind of the remarkable thing is it they track each other really well. In other words, they all are fairly flattish until you get to just after the Industrial Revolution, and they all spike up dramatically. And so what's really fascinating about that, is that it's not just that this was a period when people started becoming wealthier. It's actually a period where it seems like on almost every measure, you can think of that we can measure from back then it seems like people's lives were getting better. Now. Do you agree with that analysis?
SPENCER: I do. Yes. So it's interesting that the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and another revolution that doesn't really have a name, but you know, maybe we could call it the Democratic Revolution, right, the replacement of monarchy, which was the reigning system, you know, throughout the world, for almost all of human history. The replacement of that with, you know, largely with sort of Democratic Republics. Those three revolutions all happened within the span of a couple of hundred years after, again, thousands of years of sort of no change on any of those axes. And so I think it's not a coincidence. I think in some sense, all of those were sort of products of a change that was happening in the West, a through-line that runs from the Renaissance through the enlightenment. I also think that those three things are intertwined, right. So like, one thing about the Industrial Revolution was even if it began with some tinkering, let's say by mechanics who were not applying deep principles of science, which, incidentally, I think the impact of science on the even on the early industrial revolution is generally underappreciated. Even if that were the case that it was just sort of these tinkerers and the beginning of the industrial revolution would never have been sustained without science by the late 1800s. It's very obvious that things like chemistry and electromagnetism and microbiology are absolutely driving inventions and innovations in quality of life. And I do think that all of these things are also underpinned by better social systems. Certainly, we can see legal and financial infrastructure, like the invention of the corporation, the invention of limited liability, and the evolution of financial markets. All of these things are important to underlying that technological and economic development that happened.
SPENCER: Right. So digging into this question of, you know, how do we get here, we've talked about going to a few different things happening around that period, you know, we're talking about the invention of the corporation, and we're talking about improvements in science. And we're talking about engineering where people are tinkering and improving, and also this kind of change where it's changing governments and these other factors. So it seems to me like there's some kind of feedback loop and I'm wondering, could you help pull apart this feedback loop? Like, what do you view as the kind of components that went into that, driving it faster and faster and faster, until we get to, you know, this massive uptick that the world had never seen before?
JASON: I think there's definitely a feedback loop, I think there are probably, I think there's a number of overlapping feedback loops. And I probably won't be able to enumerate all of them like so just within technology and industry, what you can see is that certain inventions and developments turn out to be infrastructure, or otherwise, enabling technologies, that feedback and make all of the progress faster. Information technology is an example. Right, so once we had the printing press, we could print books, and now you have information about metallurgy, and agriculture and all sorts of things can get out there much more easily, not to mention political ideas, and, you know, and so on, and so forth. When we invent the railroad, okay, now we have transportation networks, which are connecting markets, and broadening and expanding the markets for certain goods. And they're sort of changing the infrastructure. Once we invent something like machine tools, we now have a new manufacturing capability, which makes possible all kinds of, you know, new inventions. So some of these inventions are kind of these fundamental, enabling technologies that just make progress itself faster, because they feedback, you know, into the very process.
SPENCER: It’s starting to remind me of the game Civilization, or some kind of like, build a tree from a video game where it's like, oh, well, you know, in order to get this technology, you need these other two ones underneath it, and, and then you kind of you're getting these building blocks, and then you just keep stacking and stacking and stacking.
JASON: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I don't play Civilization myself. But I hear it referred to a lot. It's true. I like to remind people that civilization is what you know, is similar to reality, not the other way around. Tech trees are a very real thing.
SPENCER: So this naturally leads to the question, why wasn't it doing this before, right? Because I think living in the modern era, we say yes, of course, technology builds on other technologies. Once we have computers, there are all these cool things we can do we couldn't do before. But then that raises the question, well, why wasn't that happening pre-Industrial Revolution? Or if it was happening, why was it happening so much slower?
JASON: Yeah. So I think if you step back to the broadest level, I think a lot of it is these feedback loops. So I just mentioned some feedback loops within technology. But step back and think about some of the broader feedback loops. One of them is just the accumulation of capital, right? So to make any new advance typically often requires some capital investment. You need some surplus in order to be able to experiment and invent, and, you know, make an invention, create a business, and so forth. And there hasn't been a ton of surplus capital for a long time. And so you know, the more that we accumulate, the more we have a surplus, the more we can then invest into making more progress, and the more surplus that's that creates. So today, there's just like an enormous amount of investment capital sloshing around sort of, you know, in relative terms. So that's one example. Another example is at a deep philosophical level, right, the very idea of progress itself – the idea that progress is possible and desirable. So one of the books I read early on in this project was a book by Joel Mokyr who was one of my favorite economic historians by now. The book was called a Culture of Growth. And it's about how the very idea of progress evolved in the West, in the 15, and 1600s, let's say, and laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution. And Mokyr points out that for most of human history, in most times, in places, people didn't think of progress as a thing that was happening or could happen or should happen. They didn't see history, in terms of like an upward line, or an upward trajectory, they saw it as much more cyclical. And in fact, they looked back to their ancient ancestors as the wisest and most accomplished people who ever lived, all knowledge that matters was revealed to them in ancient times, and we can never surpass their achievements was sort of the mentality. You can especially see, this was true in many different places, but you can especially see how this might come about in Europe, where, you know, people in, you know, think about people in the 14, the 1500s, looking back at the ruins of the Roman Empire, which are still around right or looking at the pyramids in Egypt and just thinking wow, these ancients created these enormous, you know, monuments and so forth. And then especially in the Renaissance when they started rediscovering ancient Roman texts, rediscovering knowledge that had been lost. It's very natural to look back at that and think, wow, these guys just knew everything, right? They knew stuff we didn't know, he can never know more than they did, we can never surpass their achievements, we can just learn from their texts that they left over and, and you know, hope to kind of get near, you know, half as good as they were. In the 1500s and 1600s, really in the West, who was where this idea evolved that no, actually, we can do better, we can learn more than they ever knew, we can accomplish things that they could never do. The voyages of discovery were a part of this, especially when Europe discovered the Americas, right. And now there's this whole set of continents, which the ancients never knew about, never spoke about. Well, okay, I guess not all the knowledge was revealed to them in ancient times, by the time of Newton and his system of physics and his explanation of the solar system, that was the last nail in the coffin of that debate. That was the end of it. Okay, clearly, now, we can do better than the ancients, we can learn and understand more than they did. And then we were sort of off to the races with the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. But that idea itself had to evolve. And so there's this reciprocal relationship between people's ideas about progress and actual progress, where if people believe in it, then they're going to actually go out and you know, try to do more of it. And when they see progress happening, then that reinforces the belief, you know, and vice versa. When people lived in a world where they people pretty much you know, in the Middle Ages, people pretty much died in the same world they were born into, right, and nothing really changed fundamentally about the world within your lifetime. And so then, of course, you would grow up to think of the world as static, and you would not, therefore attempt to change it. So I think that's the deepest feedback loop that you get in this entire system.
SPENCER: What confuses me about this, is that it seems like at least some technology should have been cumulative. Right? I understand that you know, sometimes civilizations fell and information was lost, but surely not all information was lost. And you'd still you'd expect that like, on average, it'd be an increase of knowledge about the way the world works, and how to do engineering, even though some of it’s lost some of the time. And I'm wondering, is that true? Was there an increase in knowledge? And if so, why didn't that kick off this feedback loop earlier?
JASON: Um, yeah, sure, there was an increase of knowledge. You know, at some point, the plow was invented, right? And then people use plows after that, at some point, the spinning wheel was invented. And then people use that instead of a drop spindle. And so you know, I mean, it's something smelting metals was invented in prehistory, right? And then people had metals after that. So there was an accumulation of knowledge. It's not as if there were zero inventions or discoveries before the Industrial Revolution, far from it, it was just slow. So maybe there was still exponential growth in a certain sense, but the exponent was very slow. Coming back to what we were saying earlier about the per capita where you were not seeing the growth was in per capita growth. And that was because essentially, any growth in productivity that you could accumulate through some sort of technical advance, like inventing the plow, very quickly got eaten up by an increase in population. So the population would increase to the point where it was straining the carrying capacity of the land, right, where we just couldn't grow enough food to feed everybody. And so you would have these sort of cycles of like, you'd hit that point, and then there'd be war, you know, famine, disease, you know, would strike and that would sort of knock the population down a bit. And then okay, then be a little relaxed, actually, people, there'd be enough land for everybody now. And so it sort of went in those cycles. So in order for per capita wealth to increase, in order to increase individual wealth, rather than merely increasing population density, the inventions had to hit a point where they were coming faster than the population, right, you had to get more than like one invention per generation or per century. You know, you had to get to the point where you started getting a major invention, you know, every decade or so. And so I think that's why there's this paradox of like, yes, there was an accumulation of technology. But that was not creating an accumulation of it was not creating an increase in per capita wealth, it was just creating an increase in population and population density.
SPENCER: So it seems like there was some kind of tipping point that you're hinting at, which is that if your population is growing too quickly, as you get new inventions, because there are new inventions, based on support or population, then you're not really getting per capita gains. And then if the technology goes a little bit faster, you tip over, and you get to this situation where you're getting more benefit than you are getting more people. And suddenly now you start getting this rise in per capita improvement, is that right?
JASON: Yes. And so then that feeds back because now you can accumulate more surplus, which means you have more of a basis to then invest in technology, to even to invest in science, right? And so then you've kicked yourself into a higher mode of growth into it into a faster pace or you know, a higher exponent.
SPENCER: Did we ever see a kind of mini industrial revolution occur in history like within one little city or one little area?
JASON: Well, there have been plenty of times in places where there was a brief flourishing of invention and progress for you know, typically the sound of about a generation, ancient Athens, I believe there was one in the Song Dynasty of China, there was Golden Ages in the Islamic world centered around Baghdad around the 11th century, Florence maybe in the 1400s around then. I might be getting some of those places and dates a bit wrong. Sorry, I'm quoting from memory. But there is a handful of them, several of them throughout history. They all lasted maybe a generation or I don't know a century at most, and then sort of died out. And so what was actually unique about the Industrial Revolution was not that a period of inventiveness began. But that period actually never ended, that it was sustained, that rather than going for a single generation, it has continued essentially to the present day and shows, well, some signs of flagging a bit but no sign of, you know, being snuffed out completely. That's what's truly amazing about the Industrial Revolution and about the industrial age that we are now in.
SPENCER: So what do you see as different between the Industrial Revolution and these earlier spikes of productivity? Just they're more localized and died out?
JASON: Yeah. So that is a grand challenge question for economic history. And I don't think I'm going to be able to give you the smackdown definitive answer. But I mean, let me suggest some things. It's possible that you just hit a certain point where it's like, think of like trying to start a fire, you throw one spark on and maybe it doesn't catch, you throw another and doesn't catch, eventually, one catches, and then the fire becomes self-sustaining. So it's possible that something like that happened in history, where we just hit a point where we'd accumulated just enough of the inventions, just enough wealth, and so forth for it to become self-sustaining. But I also think that there's something more fundamental. So coming back to the idea of progress. Since about, you know, the early 1600s, think about the time of, say, Francis Bacon, people got this idea that, hey, we should be able to actively make progress happen, essentially, we should be able to investigate nature to learn fundamental principles, and for that knowledge to translate into useful, improved techniques. And so people were working on that for hundreds of years after Bacon, and there was a definite program. And so I do think there was something of a philosophical approach that motivated people and caused that program and those attempts that experiments to be sustained. I also think that there was something about the scientific method that carried over into it. So even before inventions were based on scientific principles, right, even before you got, say, the telegraph or the telephone, which clearly needed physics of electromagnetism underlying them, even when it was just mechanical inventions or tinkering with better agricultural techniques, you see in those early tinkerers and inventors and engineers, a very systematic, methodical and often quantitative approach that is characteristic of modern science. And so I do think that there was a new epistemological method that developed in the 15 and 1600s, that started to seep into tinkering and invention as well, which back in that age was much less separate from science. Anyway, the separation of science and invention is kind of a modern thing. And so I do think there were fundamental epistemic techniques that were developed that helped the industrial revolution happen and helped keep it going.
SPENCER: Right. That's the kind of cultural feedback loop where the more people believe that we can make progress, the more people that believe that it's worth making progress, then the more people actually try, and then you get more and more inventions. And that kind of increases the belief because the more progress we make, the more people believe we can make progress.
JASON: Yeah, and I mean, I would say another important thing about the Industrial Revolution, too, is what we were talking about earlier, that particular types of inventions that it led to, were things that allowed for mass production, and allowed for sort of large and profitable businesses to be sustained creating. Alright, so if you look back at I mentioned a number of other efflorescence is that's the term that is often used for this. You know, one of them was ancient Greece. Ancient Greece came up with a lot of amazing stuff. They came up with the plays of Sophocles and they came up with, you know, the mathematics of Euclid. And, you know, just sort of a lot of amazing some of the first historians right to cities and eroticism so forth. But those things did not create businesses that could accumulate capital, and then, you know, feedback into a sort of more of the same. And so maybe that was something that was special about the Industrial Revolution, that it kind of contained the economic seeds of its own self-sustaining nature.
SPENCER: So it seems like we have a few different kinds of feedback loops, we've got technological ones where you know, you invent a new system, a new tool, and then you can use that to build other things, right? Then you have these cultural feedback loops, so like believing in progress, and maybe an engineering mindset and scientific mindset. And then you also have this kind of capitalistic feedback loops around like, oh, if you can actually make money doing this, then then you can kind of expand the scope of it. And there's a reward system for doing it. Are there any other kind of major types of feedback loops you'd point to?
JASON: Yeah, so another sort of obvious one is the feedback loop between science and technology, where science gives us better technology, but also technology gives us better instruments with which to advance science. So if you think about the technology, or the technique, the art, the craft of lens grinding was absolutely essential to microbiology, and just being able to make metals, of course, you know, as needed for a lot of scientific instruments. I haven't researched this deeply. So I don't have a ton of examples off the top of my head. But the better our technology gets, the better we can create instruments with which to do science, and then the science feeds back into the technology.
SPENCER: So the other big topic area of progress, as you mentioned, is how to keep progress going. And obviously, that's a really huge topic, but you just want to give some brief thoughts on that.
JASON: Yeah, sure. So maybe the place to start here is with what's called the stagnation hypothesis. I think that's an unfortunate name for it because the term stagnation makes people think of zero progress, a more accurate, but less catchy name would be something like the relative slowdown of progress along the technological frontier. But essentially, this is the idea that if you look at the cutting edge in terms of new technologies, and fundamentally new inventions, kind of breakthroughs in technology and industry, that we've actually had a slower pace, not a zero pace, but a slower pace of these over the last 50 years or so, than in the say, you know, 100 years preceding that. So, you know, the easiest way to see this is just to look at all of the things that were happening, the period let's so let's take a period, ending in 1920. So about 100 years ago, let's look at a 50 year period, so 1870 to 1920. I count four to five major technological breakthroughs and revolutions that span pretty much every aspect of the industry in the economy. We had the invention of the electrical industry at the electric generator, motor, and lightbulb. We had the invention of the internal combustion engine and the vehicles based on that the automobile in the airplane. We had a revolution in applied chemistry that gave us synthetic products like the first synthetic fertilizers, the Haber-Bosch process, or the first synthetic plastic known as Bakelite. We had a dimensioned revolution communications, the radio and the telephone. And then we also had the development of the germ theory and its application to public health, in things like water sanitation, pasteurization, and other food handling, and also some of the first vaccines since the original one by Edward Jenner. And so that's like five revolutions across every aspect of the economy and sort of human life and well-being. And then if you look back at the corresponding period the from 100 years later, so from 1970 to 2020, oh, you just ending just about now, what do we have? And if you look at that period, I count up about one maybe to call it one and a half sort of revolution. So the one obvious one isn't computers and the internet. And I would say that one absolutely rivals any one of the ones that I mentioned in the, you know, the previous period, and then the half, I would say maybe as genetic engineering where we've seen the beginnings of it, but it feels like it hasn't really come to fruition in terms, it feels like we've just scratched the surface of kind of what can be done with it. And then beyond that, if you look at things like manufacturing, construction, transportation, energy, we're still mostly doing things and kind of the same fundamental way that we did about 50 years ago. Some of that may be about to change, but we haven't seen or felt the changes throughout the entire economy yet.
SPENCER: So I think some people here might say, well, you know, what about social media? What about crypto? I think I would agree with you that those are not nearly as major changes as electricity or some of the other ones you pointed to. But you just want to comment on either of those.
JASON: Yeah, those are big changes, but they all fall under the ramifications of computers and the internet, right? So I mean, again, I would say computers and the internet are a revolution, roughly comparable maybe to telephone and radio put together. Right? A revolution communications telephone gave us point to point, radio gave us broadcast, but that was just one of like four or five things that were going on in that 1870s 1920 period. So yes, you know, you could claim the computers and the internet including all the ramifications, social media and crypto, and everything – you could claim that that is as big as telephone and radio put together. But to claim that it was as big as telephone, radio, electricity, internal combustion, applied chemistry, and the germ theory, I just find that very hard to believe.
SPENCER: So basically, this idea is that we had this huge rate of progress over this 50 year period. But then if you look at this most recent 50 year period, it just seems hard to quantify maybe, but it seems qualitatively much less progress. And so what are the sort of the theories about why that might be?
JASON: Before we go into that, let me just say, actually, you can quantify it, you can look at GDP growth. And you can look at another metric called TFP total factor productivity, which is an attempt to measure technological progress itself, and its contribution to GDP growth. And by those measures, both of those things have also slowed. There's a lot of caveats on that, you know, GDP is not a perfect measure, it's certainly not a perfect measure of progress, or economic growth or wellbeing. It's kind of the best one we have, or it's one of the best ones, but it's still not perfect. So people argue about, oh, maybe the slowdown in GDP is just sort of an illusion or an artifact of measurement. That's why I like to come at this from a kind of multiple angles, both a more quantitative angle and more qualitative angle, which is the, you know, the one that I just described. But I think that when you look at it from multiple angles, you find that they're all saying, essentially the same thing, which is there has been a relative slowdown. To be clear, you know, we're still moving faster than we were in the Middle Ages, just not as fast as maybe at the height of the late 19th and early 20th century.
SPENCER: Right. So GDP is an imperfect measure of progress. But you know, it tracks it somewhat. And so it's reasonable to say, what is GDP or GDP per capita done? And so when did we start seeing a slowdown in that measure?
JASON: Oh, I mean, I don't remember exactly the year and it depends on what you really count as a slowdown. Probably the best thing is to look up my blog post on I did a book review of Robert Gordon's book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which is probably the best single book documenting all of the evidence, both qualitative and quantitative about this. And he has charts about GDP growth and TFP, and so forth. And so that would be, that would be the best to look at it. But, you know, he says there was a slowdown, maybe around 1940, and certainly by 1970.
SPENCER: Okay, so what do you attribute this slowdown to? I'm sure, there are a lot of factors, but how would you break it down?
JASON: Yeah, I have three top hypotheses. One is the growth of regulation, and more generally, bureaucracy. Two is the centralization and bureaucratization of funding for science and research. And then three is a deeper sort of cultural and philosophic factor coming back to the idea of progress or the belief in progress as something that is possible and desirable. Those are my top three hypotheses.
SPENCER: So before we go into those, one hypothesis, you sometimes hear is this low-hanging fruit hypothesis, right? That we're like, oh, well, some discoveries are easy to make and we're running out. And I've actually discussed this on a previous podcast episode as well. Do you want to address that one first?
JASON: Yeah, sure. So I think the low-hanging fruit effect is very real. The first innovations that we go after are the ones that are the easiest to make. You can see this in technology and industry. You can see it in insight in the development of science, and so forth,. It would be sort of strange if that weren't the case. However, there is a factor that ought to counter that, which is we keep getting better at making progress because we have more people doing it, we have more money and resources going into it, we have better tools and technology, right? So these two factors, it's not obvious which one ought to prevail, right? And in some periods, we get sustained exponential growth, because as the progress gets harder to make, we also just marshal more and better resources against the problem. And so I think you can't just point to the low hanging fruit effect, you have to answer the question of, well, why hasn't the other effect, you know, kind of balanced that out or even exceeded it?
SPENCER: Right, because the population has grown exponentially. So even if it became exponentially more difficult to make progress, as long as the expansion of the population balances it, that would just imply a steady rate of progress.
JASON: Right now, in recent decades, of course, population growth has slowed. And so this is one of the hypotheses, maybe for, you know, why has growth slowed? Although I believe that the total investment if overall population growth has slowed, I believe that the population of researchers and the investment going into research has not slowed, I'd have to go and double-check that fact. This is more of a concern for the future, because of course, the population of researchers cannot grow faster than the population of human beings, you know, forever, unless we get AI researchers or something, right? So there is a concern that over the long term, the slowing of population growth will be a limiting factor on you know, overall scientific and economic progress.
SPENCER: Alright, so let's dig into these different hypotheses about what is reduced progress. So the first one I think you mentioned is regulation. Do you want to tell us about that?
JASON: Yeah, sure. Over the decades, and especially I would say in the last five decades or so there's just been in the US, but really throughout the world, a growing burden of regulations that any technology or business has to comply with. And in some industries, such as nuclear, this has been bad enough to essentially choke off the industry, in my opinion. In others, it has not choked off progress, but it's a candidate for why some fields have slowed down. If you look at, for example, in pharma, the development of new drugs, rather than follow Moore's law, you know, type of curve where you know, things just get sort of more and more productive, it follows the opposite called Eroom's law, E being spelled backward, where drugs get exponentially more expensive to produce as time goes on. This may have flattened out in the last decade or so by the way, but you know, there was like a multi-decade trend of drugs getting exponentially more expensive to bring to market. And there's more than one factor for this but in the original paper, that sort of identified this phenomenon, one of the major hypotheses they put forward was like the cautious regulator approach or phenomenon. So I do think that this is something across many fields that we get this regulatory ratchet where we keep adding regulations, and we don't go back and evaluate them for sort of cost-effectiveness. Also, a lot of the regulations are sort of driven by safety concerns. But it's this very lopsided sort of thing where you end up building up a lot of what in my opinion, is safety theater – regulations that are sort of justified on the grounds of safety, but that are bringing little to no safety in real terms and are adding sort of like an enormous amount of overhead.
SPENCER: I don't know any statistics on this, but I have heard that buildings get built a lot slower today than they used to. Have you looked into it at all?
JASON: A little bit. So there's been some good work done on this by Eli Dourado. And Jerusalem Demsas at Vox. Yes, so building anything in the United States, especially is very slow and expensive today, from a new subway line to a nuclear plant to just an office building, right? Construction, productivity has really lagged or is maybe even, you know, negative. And a significant part of that is I am told, I haven't really dug into this, is an environmental review from the NEPA law that was passed around 1978, give or take. A significant part of what that does, to my understanding, is it allow citizens to hold up projects in hearings. So basically, anybody who objects to a development project has kind of an ability to throw it into hearings, and demand more review and reports, and so forth, and basically just hold things up for a very long time. So we've given a kind of obstructionist power, you know, very broadly to a lot of people. And it's just yeah, tipped the balance of power against the people who want to get things done and towards the people who want to stop things from getting done.
SPENCER: I want to try to avoid the political connotations of this conversation. Because I think some people who are maybe in favor of regulation and favor of making society better by you know, the government intervening are going to, you know, balk at this. So I want to just say, okay, we have this question of how much regulation we should have, you know, and that sort of like, that's sort of like a political question. But there's a separate question, which is, is there regulation that is not making things better, and only making things worse, right? And so, you know, everyone can agree that if there's regulation, it's not thinking things better, yet, it's slowing things down, we should get rid of that. And so if we just focus on that aspect, which I feel like is sort of the non-political part of regulation, you know, if we think about there being this trade-off between, like soon as regulation could make things safer, but at the cost of maybe reducing growth, like there is a legitimate value judgment of where we should fall on that curve. But nobody wants to point to regulation. So I guess my question for you is, when that regulation is pointless, where do you think that's really coming from?
JASON: Yeah, sure, let me address a slightly more fundamental thing first, and then we can go into that. So I just want to make clear, like, I'm not an anarchist. Government has an absolutely essential role to play in society, and in particular, in protecting people from, you know, harms to them, done by others. So it's not as if we should just have a free for all. We're kind of anybody can do anything. We need thoughtful laws, and new laws do need to be made often in the context of new technology. I also want to sort of point out that I think we're starting to see concern about progress itself, and in some ways, even concerned about some of the ways that our laws and regulatory agencies hold back progress from a kind of both sides of the political spectrum. In particular, recently, we've seen some stuff, for instance, Ezra Klein, who's I think most people would agree is kind of on the left, came out with a concept recently of supply-side progressivism, which is, you know, his kind of call to progressives to say, hey, look, we need to realize that if we want to create, you know, lots of wealth to distribute it to the poor, the wealth has to get created. And so just bringing in a little more focus on the supply side, Matt Yglesias also you know, recently wrote something about the importance of energy abundance and the importance of having lots more energy so that we as a fundamental input to the economy, making money, you know, better for everybody, and so forth. So one of the things I love actually about the concept of progress studies and about the progress movement is that it gives us a sort of central shared goal that I think people from different parts of the political spectrum can come to and say, hey, look, this fact of industrial and economic progress over the last, you know, several hundred years, this is actually a great thing that we want to keep going. And now let's all try to justify our preferred policies, and ultimately, our preferred ideology on the grounds of, among other things, what actually creates and sustains that progress.
SPENCER: Thanks for clarifying that, because you know, I was just concerned that someone listening is going to write off, you're going to say, because they're gonna think that this person doesn't have my political views, so I can't trust them. And I like your framing because you're framing is fundamentally nonpolitical. It's like, well, progress is good. We all can agree on that. So let's try to make more of it. And let's try to figure out how to do that.
JASON: Yeah. And for what it's worth, we don't all agree on that. So I think if there is a political aspect here, there is a political aspect of do we actually think that the advances in technology and industry over the last couple hundred years, were those actually good for humanity? Right? Does material progress actually translate into human wellbeing? And so I do think that people from both left and right, who fundamentally kind of answer in the affirmative, like, yes, this progress is a good thing. Let's go get more of it. I think, you know, those folks can come together and have a really interesting and healthy and productive debate around like, how do we create more of it, but that is kind of a fundamental thing that we have to agree on, and that not everybody agrees on it. So you know, I do want to be clear, there is an ideological dimension to this. I think, ultimately, if we don't agree on that dimension of it, then we should go back to history, and take a detailed look at the history and say, Well, look, what was the condition of humanity a couple of hundred years ago? And what is the condition today? And how has it changed? Which aspects got better and which got worse? And of the ones that got worse? You know, was that a temporary thing that we were able to fix, and so forth. So these are real questions. And ultimately, progress has to be defended. Ultimately, material progress isn't just self-evident good. You ultimately do have to show that it leads to overall human wellbeing. But I think that that can be pretty well demonstrated.
SPENCER: Your idea of progress studies is about wellbeing fundamentally. But then that leads to this other question, which is, to what extent is wealth really a proxy for wellbeing?
SPENCER: And so insofar as you define it in the very broad, like, well, we want humans to flourish, then probably there aren't that many people that disagree. But then if you make a more specific claim, like, we can use GDP per capita as a reasonable proxy a lot of the time, then a lot more people are going to argue against that.
JASON: Yeah, I mean, so I would say a few people would even disagree, and maybe only a very, very few of them would disagree very explicitly and clearly, but a few people actually would disagree with the human well being, I would say, the most radical fringe of the environmentalist movement, for example, would just come out and basically say, no, actually, nature has intrinsic or inherent value above and beyond humans, and maybe would actually be better if all of us were wiped off the earth, and that, you know, the planet could sort of like live on its own. At the other end of the spectrum, you might get folks who I don't know, believe in some sort of romantic tradition, where they think that certain things are kind of healthy for the soul. And in some sense, maybe even hardship, and suffering is kind of like good for the soul or good for character. And so, you know, sometimes they will look back to a previous era and say, well, yeah, there's lots of suffering. But men were better men, you know, and like, people were sort of like, fundamentally better people somehow, because of the suffering. So I think that even on that one, you know, so that's just like a fundamental moral question, what is the standard for wellbeing, but I think most people to agree that at the end of the day, it's better to live than die, it's better to be comfortable than in pain or suffering, it's better to be able to travel and see, you know, friends and family than to be isolated from them, and, you know, and so on, and so forth, right? And so, that's kind of the intellectual sort of bedrock that I would like to build this case upon.
SPENCER: Once you get that point of agreement, you can sort of start building from there, right? So there's, like, do we want wellbeing right, and we probably almost everyone listening to this podcast agrees we do. And then on top of that, it's like, okay, and to what extent is kind of economic growth related to wellbeing and there, I think you lose a lot more people, but still, probably most people do agree. Are gonna comment on that for a moment. Like, what life was like, let's say 200 years ago, versus what life is like today?
JASON: Sure, I mean, there are so many aspects, I'll just name a few of them. What type of homes did people live in? Smaller, dirtier, much less comfortable homes. The diets they ate were much less varied, much more monotonous. A lot of dried and preserved foods, not a lot of fresh food, pretty much had to eat whatever was in season. Disease was rampant. This was before antibiotics. This was before almost all vaccines. Smallpox was the only disease that we had a vaccine for and even that only came to the West in the 1700s. Transportation of course was by sailing ship or by horse and so no one could really travel faster than any of those things. There were no electronic communications, so no one could get a message out either. This meant that rural areas were extremely isolated from what was going on in the world. And if your friends or family, you know, went on a voyage, you were, you know, very caught off from them. The access to the world's knowledge and art and culture and philosophy today is just absolutely amazing. I mean, the average person a few 100 years ago, maybe couldn't afford many books, if they could even read, not everybody went to school for very many years. So a lot of people were actually illiterate. I mean, I could go on and on, but in virtually every aspect of life, you can just see that things have gotten a lot better over the last few hundred years.
SPENCER: Yeah, and I think that's really true. In almost every dimension. It's almost harder to make the comparison between our life today and the tribal life that people, you know, that everyone lived before agriculture. Although before agriculture, there's so many problems we had to deal with, like, you know, flies on us all the time, and you know, difficulty finding food and you know, worrying about starvation and all these kinds of things. You know, there are at least some clear benefits over today's society, like, okay, well, you lived in a tribe, and you probably were socializing all the time, and you kind of naturally were exercising and got lots of sunlight, and so on. So it's like, you least you could say, well, it seems like the human body was kind of built for that lifestyle. But if you compare today to like 200 years ago, where you might have worked in some extremely cramped factory, where, you know, there was there were really very few regulations to protect us in any way. And you probably had like a tiny fraction of the amount of wealth that people in wealthy societies do today. It just feels like more obvious when compared to the kind of 20-year ago lifestyle. Any thoughts on that?
JASON: Yeah. So there's this interesting question of whether the advent of agriculture and settled societies actually led to a significantly worse quality of life, versus the previous sort of nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. I don't have strong opinions on this yet, because I haven't researched it deeply. I think it's quite possible that there are some ways in which the quality of life was reduced. Many innovations, especially when they're big ones will actually be worse along certain axes like almost nothing is like a strict Pareto improvement in terms of like, it makes everything better along all axes simultaneously. Often, there's some sort of trade-off, where something got better in one dimension but got worse than another. And so like to truly evaluate technology and progress, you have to look at all the dimensions and sort of try to calculate like an overall trade-off rather than just pointing to, you know, certain kind of side effects, and then in dismissing a technology on that basis. So the reports are, you know, you read things like hunter-gatherer tribes actually had plenty of food, they rarely went hungry, they didn't work very long hours, it was very easy for them to gather all the food that they needed, there was no strong social hierarchy. So you didn't have kings and emperors, and therefore there wasn't this large scale oppression, and you know, and so on, and so forth. And we weren't living in close proximity to livestock or in large cities. And so there wasn't the same chance for disease to develop and go in these huge epidemics, you know, like the Black Plague. And so, you know, I think there's probably some truth to a lot of these things. I don't know how to add it all up yet. The biggest thing I don't know is if it was such a better, much better lifestyle, why did it go away in most parts of the world? Why did people settle down? Why did they turn to agriculture? Were they simply forced into it because of rising population density, where there was no other way to survive? Maybe the old hunter-gatherer lifestyle was just not sustainable as the population grew, right? Maybe it was crowded out. Maybe there was actually something to settling down. Maybe people didn't like being on the move all the time, right? Maybe they wanted to have a permanent home, maybe even for some sort of spiritual reason. Like they wanted to feel that they were close to their ancestors, maybe for a very practical reason, like they wanted to accumulate possessions. I don't know. But there must have been some reason why people did it. And so I think we don't have a full accounting of the picture unless we kind of know what that reason was. I think that if people were kind of forced into it, then I suppose we can look back at that and feel sorry for those people who were forced into a maybe a lower standard of living for a time period. But I don't really know what historical lesson to take away from that. If it was a mistake as Jared Diamond calls agriculture, you know, a mistake. It's funny, he calls it the worst mistake in the history of the human race. I think if it was a mistake, it was the absolute luckiest mistake because it led to the world we have today where I think now we're undisputedly better off than at any time in the past. And so gosh, it's a really good lucky thing that somebody settled down at some point and invented agriculture and developed settled societies because it was the only way to get out of that hunter-gatherer mode and to eventually get to a better way of life.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think is a difficult question. And I certainly haven't looked into it enough to have a strong opinion. But my suspicion is that there just was a lot of heterogeneity that you could be a tribal person living in an area that just had a lot of abundance, you had a tribe that where you got people got along really well, and so on. And like, okay, there's a lot of ways that's worse than modern life. But there's also a bunch of ways, it's actually a pretty good life, and maybe a superior modern life in some ways. And then there might be other places where like, life is really difficult, you know, food shortages are common, you get bitten by insects all the time. Maybe there's like fighting in your tribe, or maybe your tribe bumps up against other groups that and you fight with them. And you know, so it just, it could be, I think, potentially explained just by well, some of those lies were good, and some are not. But ultimately, for those that there were advantages to creating agriculture, they did it and eventually, agriculture took over everything.
JASON: Yeah. And a point about the violence, by the way. So while it's true that there were no large scale wars, when you didn't have empires, right, and you just had sort of these hunter-gatherer tribes, there was a lot of fighting, and there was a lot of violence, at least based on the evidence that I've seen, but the rate of males dying from some violent act, rather than you know, from other causes, was like very high. Like, if you look back at how did people regard kings and other kinds of rulers, in some ways, they really were revered. And, you know, maybe that lens is distorted somewhat, because the records that we have, or the records that the Kings themselves left, which obviously are very self-referential, I think that there's a certain sense in which a strong man was actually welcomed, because they brought some degree of peace and stability, as opposed to just sort of the chaos of anarchy. And so we shouldn't romanticize the period before the large-scale war, because I'm not convinced that the constant skirmishing and rating and you know, and the violence done between tribes and within tribes was actually a better state of being.
SPENCER: So just point out, there are examples and relatively modern times of tribal people basically, leaving the forest are leaving their natural habitat and just joining civilization saying, hey, now, now, you know, life is actually better. So you know, we don't have a lot of examples of the alternative. Maybe you could think of some cabooses or something where people try to go back to farm life.
JASON: But I have heard stories of people who were taken out of a nomadic hunter-gatherer life brought to civilization and didn't like it and went back. But I'm not sure what you can conclude from that other than people get set in their ways.
SPENCER: Right. So going back to a while ago, we started talking about regulation is one of the theories of why progress might have slowed. Do you want to just give us an example?
JASON: Yeah, sure. So the one that I have researched most deeply and have written about recently is sort of the demise of nuclear power, perhaps not its outright demise, but the sort of stagnation of nuclear power, which, you know, back in the 60s was on track to be something like 100% of world electricity now, and instead plateaued out at about 10% of world electricity that it provides today. And if you dig into that, it's a complex story. But I think at the heart of it really is there was a very rapidly escalating, like highly turbulent regulatory environment in especially around the late 60s and early 70s. In the US, and more broadly, throughout the West, that led to ultimately a high degree of safety theater regarding radiation, in particular, where the levels of radiation have been pushed down, what is sort of, like demonstrably harmful to human health, right? So I mean, radiation at high levels is definitely harmful. At very high levels, it will kill you very quickly, you'll get something called radiation sickness, at lower levels, it's likely to cause cancer and, you know, kill you years or decades down the line. But at very low levels, there is really no demonstrable effect. And in fact, we are all subjected to very low levels of radiation all the time, it just from the natural sort of background, as you know, before any nuclear technology ever existed, we were all subjected to very low levels of radiation. So long story short, nuclear technology itself often spends enormous amounts of money in engineering time and effort and complexity, to drive down radiation exposures. Again, sort of past the point where we can even really say, Yeah, this is clearly going to impact human health, you can ultimately trace a line from that to the cost increases that made nuclear just an economic wish, sort of the proximate cause of you know why we don't have a lot more of it.
SPENCER: So with nuclear power, what do you think drove this increase in this regulation and this kind of safety ism?
JASON: Yeah, I think a very significant factor is that nuclear power was born in wartime, and made us introduction to the world as the most horrifically destructive weapon that anyone had ever seen, right, the nuclear bomb. And so from the very beginning, A, it was associated in the public mind. with death and destruction, and then B, it was under the tight control of the military bureaucracy. And so even when I mean, in the very beginning in the 1940s, the US military had absolute control and wouldn't let anybody use any nuclear technology for anything. And so then in the 50s, it sort of opened up for civilian use, but even then it was under a sort of, like very tight governmental control. So maybe started out with like, 100% regulated and then just sort of, you know, came down from there. But a lot of what you saw in the 60s came from the environmentalist movement, which was just coming together at that point, and was on the rise. And then for the anti-war movement, which my understanding is the anti-war movement was against the development of nuclear weapons, and therefore, they were against the testing of nuclear weapons. And one of the things that they brought out to argue against the testing of nuclear weapons was that the radiation fallout would be harmful. And so they had an interest in pushing and even exaggerating kind of the harms of low levels of radiation. And that ended up even if they weren't necessarily against nuclear power, the radiation fears ended up sort of leaking into the nuclear power area as well.
SPENCER: How much did the big kind of meltdowns influence this regulation?
JASON: So if you're thinking of Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl, and so forth, those all came after the nuclear industry had pretty much been choked off. As I recall, no new nuclear plant was ordered in the United States, from 1974 to the end of the century. Three Mile Island wasn't until I think ‘79, Chernobyl wasn't until the ‘80s, and so forth, you know, those certainly put an even bigger damper on things, but you know, as like, another nail and an already closed coffin.
SPENCER: How much credit do you give to environmental activists for shutting down nuclear? Because I mean, now today, looking back, it seems like if they were a substantial cause of it not happening in the US and some other countries, it could have really set back the whole environmental movement, because a lot of people in this thing today, it's one of the best solutions we have for global warming, yet it's widely underutilized.
JASON: Well, even today, many environmentalists are still against nuclear power. And they are in fact, working hard to shut down even the existing nuclear plants that we have, which by the way, when nuclear plants, you know, get shut down, they tend to get replaced with natural gas. So in my mind, this is actually a good litmus test for what kind of environmentalist are you? Stuart Brand talks about the difference between the romantic environmentalist versus the scientific environmentalists. And I think you could make a difference, as I mentioned before, between those who want to save the planet for humanity versus those who want to save the planet from humans. And so if you want to save the planet for the use and enjoyment of humans, then you tend to be for nuclear power, and not if it's the reverse.
SPENCER: But if you're a romantic environmentalist, and you actually thought it through, do you think you would still come out in favor of nuclear power? All things considered, given that the alternative seems in practice like we're just going to use natural gas and coal and so on? Yeah,
JASON: I mean, look, there are some people who make an argument that in today's political context, and given the state of the industry and so forth, we should just do everything with solar. And yes, we'll have to overbuild solar by multiples because of the intermittency problem. And yes, we'll have to build enormous amounts of storage. But they argue that that's like, just given kind of path dependency, that that's a better way to go from where we are now. I don't have a strong opinion on that. I just have a stronger opinion that we choked off nuclear. And it's a tragedy because it's just a whole fundamental area of physics, literally, of applied physics, that could have given us much more than just large centralized power plants, the potential for nuclear goes way beyond that we could have nuclear cargo ships, we could have nuclear freight trains, we could have small modular nuclear reactors that are powering local communities or individual homes, right, we could actually potentially not need an enormous centralized electric grid. Nuclear could be important for space exploration. I mean, there are all sorts of applications if you think so if you step back and think a little bigger picture and longer-term,
SPENCER: I just want to address two common concerns people have when they hear someone say something like you just had, like, oh, nuclear power trains and so on. And I think one of those concerns is, well, are these going to leak out? Are these going to have a big meltdown? And my understanding is that you know, if you think about the progress of the technology, the safety level of these systems has gotten just so much dramatically better. And in fact, a lot of the meltdowns that we think about were just extremely old technology, even the more recent meltdowns have been technology that was built way before that, and today's technology has just shockingly lower risk. Is that correct in your opinion?
JASON: Yeah. I mean, nuclear has an extremely good safety record, right? If you just look at something like deaths per terawatt hour produced, it's extremely low.
SPENCER: And that's what the old technologies, understand it.
JASON: Yes, and newer technology and especially this stuff that's on the drawing board just raises the safety level even beyond that.
SPENCER: Right. But I guess it has a really dramatic and kind of scary effect, right? You know, you read about these nuclear meltdowns. And that's just way more upsetting than lots and lots and lots of people constantly being poisoned by coal.
JASON: Right. And I think this is where there's just some sort of a, I was about to say halo, but it's like the inverse. It's like an evil halo, a dark halo around nuclear technology, where people –
SPENCER: Some tend to call it the horns effect.
JASON: Yeah, the horns effect. There's like this evil aura, you know, that this kind of surrounds nuclear technology, where people just see radiation as this kind of uniquely, almost mystically dangerous thing. I mean, it's like, we work with dangerous substances, in all kinds of industrial applications, there are toxic chemicals, there are flammable chemicals, right, there are things that can explode. There are other carcinogens. There are all sorts of things, we can handle these risks with good engineering, we shouldn't just categorically deny or exclude an entire area of technology, just because there is a hazard or a risk. It is something to apply intelligence to and apply careful engineering to. And when we do that, we can make things safe.
SPENCER: The other concern I think a lot of people have is, well, if we had nuclear power trains, and so on, wouldn't that enable people to make nuclear weapons? So I just happen to be talking to a nuclear scientist the other day, and she was telling me that actually, this concern is totally misguided that the general public thinks that, oh, if you have a nuclear reactor, you can turn that in a nuclear weapon. And in fact, it's really not helpful. Is that your understanding as well?
JASON: High level, yes. From what I've read about the nuclear proliferation issue, it's mostly a non-issue, or rather, it's mostly a political issue rather than a practical issue. Although I should mention that even within that you can choose a nuclear technology to have lower proliferation risk, there are a wide variety of nuclear technologies beyond the traditional Uranium-235 powered light water reactor, which is kind of the standard power plant in a nuclear power plant today. There are different types of fuels, there are different types of reactors. And some of these can be designed to decrease the proliferation risk even beyond what we have. So even that is, is an engineering problem. In fact, my understanding is that the current sort of standard nuclear power plant design was chosen by the US government back in the ‘40s, or ‘50s, in part because they wanted something that was dual purpose, I might be misremembering some of the details here, but they actually wanted at the time, a type of reactor that could create material for a bomb. And so it's almost as if we engineered proliferation risk into the problem. And so if we wanted to engineer it out, you know, we can do that.
SPENCER: By the way, the same scientists told me that she sometimes carries uranium around with her in small quantities. So that was just talking about nuclear power and the safety she can just whip out some uranium, which of course, causes people to freak out, but then she points out that it's actually as safe as being around a banana or what have you if you calculate the amount of radiation from the tiny amount of uranium?
JASON: Yeah, very low levels. And as I recall, the type of your of radiation that just you know, uranium is kind of spontaneously emitting is mostly alpha particles, and alpha particles are very easily stopped, they are literally stopped by clothing. And so they won't even penetrate the clothing and get into your body. It's the gamma radiation that you really need to worry about.
SPENCER: Okay, so we talked about regulation as one hypothesis about why progressives have diminished. One of the second one, which is I think about bureaucracy in science and research.
JASON: Yeah. So short story after World War II, a small number of federal agencies sort of consolidated a lot of the funding for science and research. So today, the NIH, for instance, is an over a $40 billion institution. It provides something like half or more than half I think of funding for basic research in the life sciences, and whether it was intended or not, we've created a sort of a monoculture around science funding. And we've created a situation where there's a single agency where if you can't convince them to fund what you're doing, it's very difficult to do it. And so that just leads to blind spots, because any one institution or agency is going to have some blind spots in the way that it runs, no matter how good it is, no matter how smart the people are, no matter how well-intentioned they are, everybody's got some blind spots. The other thing about this is that the way that NIH and NSF decide what grants to make is through this committee-based peer review process, which is, you know, the kind of process that lends itself or carries a risk of over-focusing on consensus and groupthink. And so it's exactly the sort of process that can lead to it being very difficult for a kind of maverick idea that challenges the status quo to get funded, or just get any kind of acceptance.
SPENCER: So how has science been funded previously?
JASON: Well, in a variety of ways, so there's been a variety of both public and private, you know, funding for science for a long time. If you go back to, you know, the 17th and 18th century, a lot of it was patronage or independently wealthy people, sort of the gentleman scientist, right, the aristocrat who did science as a hobby, that was not a super-efficient system, of course, because it meant that only a small number of people could be scientists. It was those folks who were independently wealthy or a few other people who were able to, like, get a job as an assistant to such a scientist. You know, and then we got the university system. And so, you know, scientists were funded through universities, and it became more of an institutionalized thing, it was sort of a job that you could go get and so I think that was good for science. There has been a lot of private funding of science in the past, it was the polio vaccine, for example, it was created by the private foundation, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, in the early part of the 20th century, was kind of the golden age of corporate research. So there were most famously Bell Labs, but there were many others, Kodak, GE, DuPont, a bunch of different companies who are sort of doing scientific research, contributing to scientific journals, winning Nobel Prizes, I mean, there was a lot of that sort of thing. So um, it was funded in a lot of different ways. And I think, perhaps the most important aspect of this actually is just the number of different agencies and models that were out there, such that if one agency didn't support what you're doing, you could potentially go somewhere else. I'll just give one more example. And then turn it back to you. I was struck by reading about the story of hybrid corn, which was basically a success in breeding higher-yielding varieties of corn. This work was done within the state's agricultural experiment stations that are connected to the US Department of Agriculture. But in particular, some really crucial parts of that work were begun in one state, I'm forgetting which state it was at this point. And the head of that experiment station shut it down because he didn't see any promise in the work. And so the researcher who deeply believed in it went to another state. And I think he went to Connecticut went to their State Agricultural Experiment Station and was able to continue the work. And so because there was sort of more of a decentralized, you know, federated approach, it was possible to kind of take your work elsewhere, if, you know, if one agency didn't believe in it.
SPENCER: What you're saying reminds me of two kinds of recent phenomena, may last decade or two in science. One is in string theory, where you have this big idea of how to unify the forces of physics that gets, you know, a substantial proportion of the funding in this kind of work. And then you have other researchers saying, well, I have an idea. And, you know, string theory, they've been working on it for 30 or 40 years, and they haven't made a testable prediction that they've been able to confirm. So shouldn't we, you know, spread the funding out and try more different avenues. So whether or not string theory is a good idea. They argue, well, at least there should be a lot more ideas being funded. The second one is in Alzheimer's research, where I haven't looked into this deeply. But my understanding is that there was a major hypothesis about the cause of Alzheimer's, and people developed drugs over a period of a decade to target this. And now it seems like this hypothesis may just have been misguided. Maybe it was a correlation but not causal. And so treating Alzheimer's this way, maybe just doesn't work. But a lot of the funding went to this particular approach. And so maybe the whole field may have been set back. And so wonder if these are symptoms of this kind of concentration of model, where if you just have sort of one big funding model, you tend to kind of double down on a particular approach, and then you don't see lots and lots of different approaches being used. Do you think that this is an example of what you're talking about, or is this unconnected?
JASON: Yeah, I think so. I don't know much about string theory. But the Alzheimer's example you give I think is a good example of this, or at least a good candidate. For an example of this. There was an article in I think stat news about this exact thing, how all sort of all the funding was going to the hypothesis around I think it was the amyloid proteins that form a plaque around the neurons. And this is correlated with Alzheimer's, and so it was hypothesized to be causal, but it's not clear whether it is a causal mediator or just sort of you know, a symptom downstream of the problem. And so it was not at all clear whether, you know if you targeted drugs that would clean up these plaques, whether that would actually do any good for the disease itself. And so yes, I do think that we need to have just some way of having a greater diversity of heterogeneous approaches to funding these things, so that we don't kind of prematurely cut off avenues of exploration and, you know, concentrate all our resources on barking up the wrong tree.
SPENCER: So the third hypothesis, you pointed to for why there's been stagnation is his idea of a progress culture. Now, this might surprise some people, because people might say, well, look at Silicon Valley, aren't people trying to, like come up with new ideas all the time? Look at Academia, you know, we've never had more scientists, you know, trying to invent new things. Yeah. So what's your reaction to that? And how do you think about this culture that we want to have?
JASON: Yeah, I think that the world today is not 100% negative on progress. But I think many people are very mixed. They're very conflicted. They maybe see a lot of the benefits of progress. But they're also extremely worried about its downsides. It's good to be worried about specific risks and dangers. You don't want to be oblivious to risk, you don't want to be complacent about it. And I think it's possible that part of how we got into this situation is that the 19th-century attitude was maybe a little too naive, was maybe a little too oblivious to risks and problems. So I think we ran smack into some of them, and then think maybe we overcorrected in the 20th century. So I don't advocate going back to a kind of naive, damn the torpedoes full speed ahead kind of a 19th-century approach. But I do think that we might have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in the 20th century in a kind of turning against the very idea of progress itself. And so I think we need to once again, make a course correction, just hopefully not an overcorrection this time. I'll give you two ways in which you can really see this. So one example that I like to bring out is that in the 1890 census in the United States, so at the time, you know, there were no real-time estimates of the population. And so nobody knew what the population of the US was, they hadn't gotten an update since the previous census. And there was this story where people were gunning for a high number, they really wanted the number to come out to 75 million. The way it was expressed in one book, this story comes up in the history of computing because it was one of the pre-electronic computing machines, a tabulating machine that was used in the 1890 census for the first time. And the book, I read about this really good book, by the way, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, said that, quote, the dignity of the Republic could not be sustained on a figure of fewer than 75 million people. And so then when they ran the census, it came out in the 60s, some, you know, millions, and people were outraged. People were like, really upset about this. Their dignity was wounded, you know, to the point where they blamed the machines, and they were like, You guys with the tabulating machines? You obviously screwed this up, right? How could you muck up the census like this and give us this pathetic number of only 67 million people? So there was I think that attitude is like, very foreign today, right? By less than a century later, in the 1960s. People were worried about overpopulation. And I think a lot of people today look at the slowing population growth of the world and think, oh, what a relief, you know, we're not going to have to deal with this overpopulation problem. So that's just one example of a mentality. I think that's very foreign to us today. Another broad example is that in the 19th century, people unabashedly talked about the conquest of nature, that they talked about nature as almost like an enemy to be fought as if we were at war with nature, and we had to beat it into submission and tame it, you know, like a wild animal. And you just don't get anybody talking like that these days. So maybe you get people kind of going the opposite and seeing nature as a loving mother or as someone we've offended, right, sort of personifying it that way. And maybe nature is getting her retribution on us or taking revenge for what we've done. Or maybe you just get a very scientific view of just sort of like, well, nature is this thing out there that we have to work with. The notion of kind of nature as an enemy of mankind that we had to fight and win and conquer is just very alien to today. So those are, I think, two examples of how attitudes really have shifted.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. But I don't feel like I fully understand this hypothesis, because why do you need everyone to be on board with this idea of progress, right? Like, isn't it enough that we have more scientists trying to invent ideas today than ever and more engineers trying to build things than ever? Like, why does it matter what the general sentiment is?
JASON: Well, for one, remember that ideas do get harder to find. So we need more and more people going into science and engineering and so forth, just to keep up the pace of progress. But also more broadly going back to sort of point one about the growing burden of over-regulation, a lot of that came from ultimately from seeing progress as destructive. If you go back to 1971, there was this court decision in a case called Calvert Cliffs. And I credit Eli Dourado. for pointing this out to me, if you read the opening of this court decision, which was I think about actually about a nuclear plant, it says something like, this is one of the first decisions coming after, I think it was one of the early environmental laws that was passed in ‘70, or ‘71. or so. And the court decision says something about how essentially society through this law has decided to finally rein in the destructive engine of material progress, quote, unquote, material, like scare quotes were put around that material progress or around the word progress. And so if people see material progress as a destructive engine, then you're going to get a lot fewer people who are putting their time and talent and resources into it, and you're gonna get a lot more people who are putting their resources into fighting it, opposing it, putting restrictions on it, and slowing it down. And vice versa. If material progress is fundamentally seen as something that's going to make the world better and make our lives better than you just get, you get more energy, more people, more enthusiasm, more resources flowing into it, and much less trying to find fundamentally stop it or slow it down.
SPENCER: So the idea is that it's not just anti-progress, sentiment creates bureaucracy and creates regulation, but also it sort of creates this pushing poll where you actually have some groups trying to stop it from happening while other groups are trying to create it. Is that the idea?
JASON: Yeah, and I mean, all this stuff goes together. I mean, again, to go back to, I mentioned an article by Jerusalem Demsas in Vox about why is it so hard to build anything, and part of it is, it's the combination of these things. So on the one hand, a law has passed, but what the law does is enable people who are opposing any particular construction project, it gives them essentially legal tools or weapons to intervene and to push back and to slow down or even stop the project, right? So these things really go together.
SPENCER: It seems like the three hypotheses you mentioned about progress going down, one being regulation, two being kind of bureaucracy and science research. And the third is this culture, that's less into progress. They actually kind of tie into each other. Right? They don't, they're not mutually exclusive hypotheses.
JASON: Correct. They're certainly not mutually exclusive. I think they're all true. And I think they all contribute, although it's interesting that I think a lot of the overregulation perhaps comes from fear and distrust of progress. But the centralization of science funding, perhaps comes from the opposite, right? In a certain sense, some of it can be traced back to Vannevar Bush's famous, you know, 1940s, memo Science the Endless Frontier, where he laid out this vision of government funding for science. And that was not based on fear and distrust. It was based on a love of science and technology, and the idea that more science and more technology will create national prosperity and security. But I think we sort of accidentally centralized it and, you know, created a little bit too much of a monoculture and too much of a single point of failure. So maybe you can go wrong, whether you love progress or hate it.
SPENCER: One thing I wonder about is whether science became more like a job than it used to be, where maybe earlier scientists were more truth-seekers who really wanted to figure out the truth about reality. And then maybe it shifted more into a sort of a career-oriented form of science. And obviously, today, we still have plenty of scientists who are really trying to figure out the truth and think about things that way. But it also seems like we have more and more people who are just like collecting a paycheck and trying to figure out how they rise through the ranks. And I wonder if this has created a sort of cultural erosion in science.
JASON: That's an interesting hypothesis, my gut reaction is that that's not the problem. Because I think there will always be some set of people who truly are inspired and motivated by seeking out new knowledge. And you only need a minority of them to scientists to be truly great in order to continue having breakthroughs. But there may be something to that. Maybe what you're pointing out here is that funding for science is maybe a double-edged sword and that it's going to get you more scientists, which is good, but maybe gets you a lower quality of people. On average, you could say the same about prestige, right? So more prestige for science is maybe a good thing. If we raise the social status of scientists, we'll get more scientists. But then at the same time, also, prestige is sort of like a poisonous motivation, right? So, people who are motivated primarily by prestige, or maybe you know, we're not going to do the best scientific work. I don't know all things considered. I think that more money and more prestige for science is probably good and will get us more good science. But we do have to be careful about it.
SPENCER: So talking to you, I'm pretty sold on the idea that we do want more progress, especially if we define it in terms of wellbeing. But you know, I think at least historically, GDP per capita has also been quite linked to human wellbeing. So how do we actually get more progress? What are the kind of concrete actions you're doing? Today in order to try to make this happen,
JASON: Yeah, well, I think this is a very long-term effort, especially to the extent that we are looking at changing sort of deeply held cultural beliefs, that sort of thing is the work of generation at least. And where I think it starts the absolute foundation is with history. I think we need a new telling of the story of progress. I think the story has never properly been told, not in a way that is accessible to a general audience at least. And so that is the main thing that I'm focusing on. On my blog, The Roots of Progress, I write stories of the history of technology, how did specific technologies come about? What problem did they solve? And what were the technical challenges, I am putting this together into a book. So I'm working on a book, The working title is The Story of Industrial Civilization, and the subtitle Towards a New Philosophy of Progress for the 21st Century. So it's going to be about three-quarters history, and about one-quarter philosophy. The first three quarters will be a telling of what were the discoveries and inventions that made the modern world and gave us our standard of living. And then the last quarter of the book will interpret that history and say, what does it really mean? Is progress good, right? Did all that material progress translate into human wellbeing? Can progress continue? Or was it maybe a one-time thing, a lucky fluke of history? And finally, what should we as a society do about it? So that's the book working on it now. I'm currently giving a series of talks through a platform called inter intellect that is based on the book every month. We're going through one chapter of the outline of the book, and I'm talking about kind of what my research has gotten me so far. And then I would expect that next year, I will begin actually drafting the manuscript and perhaps publishing it in in Serial on some kind of a, you know, subscription blog.
SPENCER: That's a cool idea to publish your book and Serial. It's so nice to actually get feedback rather than spending a year or two years or three years writing something. And then at the end, you kind of put it out in one burst.
JASON: Yeah, and you know, at the end of the process, I definitely would like to go through kind of the traditional publishing process and turn it into a more formal bound up book, or Kindle edition or whatever. But I do want to get early feedback from my closest audience.
SPENCER: I remember Paul Graham said something about how he's so used to having his essays be kind of scrutinized by so many readers that the idea of just publishing a book, kind of like shocking to him now that you would you'd be willing to publish something that hasn't been so scrutinized by so many people. So, yeah, no, I think that I think that's really great. So what would you like to see for the progress studies field more broadly? I mean, is there even a field like this? Is this a new thing? Or is there an existing field that you're kind of tacking on to?
JASON: Yeah, I think it's very nascent. There's a nascent field of progress studies, or more broadly, media progress, movement, or community, what would I like to see? Well, I think there are a lot of things that we need. First off, we need a lot more books, on various aspects of both the history and the nature and the philosophy of progress. The one I'm doing is just one and there are dozens of topics that could be covered. You know, and going along with that, more podcasts, more blogs. I think we need documentaries and bio pics. I would love to see biography films of great scientists and inventors that really go into what technical problems and challenges did they struggled with? Anton House, who's one of the best writers in this field has a blog. And he had a post about movies about inventors and scientists, and he was trying to rank them based on which ones actually showed you like the problems that the person struggled with, and how they overcame them, like what actually showed you the process of discovery or invention. And very few movies do this. A lot of them just kind of focus on the human drama, you get a lot of people yelling back and forth at each other, you know, and maybe there's like a laboratory in the background or something, right, but you don't see them actually inventing or actually doing science. And so I think we should, we should dramatize that for people and, you know, kind of show them what it's like. Similarly, I think we should have more optimistic sci-fi that's painting a vision of the future that we want to create, not just sort of like endless dystopias. I think the basic history of technology should be taught in schools, one of the things I've done is I have created a high school level course in the history of technology, which is currently being taught through a private high school called the Academy of Thought and Industry. And I would like to see that taught at many more high schools and perhaps a university kind of undergraduate level. So those are just a handful of the things that I think we need. So one thing I've done recently is I've taken my work and the blog The Roots of Progress. And I have actually launched it in the last few months as a new nonprofit organization. So we are fundraising now. And I've actually hired some help to help, you know, make some of these things happen, and hoping in the near future to launch actually a grant program for writers and other intellectuals and artists and other creatives who, you know, who wants to do projects along these lines. It's called The Roots of Progress, and you can find it at rootsofprogress.org.
SPENCER: Very cool. Jason, thanks so much for coming on.
JASON: Yeah, it's been a great conversation. Thank you for having me.
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