What is progress, has it slowed down, and what can we do about it? Joining us today to talk about the emerging field of progress studies and how it might help us dig into questions like these, is Jason Crawford, author of the blog, Roots Of Progress. Jason opens by providing us with a definition of progress and why the active study of it might help us rekindle it in our world. We talk about how progress has increasingly dwindled next. In the late 19th and early 20th century, four major progress revolutions were occurring in fields of chemical engineering, oil, electricity, and germ theory, and today we only have one, tech. In thinking about why this has occurred, we examine the stagnation hypothesis which argues that as a culture we have come to prize innovation less, we have chosen the low-hanging fruit of previous innovations to explore rather than find new ones, and regulations have grown to the extent that breakthroughs have been throttled. Jason gives his thoughts on these arguments, and also adds a fourth reason which centers around a change in funding structures for innovation. The next part of our conversation is about how we might bring back a culture of inventiveness, past examples of cities that were hubs of invention, and what the ingredients for great innovation are. Along with this, Jason shares his thoughts on what the next big movement could be before we wrap up with a discussion on the risks inherent in progress and what an effective movement for social change might look like. Tune in today to find out more! Links mentioned in today’s episode can be found below the transcript.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of The Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance, we hope listeners to the Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.
You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at chartercitiesinstitute.org, follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.
Mark: My guest today is Jason Crawford. He is the author of the blog Roots of Progress, which you can find at rootsofprogress.org. He is on Twitter @JasonCrawford. Welcome to the show, Jason.
Jason: Thanks a lot for having me.
Mark: Yeah. To start, you write a lot about progress. What is progress and what is progress studies?
Jason: I think we can define progress in a simple common-sense way. Progress is anything that helps us live better lives, longer, happier, healthier lives, anything that gives us more control over our environment over the world in general. Often when we talk about progress, especially within the progress community, we are talking primarily about technological and industrial progress, new inventions, better ways of doing things and so forth. More broadly, we can also think about progress in our knowledge, understanding the world better, progress in society, maybe treating each other better, having more peace and freedom, more universal rights and so forth.
I think all of those things, ultimately, we judge progress by a humanistic standard, so whatever makes ultimately human lives and societies better and allows people to live better lives is progress.
Mark: Cool. What is progress studies?
Jason: Progress studies is maybe at least two things. It is a proposed field of study, or interdisciplinary field that was proposed by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison about a year ago in an article in The Atlantic, which would cut across fields, like history, economics, economic history, maybe the history and philosophy of science, maybe industrial organization and management science and so forth to ask this question of where does progress come from, and ask it by drawing on the resources of all of those different fields.
Then also, I think the other reason this field was proposed was with the idea that it would be a little more prescriptive and applied. As medicine is to biology, perhaps, progress studies would be to some of these other fields. Progress studies, the idea is not only aiming at knowledge, but aiming at helping us make more progress faster. What should we do?
That is how it was originally conceived and proposed, I think. What it has become in the last year or so, I would say, also is a community of people, who are interested in this notion. Some of whom are in academia, but many of whom are not. People who are coming together in our Slack channel, on blogs, in clubhouse rooms, on Twitter and so forth to discuss these ideas, contribute their own analysis and just come at this from a bunch of different angles to figure out what can we learn about this. At the end of the day, what should we do?
Mark: Why is progress studies necessary?
Jason: Well, I think it comes down to a couple of simple premises; one is that progress is important. In fact, in one of Tyler Cowen’s books, he called economic growth a moral imperative. I have called progress a moral imperative. Two, progress is not automatic, or inevitable. It is something that depends on human choice. It depends on the way that we think about progress itself and the way that we organize our society to achieve it. We get more or less of it depending on what we do and how we do it. We need progress studies in order to keep making progress, keep moving the world forward and keep, ultimately, improving living standards for everybody on earth.
Mark: Let me ask that question a slightly different way. If we think about periods of time that have seen a burst of progress, for example in the 19th century, there was no progress studies, where a lot of the industrial capitalism took hold that really vastly improved our living standards, in ancient Athens, which created a lot of the foundations for western knowledge and western civilization and there was no progress studies. In Vienna, there was no progress studies.
On a high-level, I agree, progress is important – is a moral, an imperative. What I’m trying to do is actually draw out the link between what is the sociological need for progress studies to exist today when past instances of economic, moral, scientific, etc., progress did not seem to have a specific – I mean, they had an animating spirit, but that animating spirit was not progress studies.
Jason: Yeah. First off, I would note that in general, everything that people do, we start doing it before we have a theory of it. That is true for science. For instance, it is true for machines that we build and new technologies. It’s true for many different things. The theory comes along later and can only come along later after the thing has existed for a while. There couldn’t be any progress studies if there wasn’t first some progress to base it on.
Then once we have a theory of how to do a thing, we can do it better. Something like progress studies is not necessary for the first progress ever in human history to happen, but it can help us understand how do we keep this going, how do we protect this trend, how do we nurture it, how do we accelerate it? I would also say that some of the actually greatest progress in history has come after there was something of a theory around it. You mentioned sometimes when there was a lot of progress perhaps in intellectual fields, such as in ancient Athens.
If you step back and you look at industrial progress and improvements in the standard of living, those mostly didn’t come until the last few hundred years, or at least, they were very slow and sporadic for thousands of years. The real high growth and sustained growth in standard of living has only come in the last couple hundred years.
Arguably, that didn’t come until a couple hundred years after there actually was an explicit theory of it, which was given its best expression probably by Francis Bacon. Back in the 1500’s, there were literally people saying, let’s do science and it will ultimately improve our lives. That actually took hundreds of years really to come to fruition, but it ultimately did. I would argue that maybe, actually sometimes we do need a theory that says, that this thing is going to be helpful before we do it. We don’t always and it can still help to have the theory come along later to help us identify and optimize things and make them consistent and not a brief period in history that peters out and goes away.
Mark: That’s a good explanation. I was actually poking you to go in a slightly different direction, so I’ll poke you again harder. What I see as one of the rationales for progress studies is inspired by Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen, this great stagnation hypothesis, which goes approximately like, if we imagine the average household in 1900 versus 1960, there were a lot of changes in those 60 years. The household would get indoor plumbing, they would get a refrigerator, a television, a radio, a car, insulation, heating, air-conditioning. Their lives would be immeasurably improved.
If we go from 1960 to today, the average household would look quite similar. I mean, it’s a bit bigger, which is good. The quality of the furniture and the quality of the material is probably better, which is good. The main functional difference would basically be electronics; computers, iPads, smartphones, etc. Other than that, the house would largely look the same. A Cowen-Thiel hypothesis is that there was this great stagnation, we picked the low-hanging fruit and then there wasn’t any more. Now we’re coasting off what might be called distributional gains of innovation, but not step changes from these new discoveries.
To me, at least putting progress studies in this broad trend, it has this intellectual heritage of seeing, okay, there’s finally this realization that things are slowing down in the world of atoms and how do we restart this engine again? Is that an accurate summary, or do you see this differently?
Jason: Yeah, definitely. I think you’re right that the stagnation hypothesis is an important – in the current context, in today’s context is an important additional motivator for progress studies. Maybe for some people, it’s the primary motivator. For me, it’s a secondary additional thing. I was interested in progress before I was aware of the stagnation hypothesis, or even really believed in it. I was a bit skeptical of it when I first heard about it. I have been coming around to it.
I actually just finished reading Robert Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which is one of the most, maybe well-researched and very thoroughly presented statements of this hypothesis. As I said, I was a little skeptical of this hypothesis when I first heard about it and I’ve been coming around to it, so let me try to explain it in a way that will perhaps be understandable to others who are similarly skeptical.
I think the living room hypothesis, or the living room way of looking at it, what has changed in your living room, always felt to me like a little too anecdotal. I don’t know. Are you really going to see the changes around the living room? Maybe the changes are out in the factory, or the power plant, or the hospital, or etc., right? It just felt a little too.
The other thing is that people would say, “Oh, we haven’t had progress. Not much has changed, except for in this digital revolution.” The except for always felt like a big hand wavy. Well, how can you say except for the huge area of progress, there hasn’t been a lot of progress? That didn’t sound like a very convincing argument. Of course, there’s only been progress in the areas where there’s been progress. That never sounded to me like a very convincing argument for stagnation.
Now, I think it gets more convincing when you look at it this way. In the late 1800s into the early to mid-1900s, there were by my count, approximately four major revolutions all going on at once, each of which, I think, is comparable in scope and magnitude to the computer and Internet revolution. I identify them right now as one electricity and everything that that led to, especially electric motors and lighting, of course, two oil and the internal combustion engine and of course, that led to automobiles and airplanes.
Three, the germ theory, which was revolutionizing really a lot of things about health from public health and sanitation to ultimately, vaccines and antibiotics. Then number four, I’ll just call chemical engineering, where chemistry was really coming into its own in the end of the 1800’s and was starting to lead to actual improvements in especially materials, material science, well, and chemical manufacturing as well. We got, especially in the early 1900s, we got some really amazing things, like the first synthetic plastics and the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic fertilizer among other things.
You put all those together, chemical engineering, oil, electricity and germ theory. Those four things together, again, each of them is pretty much equivalent to I would say, the computer and Internet revolution. Between the four of them, they really directly revolutionized every area of life in the economy. You don’t have to downplay computers in the Internet in order to see or discount the huge impact that computers in the Internet have had in order to see that yes, one revolution just doesn’t stack up to four of them all going on at the same time.
To me, the stagnation question has become, where are the other revolutions? Any one revolution is going to only last you so long. It’s going to go through an S-curve. It’s going to eventually level out and plateau as it saturates the market and you’ve done everything that you can do with it. Why did we let four of them all level off and why did we only replace them with one? By the way, what’s coming next? The only thing worse than going from four to one is going from one to zero, major revolutions happening at a time.
I think, the stagnation motivation for progress studies would be to look at that and say, yeah, what happened to those other things? By the way, we can point to some of them that were “supposed to happen,” supposed to and didn’t – that people expected. What happened to nuclear and why didn’t we have an energy revolution? Why are we still dependent on fossil fuels as our main energy source? Why haven’t we come up with anything better? Why hasn’t genetic engineering had a bigger impact on life and health? Why don’t we have any new materials that are even better than plastics? Why don’t we have nano-materials, or other things in that category, etc.? What happened to space? We were making progress into space and obviously, canonically put the man on the moon in ’69 and then haven’t been back there since and that seems like another revolution that was potentially aborted.
What happened to all these things, the ones that began and were the cut-off, or petered out before they really had a big impact. The ones that seem to be on the horizon, but haven’t really arrived, or have barely even begun, or are still dreams in the lab. What happened to all of those? To my mind, that is really the huge question around stagnation right now.
Mark: What did happen to all of those?
Jason: Well, different things, I think. I don’t think there’s a single story for all of them, or at least, the proximate cause is not the same for all of them. I think you would get a lot of different answers. When it comes to nuclear, I actually asked a question about this on Twitter sort of like, because there are different stories about nuclear. One of the stories is it was essentially politics. It got a bad public image and then it got very political, there were a lot of safety regulations, there were a lot of other just regulations that made the whole thing very inefficient, and so now nuclear power plants as they exist today, just can’t compete economically with natural gas, or whatever other forms of fossil fuels that are just cheaper ways of making power right now.
If you look at space, arguably, we went to space too soon and we did it on a very geopolitical basis. We were trying to make sure the Russians didn’t get ahead of us in terms of space technology, which made a lot of sense in the military context of the time. Then when we essentially won the space race and the Russians didn’t seem to be nipping at our heels anymore, or getting ahead of us, then we lost the motivation.
Only today with private space companies are we finding, or even looking for new economic motivation that can sustain this over the long term, without needing consistent public funding, which I think the space program found is fickle. As for other things, I don’t know, genetic engineering, maybe genetic engineering is just hard. There’s certainly some things that it’s not as if we’ve had zero progress with that. We have genetic engineering companies. We have synthetic insulin based on genetically engineered microbes and so forth. Some things have actually come along.
Obviously, we haven’t cured cancer with it. We don’t even have in general, cures for genetic diseases. I don’t totally know why yet. I would love to hear good answers on that. I would love to dig into it. You can, perhaps, trace some of this stuff back to science. If you look at the four big revolutions that I mentioned around the turn of the last century, at least three of them, I think you can very directly trace back to physics, chemistry and biology.
You had electromagnetism, which led to the electricity industry. The science of chemistry led to chemical engineering. Then you had the germ theory, in particular, lead to a revolution in health. You can just go one step back from all of these revolutions that did or didn’t happen and ask well, what happened in science? Have we had enough breakthroughs in science? Many people have the impression that physics is stuck and hasn’t had any breakthroughs since, I don’t know, I mean, the nuclear age basically. Why is that? Why haven’t we had these scientific breakthroughs? I don’t know. In biology, we do seem to have been making a lot of progress in the last decades. That one, it’s less clear to me, why hasn’t that turned into more and better technology.
Mark: To me, I think several interesting questions that can be done. There’s a popular website that’s been going around Twitter recently, what happened in 1971, which traces a lot of what might be called modern ills, in terms of the decoupling of increase in productivity with wages, of the peak of standards for human travel. Basically, human travel stopped increasing – The average speed of human travel stopped increasing in the early 70s from energy production. One is, all right, what happened then? Two, is that the actual right date? Because if you take the Cowen perspective, the progress, new innovations probably petered out a little bit earlier, where a lot of the things that were happening in the 60s were just perfecting of things that previously existed.
I mean, you basically had the jet engine for planes that was figured out in and around World War II. Then that was really the last – maybe major one in addition with nuclear power, which got half rolled out. Most of the big four that you had mentioned were much earlier in the late 19th century. One question is all right, what actually happened? How do we separate the dates? To me, the other big question is what is the cause of this?
I think about this in three different ways. One, what is the role of culture just generally? Are we a culture that celebrates progress? You had a very good blog post on this recently, about when the polio vaccine was announced, there were big ticker parades in every city. This used to be a common thing and now it’s really hard to imagine. Maybe when the COVID vaccine comes out, we’ll see ticker parades. We saw on Twitter for example, in certain communities, people were celebrating Elon Musk’s launch of the Falcon Heavy, I believe. It was a relatively small community when this is one of the biggest, probably hard technological breakthroughs in a long time and the people who are celebrating it are relatively minor.
Culture is one reason that could potentially explain stagnation. The other is the Cowen hypothesis, which is low-hanging fruit. That might be summarized as some technology is easier to discover, some technology is more difficult to discover. In the 19th century, we just happen to have this unique culture, combined with economic system, combined with political system that allowed us to discover a lot of inventions and cool stuff that allowed for us to drastically improve our standard of living.
There was only a set amount that could be discovered, given the cultural, political and economic constraints. Once we discovered those, everything became much more difficult, and so it would necessarily require a much higher amount of input in terms of knowledge, in terms of energy, in terms of a number of researchers, etc.
The third reason, which is the reason libertarians might be a little bit sympathetic, is that we just started over-regulating. We would have much better things. We might have flying cars if the FAA didn’t exist, or we might have much more nuclear energy if the Department of Energy didn’t exist. We placed these illegal barriers that substantially raised the cost for innovation.
Previously, I was somewhat skeptical of that. I recently read Where’s My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by I believe, his name is J. Storrs Hall, which Tyler Cowen shared a review on recently. Ben Reinhardt, I think had a really good Twitter thread on. He argues in my opinion, not sure fully persuasively, but at least definitely updated, cause me to update my beliefs, that there is this a relatively strong regulatory barriers to things like flying cars. He believes that we actually – the book is we could have flying cars, except we lost this innovative tinkering way of approaching it without realizing that, for example, when we start out with airplanes, the first airplanes were very dangerous, and the first cars were quite dangerous. We basically decided that we had much lower risk tolerance, when in reality if we had accepted this, all right, this is an innovative iterative process, and so we don’t expect the final product to be out immediately, but over time, people will continue to come up with these safety improvements with these whatever improvements that will allow this to happen.
This was, at least the way he describes it as one, broadly cultural and two, also regulatory, where there are just substantive regulatory barriers that are throwing up in the way of some of these new technologies. I guess, let me pause there and ask, here I see as the three things; the culture the low-hanging fruit, the regulations. Is there anything else that is a possible explanation? Then how would you rate those as varying reasons for why progress has slowed over the last several generations?
Jason: Okay. Out of the three you named, I agree with, or sympathize with two of them. There’s one that I don’t buy and there’s one that I would add. The one that I don’t really buy is the low-hanging fruit idea. It is true that in general, I think the things that we found out in a 100, or a 150 years ago, were in some sense, easier to find out. They were easier discoveries and inventions to make.
I mean, one way to think about this is to just look at physics. What does it take to make progress in physics? Well in the 1800s, you could literally be playing with magnets on your kitchen table and discover fundamental new laws of physics. I mean, I’m exaggerating a bit, but that was the equipment you needed, basically, right? Some magnets, some wires, maybe some instruments like an ammeter or something.
Today, we need these huge billion-dollar projects, like LIGO and particle colliders and stuff like that. Yeah, things have gotten more difficult. The reason I don’t buy it is we have so much more resources available to make this progress now. If you look at the 1800s, who was science? Who and what was doing science? Well, it was a bunch of aristocrats who had free time and were interested and played around with it. Now we have an entire university system. We have the Internet for all these people to collaborate. We’re way ahead in terms of methods, statistics. We actually know how to analyze our experiments now.
We have huge amounts of government funding for all of this. We have much more advanced instruments and measurement apparatus and so forth. Of course, we have lots and lots more scientists. I feel like as the investment that we have and the infrastructure and the resources that we have going into making progress goes up, we ought to be able to at least sustain an exponential trend, even as it gets more and more difficult.
You see this thing in a bunch of different – it’s a similar thing if you look at Moore’s Law and progress in semiconductors. It’s like, well yeah, it gets harder to keep driving Moore’s Law forward as we do so, but we also keep putting more and more resources into it, and so we keep driving it forward.
The other reason I don’t totally buy the low-hanging fruit thing is that as Michael Nielsen has pointed out, when you discover new fields and open up – when you open up new fields, you get whole new orchards of low-hanging fruit that you weren’t even looking at, or playing around in. I come back to the like, sure, the low-hanging fruit from the electricity industry is gone. We already electrified the world and everybody has lights and motors and everything. Sure. That one is over.
Maybe the low-hanging fruit from the computer and Internet revolution is starting to get picked. Maybe that is starting to level out and plateau. Where are the new fields? Where are the new orchards? Why don’t we have a whole bunch of new low-hanging fruit from genetic engineering, or from nanomaterials, or from something along those lines? That’s the one I don’t buy.
I do agree with cultural causes. One thing to look at there is on the positive side, or the lack of positive, do we still as a culture, look very positively at progress? Do we see it as a good thing?
I think today, people are very ambivalent about progress and there are many, many people who outright think, it is risky, bad or dangerous. As you pointed out, yeah, I wrote a blog post just looking at different ways that progress has been celebrated in the past, even things that today we would consider very mundane, like the building of a bridge. When the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, there were massive – the president was there and they had fireworks and a brass band and a whole day of speeches etc.
I mean, there was literally a young woman at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge and an old woman in 1969 at the moon landing. She saw both of them and basically said – I saw more excitement over the Brooklyn Bridge. That was quoted in McCullough’s history of the bridge, by the way. It’s obviously one cherry-picked data point. If you check out that post on my blog at The Roots of Progress, you’ll just see some interesting examples.
The other thing that you pointed at was risk aversion. I think we have created a safety culture. I think perhaps, we have unwittingly traded safety for progress. To some extent, it is appropriate that our bar for safety should go up over time, as the world becomes less dangerous as there is less background risk in general, as mortality rates drop from all causes, it makes sense that we would accept less risk in our experimentation and in our new industries and so forth.
However, we do have to be conscious that there is a trade-off. For what it’s worth, I feel that we have actually gone way beyond – I think that a lot of the things that have been put in place in the name of safety, a lot of the regulations and the bureaucracy and the processes and the overhead is not even buying us safety. I think a lot of it is probably safety theater. I think we should really look at how we’ve gotten into a point where safety as an argument pretty much trumps anything, you can almost win any argument by invoking safety concerns.
Mark: Would someone please think of the children.
Jason: Essentially. I think we do need to examine that part of our culture. The other thing you mentioned was regulation. I am very sympathetic to this and this is the practical implementation in many ways of the safety concern. If you just want a concrete example of this, look at the evolution of the FDA over the last 114 years or whatever that it’s been. In 1906, I believe it was the FDA is created in response to some very real concerns about some really horrible things that apparently were going on in meat packing and other just food and drug, obviously. Those things were being created to not very high purity standards were being adulterated and it was not anything that anybody really wanted.
More than a 100 years later, the FDA is blocking rapid COVID testing and is getting in the way of us actually fighting a pandemic. I think, something went wrong in those 114 years and we should really – I think somebody should tell that story and look into what was it? Where did it go wrong? How did it get to this point where it’s arguably adding more roadblocks than it’s actually doing good?
Now, the thing you didn’t mention that I think is really worth looking into is funding mechanisms. Where does the money come from? Funding – I’ll broaden it a little bit to organization and management. What types of institutions are doing progress in different areas, are doing research especially? Pure scientific research and applied practical invention and high-risk engineering. How are those things funded? How are resources allocated? If you have an idea, how do you get time and space to pursue it and the materials that you need?
What are the career paths that we have created and the incentive structures that we have set up for researchers? Do those lend themselves to breakthroughs? Have we set up the right funding structures and incentive structures for those breakthroughs to happen? There are a lot of arguments out there that there is maybe more than one line of argument. One line of argument is that funding and incentive structures right now encourage too much very incremental, low-risk research and not enough high-risk, high-reward stuff that could really lead to breakthroughs.
Related, there are arguments that the way we manage science leads to a lot of consensus and group think and excludes maverick, or contrarian ideas, which again is where often the breakthroughs come from. They often look like maverick or contrarian ideas. At the beginning, they are. Even when they eventually become consensus after they went out.
Mark: Doesn’t this tie into the low-hanging fruit argument? If we think about the 19th century, there was just much less funding available. People were generally much less wealthy. As you said, you could just be playing with magnets on your kitchen table and discover a fundamental law of physics. Now if you want to do physics, there are much higher, generally input costs. This, I think necessarily, has what might be described as a tempering mechanism, where if you look at where the breakthroughs come from, they come from crazy people.
The best scientists often have one or more screws loose in their head that allow them to see what other people aren’t seeing. Sometimes they are very disagreeable people. They don’t necessarily always have these other personality traits. They have things that in oftentimes, you might invite them to your dinner party for general insight, but they’re not people who it’s like, hey, I’m going to get be buddies and get a drink, because they’re just really different.
It’s okay that they’re really different if the starting costs are very low, but then once starting costs become much higher, the natural mechanism is going to be, yeah, I think this tempering thing, where the funding sources are going to want a little bit more like cooperativeness, a little bit more of that, which then has this dampening effect on the creative genius of some of the potential participants. Do you think that’s a fair summary?
Jason: Certainly. I think arguably, part of what’s difficult about this is that so much funding in the US, at least so much research funding comes from the federal government. There is a certain pressure, which is a very legitimate and understandable pressure, when you are spending the public’s money to make sure you are spending it in a prudent way. That is exactly the thing that can preclude breakthroughs. It’s a dilemma that I think we need to look at.
Mark: What else in the funding mechanisms do you see as precluding? Because my sense is that funding is much more plentiful than it was a hundred years ago. There are a lot of also very high-net-worth individuals, where you see a little bit this patronage model of science coming back to a certain extent. What do you see as these funding constraints that are dampening current progress?
Jason: First off, I really don’t think that it’s the amount of money. I don’t think that the solution is that we just need more money. I’m not even convinced that we don’t have enough. I don’t have a strong opinion on that, but that certainly wouldn’t be my first hypothesis. I think it has more to do with how it is deployed and where it is deployed. You’re right that there is some private funding of science. I mean, one of the large and prominent ones that I don’t think actually, a lot of people know about, like they don’t get a whole lot of broad press is the Simon’s Foundation. They fund a lot of just really basic, I mean, even math and physics and so forth.
In terms of things that have changed, so I think another thing that is interesting if you look at the course of the 20thcentury, pre-war, at least before World War II, in the early part of the 20th century, was the heyday of the great corporate research labs. You had these large labs funded by these large companies, some of them even monopolies like AT&T, with a lot of cash flow and the willingness to invest in very basic research and invest over long periods of time and not really demand an immediate payback, with the understanding that it would eventually pay back and that 10 or 20 years later, that they would be able to look back and see that a large percentage of, if not virtually all of their product line, had its roots in their own corporate research of a decade or two prior.
One interesting thing about this is that these – essentially, you’ve got everything from basic research, to invention, to product development and distribution under one broad roof. I think we have a lot less of that today. Today, we have a model where we have funding goes – so funding and again, mostly federal funding gets funneled through universities. The research is done in more of a university context. Then there’s this handoff to industry through this process called tech transfer, which as far as I can tell, nobody really likes very much, or thinks works very well.
That is one of the other hypotheses that I have. Did we actually separate out and silo off science from invention? Do those things actually need to be more integrated maybe under one roof? There are really fascinating stories. If you look at for instance, the way that the transistor was invented and I have a blog post on this as well, transistor’s invented at Bell Labs, by their semiconductor research group. The process of inventing the transistor actually shuttled back and forth between science, like theoretical physics and tinkering with inventions.
They would be like, “Oh, okay. Let’s tinker a bit and try to make a transistor. Oh, it’s not behaving the way that the theory says it ought to behave. Well, let’s go back to the drawing board and figure out what about the theory is wrong and then maybe come up with some alteration to the theory of semiconductor physics.”
Then they would take that and say, “Okay. Well, if this is what’s going on then, we can think –” Then they, “Oh, we’re now getting some result. This is better, but we’re getting some – still getting some results we can’t quite explain. Let’s go back to the drawing board.” They went back and forth a few times to get to the transistor that became the standard design and took over the world.
I just wonder, where can that thing happen today? Where do you have people assembled under one roof, where the people themselves have aptitude, both in science and engineering, or invention, where the project and the organization that they’re in that feels that it can encompass both of them and that both of those are within its purview. You can have that rapid shuttling and cycling back and forth. I just don’t know if that really happens today.
Mark: Yeah. There was this interesting, I guess, a professor maybe at NYU or something after Elon Musk did his neurolink demonstration. It was quoted in an article, was basically saying, “Musk hasn’t really discovered anything. All of these are previously known things in neuroscience, blah, blah, blah.” Musk replied. I don’t think it was the professor on Twitter, but somebody quote tweeted the article and Musk replied basically saying, “I don’t think you understand how difficult it is to move from this high-level idea to actual real-world application.” I mean, we knew at least theoretically for example, an atomic bomb was possible for multiple years before developing the bomb, but we had to spend, I think it was a total of a half a percentage, 0.9 GDP over a multi-year period to actually get there.
We knew theoretically that getting to the moon was possible, but it takes a lot of leg work to actually build the rocket and make it safe enough for a human to be there and do all the math, etc., etc. In part of the discussions today, particularly amongst the scientific community, I think there might be a downgrading of oh, that’s just engineering. When in reality, the engineering is, I think, crucial for this. Transforming something from an idea to actual implementation.
Just for a brief example in charter cities, people have been talking about charter cities for a while. We tried to do at the Charter Cities Institute is take it from okay, you have this high-level idea, now what does it mean to actually implement it? How do you actually create for example, an urban plan? How do you create governance laws and regulations? How do you administer them? It’s very easy to have this high-level idea. It’s pretty difficult to figure it out, how to make it work in practice.
Jason: Yeah, totally. I think that that note that – coming back to the idea of culture, there is an issue of science culture and research culture, that devaluing of engineering is itself a cultural attitude within obviously, a niche community. Again, so I mean, I wonder, have we just put our hands in the middle of this and push them apart, drawn a dividing line said, “Okay. All you scientists go over here in the ivory tower and do your academic science stuff, where you’ve learned to value a certain set of things and you get credit for a certain set of things and you build your entire career by valuing and doing a certain set of things.”
Then we have these other people in the corporate world who are basically told, “Well, you have a certain number of quarters to turn a profit.” If there isn’t support for that thing that is going to pay off in 10 or 20 years for whatever reason, if that can’t be supported by the corporate structure, or the financial structure because there’s too much pressure for short-term profit, then invention falls in the gap.
You’ve got maybe scientists doing science, or what we call basic research. You’d have companies doing development and that invention, or applied research where we figure out how to take something and really make it work when it was just a scientific idea and had never really been proven, maybe that is the gap that has fallen away a bit.
Mark: How do we fix that?
Jason: I think first, we have to make a compelling case for it. I mean, everything that I’m talking about here is still a hypothesis in my mind. I mean, this comes back to why do we need progress studies? We need people really looking into the history and the economics of this and making a really solid case that this is what is going on.
Then I think we need to invent a new mechanism. I could imagine this coming from different – you could approach this from different directions. You could say, how do we get academia to value applied stuff more and make more space for it and maybe that – maybe you just need the right funder to come along and say, “I will give you money if you do this and you and here’s how we’re going to value things.”
I think that is tough, because I suspect that you would need to change the incentive structures with for researchers themselves, and that ultimately means changing career paths. I suspect that you might need to create an entirely new career path. Not the academic career path, but a inventor career path, which I don’t know if that really exists anymore.
I mean, another way of looking at this is just, there used to be a role in society that was inventor. Do we have that role anymore? Is it broadly supported? Is it acknowledged? If you want to be an inventor, is there a way to go do that? Is that a career option that you can choose even?
Mark: Are you looking a little bit at if we think about – there was wasn’t really a career role of inventor in the 60s, 70s, 80s, the heyday of Bell Labs. In the 19th century, we did have this broad invention discovery that did not – I mean, you focused on drawing a dichotomy between the Bell Labs. We basically have corporate monopolies, because they had long-term stability. They were willing to invest in very basic applied research that they would expect. It wouldn’t show up in their balance sheet till 20 years later, but because they had this somewhat unique historical context with this monopoly structure, they felt comfortable doing those long-scale investments.
Most of the innovation, you talked about the four big ones, that came in the late 19th century, where there were, you had –standard oil. You had some of the big railroads. My feeling is that none of them really felt super secure. They tried to create their own trusts and then failed. There was still this – most of the, I think, discovery invention, the Wright Brothers were basically just toughing it.
That found a corporate funded model worked for a brief period of time. To me, that’s not what I’d go back to. To me, if I’m looking at what period of time led to the most innovation, most discovery, I would basically look at late 19thcentury, and then figure out what was working there and can that meaningfully be translated method to today?
Jason: Yeah, that’s true. There was late 19th and early 20th. That’s true. I don’t think we necessarily – it doesn’t mean that we should just go back to the way things were. I think we need to find a way to move forward, not back. I’m not saying that we should bring back the big corporate research labs. I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but I don’t know that that’s the solution. It’s also not clear to me that we could just bring back the day of the lone inventor from what’s called sometimes, the “heroic age of American invention,” around yeah, late 1800s, early 1900s.
Mark: I mean, to me, you’re saying that a little bit, it’s unclear whether this will translate to a mass scale, where for example, there are DIY automatic pancreas, where if you have a kid who needs insulin, I think there is one on the market approved by the FDA these days. For a while, people just made your own, where you attach a glucose sensor to an insulin pump. If your insulin levels ever fall below X, the glucose sensor will let the insulin pump know and insulin pump will automatically do it, instead of you having to wake up in the midnight and do it, doing it if you’ve got a three-year-old kid, then you have to check the three-year-old kid and that’s a big pain in the butt.
You have a community doing that. You have a community that’s doing prosthetic limbs, because prosthetic limbs – I’m not actually sure on this, but I believe they’re rated as a medical device from the FDA. There are all sorts of stringent requirements for approval, but it basically doesn’t count if you build it yourself and if you don’t sell it or market it. You have a community that’s doing online, doing the prosthetic limbs as well.
You do have this degree of tinkerers that harken back to this heroic age. Right now, they’re somewhat – you also have tinkerers in gene therapy that are doing it themselves and those people, I don’t know, I think are a little bit crazy to take that level of risk. I’m glad somebody’s doing it, even if I’m not sure I would want to do it myself.
It’s unclear whether these tinkerers, what impact they will have over the long run and whether that, I don’t know, approach is applicable in what might be the current low-hanging fruit, where we’ll start to see these increasing rewards over the next 20 to 30 years. At least, part of this culture suggests that there might be something there. Let’s, I guess focus a little bit more on something that might be somewhat more practically related to charter cities. One of the things that I’ve increasingly been mulling about in my head is we can build economically successful cities. Well, hopefully we can build them. That’s a big accomplishment already.
Then thinking about the cities that have had this really lasting impact on civilization, on human culture. For example, if we think about Dubai. Dubai is a great city. It was a desert 50 years ago, now it’s got the tallest building in the world. It’s a very interesting place. There’s a lot happening. There’s a lot of economic activity. Honestly, if I think about what the lasting cultural economic scientific legacy of Dubai is, I’m not sure it’s there.
I mean, they’ve inspired some nearby cities to be built in the Middle East. They’ve inspired some financial centers, so there’s something there, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to Venice or San Francisco today, I think, to Genoa, to ancient Athens. It’s probably not feasible to expect that all, or even most, or even some charter cities will turn into that.
To me, there are these specific set of ingredients that might be at least, partially identifiable for these cities that really become cultural icons that then have this ability to produce either works of art, or works of science, or companies that have this really lasting impact. If I’m thinking about progress studies, one of the questions is why are sometimes in history much more productive than other times? Where Athens at its peak was 40,000 people. Yet, everybody reads Plato in college. How do you get 40,000 people? That’s barely a neighborhood in D.C. That neighbor in DC isn’t one millionth as productive as average Athenian was. I don’t know how you think about that, but I think about it and how it relates to charter cities.
Jason: I have not looked into this deeply. I will say that my hunch is that a city on the level of Athens, or Venice, or whatever is probably not something that you can make happen, but maybe it’s something that you can allow to happen when the time and the chemistry is right for it.
Mark: The way I think about it is there are several key ingredients. One is you basically need a city that’s relatively – to me, at least rather – thinking about rather than, I think this applies to both literature, art, as well as science. Scott Alexander has a really great blog post about was the atomic bomb just a Hungarian science project? Where he looks at and he finds that a lot of the top nuclear physicists were all from Hungary, were all from Budapest and even three or four of them went to the same high school. Two of them were in the same grade.
His question is that you have this explosion of physics talent that happens in a very specific and a very concentrated point of time. His hypothesis is basically, you have the Jews that have this long history of intellectualism of focusing on reading, on the importance of knowledge. Then two things happen simultaneously. One, there is the lessening of legal restrictions on their right to work in certain spaces, on their right to live in cities, etc. Then that is combined with a weakening of some previous cultural restrictions.
Previously, the very smart Jews were expected to become rabbis, were expected to do these things that while valuable, probably aren’t really very well-known outside the Jewish community. Now there’s this ability to one, engage in this much broader pursuit of things, one being nuclear physics. Then two, this is combined with abolition of legal restrictions that you basically had this group of people that with a culture that was very focused on knowledge, on education, that were then allowed to enter cities and merge with this burgeoning ethic that allowed for this explosion of knowledge.
If we think about Paris in the immediate post-World War I era, where you had a lot of great American writers from Ernest Hemingway to Scott Fitzgerald, who lived there in part, because the war had basically decimated housing prices so you did have this core network of people that were able to migrate there and create this scene that allowed for this explosion of talent.
To me you need this close somewhat tight-knit network, combined with that typically comes from the release of this all this potential energy from a people that might previously have been oppressed by one way or another. You saw this right with the Harlem renaissance in the 1920s in New York, that allows for this really burst of creative explosion.
Jason: Yeah. Part of what you’re getting at here is that part of it is looking at what might have been keeping the talent down and just removing those blockers. That’s why I say, it’s almost easier to identify what can prevent a city from being great. Then you just remove all of those things, then your city at least has a chance to become great, if it gets the right cluster of talent. I don’t know. Perhaps, the other thing you could do if you wanted to try to make it – I mean, in addition to that, if you wanted to make it happen – try to happen a little more deliberately is to just announce that you want to be the hub for this thing and try to actually recruit the initial nucleus of talent that is going to draw.
I mean, ultimately, it comes from a bunch of people who are all interested in the same thing who want to be close to each other for the purposes of being a part of that community. I think that’s a common thing that you see.
Mark: You’re starting to see this a little bit with some folks trying to – There’s a bit of discussion mostly on Twitter these days, about Texodus, from SF, from the Bay Area, because of a combination of very high real estate prices with fires that are seeming to become much more common and making at least for a part of the year, the area not very livable, combined with an increasingly hostile city government, as well as a state government that seems to be increasing taxes and not really providing the services that are traditionally part of the social contract with respect to those taxes.
There is this discussion that how can you capture some of that talent in a concentrated area and bottle it and get some of that energy? Which I’m sympathetic to on some margins, but also somewhat skeptical of, just because if you look at mass migrations in the past, there tends to be a very strong identity, oftentimes a religion. For example, the Mormons going to Utah, or the Jews going to Israel. I mean, we might see this with Hong Kong migrating to – a lot of Hong Kongers migrating somewhere. It’s this very strong cultural identity, where tech has an identity. It’s much stronger than most other industries, but it’s not nearly as strong as a religion, or being part of the same, not country, but semi-autonomous region for multiple generations. Combine that with an oppression that really precipitates this widespread move.
Jason: So much tech can happen remotely. I tend to agree that if there is a significant exodus, it’s going to be more of a diaspora, than a mass migration to a single place. Again, rather than trying to create the next Silicon Valley, you should – if you’re going to try to create some great center of something, it should be whatever’s coming next, not the thing that was the hot thing for the last 50 years. I would love to see a center of something in biotech.
Mark: Yeah. Then what are those hot things that are going to come over the next 50 years and how do we make them happen?
Jason: Bio is where I would place my bets. I’m not at all an expert on this, but that feels to me the science and the area of engineering that is on potentially on the cusp of being the next big revolution at the same scope and scale as the computer revolution, or electricity, or etc. Other than that, honestly, I don’t know what might really be here, or what might be on its way. I would love to see something happen in nuclear, but there are a lot of barriers to that.
If you could get the right regulatory environment, maybe you could just announce you want to be the nuclear city and try to be the first 100%. Or actually, I don’t know, are there any 100% nuclear-powered cities?
Mark: Probably. France is 70% nuclear, so I assume there’s at least several towns in France that are a 100% nuclear.
Jason: Just announce that as your thing and try to get all the experimentation coming to you and just figure out the right environment to make that not stupidly dangerous, but also allow for actual innovation and engineering.
Mark: I think that’s right. To me, while we are definitely moving to a remote work world, I still think that’s probably going to play out over the next several decades, not over the next several years, just because if we think about – the only really, I think Internet application that actually has serendipity is Twitter. None of the other Internet applications actually have that serendipity, those water cooler conversations. Well, I think we are moving to that. We can think about for example, how I don’t think my generation, but the younger generation is beginning to socialize on apps like Fortnite much more, or they had a Travis Scott concert, where there is this going to be this not just ability, but also this expectation that you hang out with your avatar in a virtual world, while right my generation did it through Aim and does it through chats, it’s not quite the same as having those water cooler conversations.
There will be this cultural build-up, this cultural shift, where then it becomes much more similar, where you’re just hanging out in Fortnite, or in wherever, so you can share ideas and that allows that serendipity that is currently, I think, really the value of being in the same place. I mean, to me one of the biggest disappointments with the lack of nuclear energy is just that, I think people generally overestimate the impact that lowering electricity prices has.
I mean, civilizations can to a certain extent, be judged based on their total energy inputs. Well, I don’t really pay attention to electricity prices in my apartment, just because it’s one-bedroom apartment. I don’t use that much. It’s not a big deal to me if it’s $10 or $20 higher or lower on a particular month. Just on a societal level, if energy is too cheap to meter, I think we’ll see all sorts of new ideas popping out of the woodworks in terms of how to use that energy, in terms of how to make lives better for people.
One of the challenges that I see to progress, idea of progress to progress studies is this idea of existential risk, where you have particularly, for example, EA community sometimes focuses on existential risk, where if you have a sufficiently long time horizon and you set the discount rate at zero, or sufficiently close to zero, instead of focusing on how do we get more innovation, how do we get more technology? The question is how do we make sure that humanity really lives?
This wasn’t a problem until 1945 when we developed the nuclear bomb and certainly had and for the first time, had world-ending capability. The big fear is that over time as the marginal price of creating a world ending technology drops, eventually, it would be cheap enough to create world-ending technology with three kids in a garage. At that point, the chance of the world ending approaches one. How do you balance the existential risk aspect of world-ending technology with this idea of progress?
Jason: I think there’s a lot you can learn from the history of safety itself and how we have created safety and how we have created risk and how we have sometimes neutralized the risk with specific safety technologies.
I think that it’s absolutely the case that technology can create risk. In general, if you are not paying attention to the issue of risk, by default, you are likely to create some risk. I think, it’s also the case that technology can create safety, especially when we explicitly design it to do so. A lot of the history of risk and safety in technology is essentially, we create some new technology that has some new capability, like automobiles. Then we realize that we have inadvertently also created new risks, such as automobile accidents.
Then in reaction to that, we come along and we start creating safety technologies. We invent seat belts and better brakes and airbags and traffic lights and even driver’s licenses and so forth, divided highways, etc. I think, some of the lessons from this are – we’re generally, my impression is not very good at anticipating risks ahead of time. The things that we worry about before new technology is deployed, don’t seem to be highly correlated with the things that actually kill people later.
We have both false negatives and false positives. There are things that we don’t necessarily anticipate, or plan for ahead of time that that end up being very dangerous. There are things that we do worry, that people do seem to worry about that are completely innocuous and they should never have bothered worrying about.
Then in the category of things that do turn out to be dangerous, some of them perhaps are foreseeable, like auto accidents. Others were very much just a product of scientific ignorance, such as say, the hazards of X-rays. When we started using X-rays for imaging, we didn’t realize that they were causing radiation burns and cancer and so forth.
We did pick up that relatively quickly. I mean, within the first year or two of X-rays being out there, people started to realize this was not – this is doing bad things. I think in terms of existential risk, the biggest lesson is we just need to get better at correctly anticipating risks. We need to get better at predicting them. Then, we also probably need to get better at actually figuring out what to do and getting people to do it.
Sometimes even times when risks have been foreseen, they have not always been heated. Antibiotics for example, Alexander Fleming who discovered the action of the penicillin mold, he very early on saw the possibility of antibiotic resistance. Yet, antibiotics were still overused and overprescribed in the early days, just because they were seen as such a miracle drug. We need to get better at predicting risks and we need to get better at actually coming up with plans and putting those plans in place.
I think, the thing about risk and progress is that risk is very specific. Every specific technology has its own specific set of risks and its own specific set of safety protocols and safety mechanisms and inventions and ways to counteract that risk. I think the way to deal with risk is to get proactive and to get specific and to try to figure out ahead of time what are the things we can actually do.
I haven’t done a thorough survey of this, but anecdotally, I do see humanity getting better at this. I don’t know whether we’re getting better fast enough, but if you look at for instance, genetics, at least twice in the history of genetics that I know of, people have essentially called for a brief moratorium on experimentation, until they could get together and discuss risks and safety standards.
Now, I think we see in the AI community, that people are, as far as I can tell, way more – thinking way more ahead of potential risks than humanity ever has for any other technology. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re getting better at this, but I think it’s very difficult. I think we need to continue to look at the metal level of how we actually do this successfully.
Mark: Let me ask, I guess, what’s next for progress studies? To ask that more specifically, do you have a model of social change and how does that fit into how progress studies propagates its ideas and hopefully, restarts this engine of progress? For context, I came of age in the libertarian community and there are this set of core books in the libertarian community, where you go on an internship, or you go to a conference and there’s two readings that are pretty much always the same. It’s this idea of all right, we have this core set of ideas, we have this community, we have this understanding of the world and then we will try to propagate it.
There’s some, I think risks to put in there. One, the libertarian community has not been particularly effective at advocating for their vision of social change. The joke is that it’s now a jobs program for libertarians, rather than advocating. There is this risk of stagnation and sclerosis in movements. Combine that, while I think it is important to have these core books, these cultural signifiers for what a group of people believes, you don’t want these core books to become wholly, in the sense that you see some group, some movements where it’s just revising. You see this in religions, where it’s just we’re going to read over the scripture and argue about what was actually meant.
You see this happen in social movements as well, where at least in some libertarian movements, you have people who are still arguing like, “I had said this.” “No, I had said that.” I mean, who cares? Go do something original. You need to balance the risk of becoming too self-referential with the importance of at least having this common network, this common set of goals, this common set of shared visions that allows you to right create this identity that hopefully, allows you to impact the world in a positive way.
Jason: Yeah. I don’t have a full theory of social change, but I do at a very basic level – I mean, I do believe that ideas change the world. I do believe that books change the world and I think we need more books. We don’t exactly have any progress studies books yet and I think we need some. I think we need more of them. I think we need more – A big thing we need is we need more histories of technology and science written from the perspective of progress studies, which is we are looking at this history not just because it’s interesting to learn about the past, or because we just think the stories are inherently cool, but we are trying to figure out what went right and what went wrong and how to do more of the former and less of the latter.
I would love a history of nuclear that is from a what went wrong perspective and more histories of more successful things from a what went right type of perspective. I do think we need those books. I agree with you that you don’t want to get to a point where all you have is the same old books. I don’t know what to say about that, except that you need more than just good – you absolutely need good, intellectual material, books and so forth as a base for such a movement, but you also, frankly, you just need good leadership and execution and people who know how to get things done, at least when it comes time to get things done.
Mark: I agree. I have mixed feelings about this, the median voter hypothesis, where that just suggests that the average voter effectively decides what happens in the country, because the politicians will appeal to them. I tend to think it’s much more, elite-driven, where if you can identify who the core relevant elites are influencing a particular policy and then you convince them that your ideas are better, hopefully that they can move the needle on that.
I think Silicon Valley has good cachet. We’re seeing that happen with the New York Times, but broadly across the country. Technology companies tend to rank very highly in opinion polls. There is a lot of buy in there. To me right at progress studies, I see as an idea that is heavily influenced by Silicon Valley. Hopefully, they can use that to get some allies. There was the executive director of the Tony Blair Global Institute, who wrote a basically progress studies blog post two months ago, a month ago or something, that demonstrates that there is beginning to be a degree of buy-in for the set of ideas that hopefully can be accelerated on and improved upon.
Jason: Let me actually say one thing on that, because I had a thought while you were talking, which is I hope that something that we can – a cultural idea that we can get into the progress community is just a focus on positive action. What can we do? I think, one thing that some communities fall into is that become very ineffective is I don’t know, they fall into useless intellectualizing, or outright whining. Why hasn’t the world come around yet? Why people listening to us?
Mark: The Tanner Greer blog posts that America just appeals to management these days and progress studies cannot appeal the management.
Jason: No. I think, you mentioned the progress studies has been maybe influenced by Silicon Valley. I think one of the best things we could take from Silicon Valley is what they call bias for action. What can we actually do? What can we accomplish? What is within our means and within our power and what would be valuable to move forward?
Let’s try to move forward by example too. We’ve been talking and some of this – there’s been some implied stuff here about regulation and policy and so forth and that all means changing laws and government and the administration and forth. That stuff is all valuable, but let’s make sure we also don’t only have our sights set on that. Let’s make sure too, that we are thinking about what is possible to just get done in a very positive way. It’s one of the reasons I like the charter cities approach is because rather than complaining about why existing cities suck, let’s just go create some new ones.
Mark: Let’s do it.
Jason: It’s time to build, right?
Mark: There we go.
Jason: It’s time to build.
Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter and thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast.
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