Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S2. EPISODE 1
The Progress Movement
Featuring Jason Crawford
Is progress still possible? We believe so, and we’re not alone. Jason Crawford, founder of The Roots of Progress, sits down with us to talk about the possibilities of the future and makes a case for optimism in the face of pessimistic predictions about tomorrow.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship.
These basic principles will propel us to a free non-racial democratic United South Africa, that we have struggled and died for.
No one can call Ireland a conservative country. Now this is the moment it became official, the counting complete, confirmation that the Irish people had decisively voted to include same sex marriages in their constitution.
This vaccine is a remarkable achievement in science. Unbelievable. It’s almost the medical parallel to like man landing on the moon.
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? We are now on our second season of conversations with interesting and compelling people about interesting and compelling topics, all under the rubric of The Progress Network. I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I am here as always with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of the Progress Network. And we are having these conversations as an outgrowth of the work that we’re doing as part of the Progress Network and even more in order to literally advance the conversation about what is of the world that we’re living in and what the role is of optimism versus pessimism, hope versus fear, progress versus regress.
Tomorrow will mark one year since I took office, it’s been year of challenges, but it’s also been a year of enormous progress.
We’ve got a lot of work to do, but none of us should be any ways tired. Why? Because we’ve come much too far from where we started.
ZK: We are talking with primarily people who are members of the Progress Network, although that may extend over time. And today we’re gonna have a conversation with one of those members who is probably the closest parallel to doing what the Progress Network is doing. And that’s Jason Crawford who runs an organization called Roots of Progress and has been writing and thinking about this longer than we have, or at least longer than we have institutionally not necessarily longer than we have individually. And while there is a lot of overlap between what we’re doing and what he’s doing, part of the point of this in the first place was to magnify and augment, to create networks, to create connectivity between like-minded or like sensibility individuals in the belief that without that connectivity and without those conversations. And without that critical mass, we’re all gonna get drowned out by a sea of negativity. And if that sea of negativity is right then it’s right, but it won’t be for lack of, of people swimming in those waters. And we’re gonna try to present at least the case for, or the questions of, or the data that points in a more constructive direction.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): As you mentioned, Jason Crawford is the founder of the Roots of Progress, which is a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. He also writes and speaks about the history and philosophy of progress, especially in relation to technology and industry. And we’re gonna talk to him all about that today.
ZK: Good. So we’re looking forward to this conversation as we are looking forward to all conversations, just like parents love all of their children equally,
EV: And we love all of our members equally.
ZK: So Jason, we’ve been doing these conversations now from mid 2021 into this year. And many of the conversations are with people in various fields from high tech to education to workplace issues. This conversation probably fits the preaching to the choir category, given the nature of the Progress Network and the nature of Roots of Progress and what you’ve been doing. And when Emma and I thought about creating the Progress Network, we were really clear and I remain very clear that this is so not a zero sum set of endeavors. And in fact, it’s, whatever the opposite of zero sum is, this is what it is. And that what’s really needed is a certain amount of critical mass to break through the cacophony of both negativity and just general pessimism and apocalyptic noise. And as yet, other than what you’re doing, David Byrnes’ Reasons to Be Cheerful, the humanprogress.org, some of Our World in Data, you know, there are, are dots on a graph that are as yet not linked and it’s not clear what form they are taking. So what’s your take on having thought about this longer than we have, what happened to progress?
America is a story of progress.
People are suffering, people are dying.
I mean, we gotta be excited about the future. We gotta do things that make us want to live.
The worst is yet to come.
ZK: Where did it go? It used to be so in vogue, and now it seems to be, to say the least, not.
Jason Crawford (JC): It’s an excellent question, one I have been thinking about. So the modern idea of progress, according to the economic historian, Joel Mokyr, really began in the west in Europe, around the 15 hundreds and 16 hundreds. And, you know, a couple hundred years later of science and industrial development later, we actually saw the real flourishing of that with the industrial revolution, and by the 19th century, increases in per capita income and living standards for the average person. So I think, in the 17th century, perhaps in an 18th century progress was an idea. It was a philosophy and it was really a part of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. I think the Enlightenment in large part was a philosophy of progress. And there were some very optimistic thinkers, such as Condorcet who who just forecast unlimited progress in every domain. In the 19th century progress was a reality and people could see it everywhere around them.
And they were very enthusiastic about the, the latest developments, whether that was the transcontinental railroad, the trans Atlantic Telegraph the light bulb, the airplane, all of these things were greeted with huge celebrations. And then something changed in the 20th century. And in my opinion, something went wrong. And I think the, the real, the big thing you can point to that was the turning point seems to me to be the World Wars. So up until the World Wars people were very optimistic, not only about the ability of science and technology to advance our material condition, but also about progress in morality, society. Many people saw technological advances as bringing humanity closer together. The telegraph for instance, was seen as something that it would end the curse of distance and allow nations to have conversations. And there, there was this glowing talk of you know, all the, the …mankind has been dispersed throughout the world.
And now, you know, brothers can talk to brothers across the continents and, you know, combine that with the growth of trade and the expansion of industry. And so now people are, you know, all these different nations are trading together and we’re making each other’s lives better. People really thought that maybe just, maybe we had seen the end of war and that we were on the brink of a new era of global peace. And then those illusions were violently shattered in the 20th century by the world war. And so it became clear that not only had technology not led to an end of war, it had war all the more terrible and destructive. The World Wars were some of the most destructive in memory perhaps in history. And it was clear that a large part of that was because of technology. There’s a series of of lectures given by Carl Becker in the 1930s.
And it was published as a book called Progress and Power. And you can see in this, even, just, even before World War II, just in the interwar period, people are starting to say, how can we even believe in progress anymore after that enormous war that we had, plus you know, seeing the rise of totalitarianism in in Europe, especially between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia people were just really seeing things starting to go very wrong when they thought that everything had been on a, on a very solid upward path.
EV: What about the sort of like short-term historical dive, because to reference something that Zachary talks about a lot, which is like the optimism of the nineties, I can’t speak about that personally because I was not sort of old enough to be aware of any optimism going on in the nineties. I was a young person, but to, to token boomerize Zachary a bit, he does mention this quite a lot. So what has changed in the short term, because most of us that are alive today, don’t remember World War II. You know, that’s not something that’s in our, our minds now, but there does seem to be what Zachary’s pointing out in his first question, which was, we’re not like a progress people these days. It’s not like we’re all holding hands and getting excited about where tech is gonna bring us. So what’s the short term answer?
JC: Well you know, cultures have long memories and even people who didn’t live through a, a major social change or a, or a defining event are influenced by it generations, I think sometimes centuries later because of attitudes that are transmitted down through the generations. So I think what happened was after World War II, I mean, so the generation that lived through World War II, maybe didn’t lose their optimism about pro . . . Not right away, certainly. And if you look at, you know, certainly the postwar period, there was an economic boom. The fifties, you know, are pretty optimistic. People were looking at our atomic future and flying cars and, you know, better living through technology. There was still a lot of that, but there was also this questioning of, well, what went wrong and people needed answers. And I think what happened was—this is all still in the realm of a hypothesis, I haven’t fully researched this—but I think what happened was the reactionaries who had always been in the background seized the moment in, came to the fore and they came forth with answers about what had gone wrong. And what had gone wrong in their opinion was modernity itself. It was the, the very attempt to use reason and science and technology and industry to make our lives better. That whole thing was misguided. And so you got these sort of radical social movements based on this very deep distrust of science and technology and industry. And I think that those movements still, you know, very much influence us today.
ZK: So back to this kind of the more modern part, even with those historical forces in the 20th century, you did have a period of the 1990s that was culturally pretty euphoric techno utopian, that we were going to solve the problems, the elemental problems of human society, not just at a material level, but even at a spiritual and connectivity level. It was the, the promise of web 1.0 and 2.0 was that it was gonna connect all of us, if not in actual communities and virtual communities. And it was gonna enrich us and it was going to solve the kind of eternal bottleneck problems of humankind. Now that clearly is in massive, massive disfavor today, but it’s, it’s a, still, it’s a stark juxtaposition from this moment, you know, pre-millennial 1999 where that kind of techno optimism, you know, techno progress was prominent right to today. And, and it does make one, make me wonder continually about whether these are sort of cultural waves, right? The oscillation of cultural attitudes. We happen to be in a, in a low point. Of course, we’ll only know if we’re in a low point depending on what happens in the next 10 or 20 years.
JC: Yeah, I think you’re, I think the notion of waves is a great metaphor. And, and what I think is there are waves at different wavelengths and different amplitudes. So there are very long term trends over generations and centuries. And then there are shorter term trends over years and decades. And so, you know, what happened in the nineties? Why was there a you know, why was there a bit more optimism? I think I see that as maybe a a shorter term oscillation or sort of shorter frequency you know, oscillation within maybe some bigger trends. So, you know, that’s what I see as kind of what happened in the nineties, but the bigger . . . I think it was maybe a short term getting better within a bigger term kind of longer cultural trend, you know, that goes back a couple of generations to you know, to the world wars and, and, you know, and who knows kind of how long that trend goes, by the way.
I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna talk as if the entire culture has become completely negative on technology and you know, now it’s just the worst. I think I would say our culture is mixed, right? I think our culture is very conflicted about technology. On the one hand, we love a lot of what it does for us. And on the other hand, there’s a lot of fear and skepticism and distrust. So there’s still, there’s still a conflict and there’s a lot of inner turmoil, I think, and still may a lot of soul searching going on.
EV: On the first season of this podcast, we spoke with Progress Network Member John MacArthur about the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. And we asked him for some hard numbers around how the world is progressing right now.
John McArthur (JM): The world is in the best place it’s ever been before COVID on extreme poverty down to getting close to only—only air quotes—600 million people, which is less than 10% of the world. So it’s small in proportion terms. So that’s still 600 million people,
EV: Still a big number. Yeah, sure.
JM: Yeah. And so the point is that it’s actually getting small all enough and concentrated enough and manageable enough that half the problem is concentrated in five countries alone. Places like Nigeria, like Democratic Republic of Congo, where we can actually start to think about, oh, this is a focused problem, not an everywhere problem.
EV: So Jason, so far, we’ve talked a lot about like the perception of progress, right? The cultural attitude toward progress. If you’re going to make the argument from purely a fact based perspective of where we are now, how do you see things? Like, are we at the top of a continually moving upward trajectory? Are we like at a little point of a dip? Like how do you see things? Because I could see you starting your work with Roots of Progress either from the point of “things are so amazing. Why don’t people understand this? And like, let’s tell them all about it and be evangelists.” Or the opposite of like, “we’ve stopped making progress. What’s going wrong. How do we fix this?” So perception aside, where do you see, you know, where we are right now?
JC: Uh so personally I began the project with more of the former attitude of like, wow, those last two, 300 years have been amazing. I, I wanna really understand and appreciate this. But as I got more into it, I encountered this quote unquote stagnation hypothesis which folks like Peter Thiel Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon each in their own way have, have talked about. And I was a bit skeptical about it at first. I have come around to actually believing that there’s really something to it. So to be clear, progress has not stopped. And I would say that progress over the last 50 years has still been… And I’m talking now about about material progress, technological and industrial progress, better living standards and so forth. I think it’s definitely still going.
This is still in many ways the best time to be alive ever in history. But I do think that it’s it’s been slower in the last 50 years than it was, the pace was about a hundred years ago. But here’s the simplest way I think to look at that, I just started looking at major areas of the economy and major revolutions within them. So let’s take the 50-year period that ended a hundred years ago. So roughly 1870s, 1920, and look at I, I count something like four or five major technological, industrial revolution that were happening within within that world. So one obviously is electricity, the light bulb, electric motor and generator, the whole electric power grid got built out. Two is the internal combustion engine, the rise of the oil industry and the vehicles that were based on that: the automobile and the airplane. Three would be revelation in electron communications with the invention of the telephone and, and radio.
Four is a revolution in applied chemistry and material science that gave us things like the Haber Bosch process for synthetic fertilizer or the first synthetic plastics like Bakelite. And then five is revolution in public health based on the germ theory, which was really completed in that time period and led to improvements in things like water, sanitation and food handling, and general kind of domestic hygiene practices. All those things going on at the same time in the same 50 year period, and just transforming every aspect of human life. Now, I think if you look back at the last 50 years, or, you know, roughly, let’s say 1970 to, to 2020, what things have there been? Well, certainly there’s another revolution in communications with computers and the internet, which was at least the equal of, you know, telephone plus radio. And we’ve seen the beginnings, although I think not, not nearly the completion or full fruition of, of genetic engineering, right? We have recombinant DNA technology. And so although a lot of the promise of that is still in the future and fields like manufacturing, construction, transportation, and energy have really kind of lagged behind.
We are optimistic. We think that progress can actually accelerate.
EV: This is Bill Gates speaking at Goalkeepers in 2017. Goalkeepers is an initiative from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that takes a look at those UN Sustainable Development Goals that John MacArthur was talking about and sees where they can accelerate progress towards achieving them.
Some people worry that when you, you talk about progress that it’ll reduce people’s commitment to make things better. They think when you talk about progress, that it shows you’re naive and that maybe you don’t realize all those things that are left to be done and how horrific they are. And, you know, so sometimes that purely that negative side of the story gets told, but you lose something very important if you only look at it that way you lose the optimism about what’s possible, and you lose the information where you look at the places that have done better than others.
ZK: You’ve been studying this from an academic perspective, but then you’re also now creating a community that is interested in asking similar questions and B presumably thinking about how does one re-energize or animate a spirit of progress mindedness going into the future. Many people from an academic background are content to just be in an academic background. You know, there’s a whole world of studying the intellectual idea of progress, right? There’s a, there’s an intellectual history there of progress that’s valuable to look at, but it doesn’t always lead people. And actually not always, it rarely within an academic context, leads people to then want to, would the word be operationalize, to make a community of it, you know, the whole thing. So where, how did you make that leap or close that particular gap, or was that just an easy outgrowth for you? What, what’s the pathway from, from one to the other for you?
JC: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, to be clear, I’m not an academic I don’t have a formal background or, or training in this stuff. Right.
ZK: But you’ve been writing about this and thinking about it before you’d been before you created a community around it.
JC: Yeah, definitely. So the whole thing started as a blog about five years ago called the Roots of Progress. And it was my personal sort of side project, which became an intellectual obsession and eventually a couple years ago, decided to go full time on it, becoming an independent researcher. And yeah, I see a lot of what I’m doing… I mean, I think a lot of great work has been done in academia in economic history, in the history of and philosophy of science and in, in many, you know, related topics. And I, and I think that a lot of it is not really accessible to a broad audience. I think the story of progress has never adequately been told in, in a way that’s accessible outside of academia. And so I see a lot of what I’m doing as synthesizing summarizing popularizing and, and making accessible kind of what is already known, but perhaps scattered through many, many volumes and, and academic papers, trying to bring that to a broader audience.
EV: So, so something about the progress movement, for lack of a better term you know, and certainly the conversation we’ve had up up until now, there is this very heavy focus on tech and industry and material improvement for obvious reasons because those things materially improve people’s lives. And then I was wondering too, you know, is there any kind of focus on the kinds of ideas that have improved people’s lives in terms of like the expansion of human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the idea that as , you know, like Stephen Pinker’s idea, that we’re moving more and more and more away from war, is that something that’s also being looked at or is that something that you find to be in a slightly different realm?
JC: So I see that as a crucial part of the overall, you know, broadest possible story of human progress. It’s not the focus of my work right now, but it’s definitely something I would love to, you know, turn my attention to in the future. Maybe, maybe for a future book that I might write or just a future focus. I did enjoy Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature on, on how violence has declined. I think there’s a broader story to tell there too, about like, you know, like you mentioned the the, the universalization of rights, giving rights to all race and sexes more broadly the cosmopolitanism attitudes of seeing ourselves as sort of part of one human race, rather than split into tribes and nations where we think very locally and parochially.
So I think there’s definitely a great story to be told here. That kind of moral and social progress, I see as one of three major strand of progress. So if you want to understand the overall story of human progress in the broadest sense, you need to look at one, material progress in technology, industry and wealth. Two progress in science, knowledge and education, and three, that kind of moral social and governmental progress. And I think the three of them together are the major strands in the story. And they’re intertwined and interdependent. I would say like, yes, so far, most of the progress movement has been around kind of technology and industry. That’s where the energy is. But, but long term, I’m very interested in getting into those other parts of the story.
ZK: I wonder if there is a societal version, something you said earlier triggered this for me. So there is the Easterlin Paradox, and if you’re unfamiliar with the Easterlin Paradox, it was the formulation of a 1970s, economist Richard Easterlin, who noted that there seemed to be a correlation between rising levels of affluence, both individually and collectively, and rising levels of happiness. And that the more affluent you had materially individually and collectively the more happiness you had individually and collectively to a certain point at which point more happiness was not evidenced by more prosperity. So you once you’ve had enough, whatever enough is, there’s a diminishing return, happiness returns, for more material prosperity. That at least was his paradox. And it’s possible that there is a degree to which the negativity about progress or the negativity about where kind of we are, whatever the “we” is, particularly in the Western and developed world has an Easterlin Paradox aspect to it at a societal level, meaning at a certain point, there is enough collective affluence that simply a bit more is not satisfying in the way that it was. It doesn’t lead to the same kind of charge of we are doing well. Things are getting better. I don’t know. What do you think of about that?
JC: So, first off on the Easterlin Paradox itself, my understanding and not having researched this deeply, but my understanding is that the paradox just actually turns out not to be true. And with more time and more data, it was it was kind of dissolved. I believe Pinker covers this in his more recent book Enlightenment Now. Yeah, it turns out that actually both within and across countries, there’s some good research on this in Our World in Data as well on,uon happiness and, and life satisfaction. Ubut it turns out that,uboth within and across countries and over time continued material affluence is correlated with happiness and life satisfaction.
ZK: Yeah, I don’t think that’s really true. There have been people who have pushed back at this and, and this is not a binary. Like we have hard and fast evidence of this being true or false. We have constantly morphing surveys and data and input that still says things like sometimes what we would consider to be very poor unstable countries, you know, Honduras still can exhibit more individual levels of happiness, irrespective of economic and material affluence. And that some countries that are very high in the material affluence, including some Scandinavian countries do not exhibit a whole lot of what we would consider to be happiness. So these are, these are broad brush strokes based on insufficient, or even just inaccurate surveys, but the question still is a viable one, even if there’s not this kind of, of scientific one to one correlation between for every new dollar, there’s one more unit of individual or social contentment, right?
EV: There have been a lot of studies that examine the relationship between the economy and how well it’s doing and people’s happiness. And of course, researchers have looked at the US as well, which is a special kind of case. Despite living in the wealthiest economy in the history of the world, Americans are a surprisingly unhappy lot. Christine Carter, a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center spoke about this on PBS news hour in 2013.
Usually what we see across countries is that as GDP goes up, happiness goes up or subjective wellbeing tends to go up. And the US is kind of a notable case in the sense that in the last 35 years as GDP has grown, we actually haven’t seen our average happiness level go up.
EV: Of course, there are many factors that contribute to a society’s happiness relative to its economy, like GDP, as well as income inequality.
JC: Okay. Well, I have some thoughts about about those surveys and, and how to think about life satisfaction, but let me address maybe I think a, a slightly different point that I think that you’re getting at, and I do wanna acknowledge, which is you know, material affluence is not sufficient for a good society or a good life. I think it’s a part of it, right? So, you know, money helps buy happiness, but it doesn’t buy happiness all by itself, you need some concept—at an individual level, you need some concept of what you want in life and, and what its meaning is, right? If your view of life in the world leaves you with nothing to want and to care about and nothing that you think is important or, or meaningful or, or noble, then it’s gonna be, it is gonna be hard to have a good life, no matter how much money you have at a societal level, too. You know, technology and wealth don’t automatically lead to a good society. So, you know, as much as I sing the praises of material progress, and I think it’s absolutely I do think it’s a moral imperative to keep that going, it is not everything. And it must be combined with a good theory of what to value, you know, with good moral and social theories and systems.
EV: So this strikes me, Jason, as a reminiscent of not a, it’s not a tagline, it’s sort of like a guiding thrust that you’ve been publishing about recently, which is needing a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century, which seems to me has to do with aggregating and agreeing upon and moving as one, in terms of cultural values of, you know, what, what are we putting together here? What are we, where are we guiding ourselves? Where are we going? And I know that’s what you’re working on right now, and it’s undeveloped, but if you’re able to wax poetic a little bit about what that philosophy would look like, what it entails, I would love to hear it.
JC: You know, I think there are two really key philosophical ideas that come into your… When we look back at the last couple hundred years and this incredible advance in material progress and standard of living, how do we interpret that? And what does it mean for the future and what we do? I think there’s two really key ideas. One is the question of how do we even evaluate whether this is good or not, and what would be good to have more of in the future. And the key concept that I wanna stress there is humanism in the sense that Steven Pinker used it in, in his book Enlightenment Now. The other key question is where did this come from and how much of it was in our control and how much future is within our control. And so the second key concept that I’ve been stressing is agency. Our ability, even within a world of many random forces, our ability to still, you know, shape the future and shape our destiny.
The third enlightenment theme is humanism. That the ultimate moral purpose is to reduce the suffering and enhance the flourishing of men, women, and children. That is, their life, health, happiness, knowledge, richness of experience. Now, when you say that it may sound obvious or unexceptionable, or banal, or even saccharine, but indeed it is anything but. There are alternatives to humanism. It is by no means obvious. Many alternative ideologies hold that the ultimate good is to enhance the glory of the tribe or the nation or the race or the class or the faith instead of individual human beings.
EV: That was Progress Network member Steven Pinker speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forumm in 2017. And now Jason’s gonna give us a little bit more about humanism and how he understands it.
JC: Let me talk about humanism. So this term is used in different ways. But the sense in which, I mean it is the notion that human wellbeing is our basic standard of value and sort of judging what’s good. So when we look back and we say, Hey, all of this technology and industry was great was a great thing. We’re saying that because it has allowed us to live better lives, longer, happier, healthier lives. Lives of more choice and opportunity. Lives where we can explore and travel the world and use our own abilities to the fullest. Lives where we can explore curiosity and knowledge and, you know, ultimately lives where we can thrive and flourish. And I think if that sounds obvious or like what, what could, who could possibly be opposed to that?
Well, I think that when you start to encounter opposition to that, it often comes from you know, various forms of romanticism. Again taking a little bit of a cue from Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. One form of this is the romanticization of nature, whether, you know, seeing mother nature as you know, nature is a loving mother that protects uswhich is simply false. Nature is quite indifferent to our needs. And we actually need to control and alter nature in order to make life better for ourselves. Or the kind of the, I forget what it’s called, but the naturalistic fallacy or the, the appeal to nature fallacy, the idea that whatever is natural must be good and healthy and better, and anything artificial is gonna be, you know, not as good as what is natural, which again is simply false. Smallpox is entirely natural.
Another form of romanticization I think that we see is romanticization of the past and of traditions and just the way we used to live. There’s this meme that, you know, that goes around “return” with a V instead of a U, right. Cause it’s kind of appealing to like classical you know, almost harkening back to ancient Rome. And again, I think this romanticization of tradition is just, there’s really no basis for it. Oftentimes the old traditions are harmful and, you know, the old tradition that, you know, women were essentially property of their husbands is, was a very harmful one, right? It’s a good thing we have moved beyond that.
EV: Yeah, happy to get rid of that one.
JC: Yeah. I mean, just to pick one, you know, hopefully not too controversial example. So I think to get beyond both of those sorts of things, we need to really say, Hey, we are gonna argue from a basis of what is good for human life. And, you know, that requires a whole philosophical exploration of like, what is good for human life and how do we justify that on any kind of a rational grounds? You know, “can we get an is from an ought”? Sorry, the other way around, right. “Can We get an ought from an is” is one of these classical sort of challenges of philosophy. But I think ultimately that we can.
ZK: What’s your goal with the communityp art of Roots of Progress? Is the specific aim of creating a community more that we have a better understanding, is it, is it more diagnosis or is it also prognosis?
JC: Yeah, both. There is, whether you believe in progress, whether a society believes in progress or whether it doesn’t it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so there’s a reinforcing cycle, right? The more people believe in it, the more they’re gonna go try to go out there and do it and to make progress, the more they’re gonna welcome it when it arrives and not fight it. Although progress is always fought even in the most optimistic of times. And and then the more they’re going to get. And so then the more they get, the more they believe in it. So there’s a reinforcing cycle there, and the exact opposite thing happens. If you don’t believe in progress, you don’t wanna make it. And people fight it whenever it happens, then you don’t get any, you reinforce this notion of a static world.
And so that’s why I say that today in the 21st century, we need a new philosophy of progress. And I think we need a progress movement that helps bring back some belief in again, to return to that concept of agency, our ability to make for a better world and better future. So you asked about community as part of you know, as part of building a movement, I think an intellectual movement, like this requires a lot of thinking and, and speaking and writing by a core of intellectuals, but it also requires a community of people around them who are consuming these ideas, thinking about them, discussing them, and ultimately who all get to know each other. I wanna help create a network of everybody who is interested in progress. I want them to meet each other, get to know each other, exchange ideas and ultimately start projects together. A lot of what happens is you’ll have, you know, maybe you have someone who wants to create more optimistic science fiction or biography films of great scientists and inventors. And they’re gonna need people to do that with. Maybe they’re a writer or a director. They wanna create something like that. Well, they’re gonna need other people to work with and people to fund it and so forth. And people find each other through networks and communities like this. Even if just, you know, scientists and engineers and inventors, the people who are actually gonna go there and build the future and startup founders, right. I want them to be part of this community and to be surrounded by others who are going to encourage them and inspire them and not be, you know, constantly nagging them that they’re destroying the world with all of their science and technology.
ZK: Well, for Emma and I, that’s, I mean, Emma, you would say that’s definitely all the cliches of music to one’s ears, preaching to the choir, hosanna hosanna.
EV: I mean, I’m, Jason, I’m curious if you can argue the other side for a moment, like if you could take a position that you’ve heard that was the most striking to you, I dunno. Maybe you had like a night of great doubt or something where you were like, actually this whole progress thing…
ZK: A night of great doubt. I think we should use that. That’s the modern version of the dark night of the soul.
EV: Yeah. Maybe you had your great night of doubt. And could you tell us that argument?
JC: You know, I do think that the 19th-century philosophy of progress was a little naive in some ways to the risks and dangers and challenges of technology and progress. And I think the 21st century of progress cannot just be a return to that. I think we we need to confront what some of the real problems were. So I’ll tell you what is most convincing to me as in the argument that gives me the greatest pause about the notion of just simply stepping on the accelerator, you know, as fast as possible. And that is around risks to safety basically. And some of the, you know, some of the most interesting and thoughtful arguments, I would say, come from some of the effective altruist community and particular, some of the folks who are worried about existential risks and they are, you know, they share the notion that we should make the future better and we can make the future better and let’s use science and technology to do that, but they’re also pointing out in a very rational fashion that the more that we move forward with science and technology, the more we are setting ourselves up for tail risk. Meaning extremely rare, but extremely impactful events, such as, what if through a genetic engineering experimentation, we accidentally engineer some super germ, right, some pandemic that perhaps escapes from the lab and could devastate civilization or even cause human extinction. There’s a whole faction of people who are very worried about artificial intelligence from this perspective. What if artificial intelligence somehow takes over society? There’s a number of kinds of things along those lines to be worried about. And so I think that’s something that we have to take really seriously. So if we agree, even if you agree with the basic philosophy of progress that I have outlined, of things like humanism and agency just to believe in human agency doesn’t mean that you deny that we can that we can cause major problems.
Indeed, many of the problems of the last few hundred years have been caused by technology. And a lot of the focus of progress has been fixing the problems that progress itself caused. And so you know, that alone is not an indictment of progress. I think it’s very natural that progress creates new problems and that we then go on and solve those new problems. But we just, we do wanna make sure that we’re not you know, accidentally creating, you know, global catastrophic risks or even the extinction of humanity. And so I don’t have the full answer to that, but I think that there is a real tension between progress and safety. And one of the things that the progress community needs to figure out is is how we answer that, how we ultimately get both, how do we have both progress and safety because both of them are important values.
ZK: Well, I think that that is a good place to end, at a kind of a call from mindful progress.
ZK: Or progress with one’s eyes open to the downsides of the upsides and not just a starry-eyed view of all that is possible, but an awareness that in everything that is possible, there are also significant challenges and risks that get unlocked in the process. And that also, as you know, is part and parcel of the story of how human history has evolved. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be part and parcel of how our future evolves as well. Anyway, thank you for the conversation. Thank you even more for the Roots of Progress and the work you’re doing and the synchronicity with The Progress Network. I’m hoping that in a year or two or three, you know, we can have a conclave, a meta conclave of progress, community-oriented organizations, rather than an atomized finding like-minded souls in the darkness feeling. And I think that’s probably more likely than not, but I guess we’ll have to see.
JC: That would be great. Thank you so much for having me on. It’s been a great conversation.
EV: Thank you, Jason.
It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress, not material welfare as an end in of itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being.
Progress is not possible without deviation.
Progress isn’t made through fear, and fear is false. Fear is the coward’s way of leadership.
ZK: So Emma, the way that conversation wrapped itself up, it made me wonder if we’re being too smiley about our notions of progress. Not that we’re that smiley individually or collectively.
EV: It can be the two of us are too smiley personally. Well, I mean, I appreciate Jason’s honesty or just sort of his own understanding that you’re never gonna get people on board a progress agenda if you’re not honest about the risk, and you’re not honest about the downsides, and certainly we don’t wanna be, you know, this kind of evangelist, it’s all sunshine and roses and unicorns and rainbows because nobody with a functioning brain stem is going to be like, yeah. How you though, how you balance the risk versus the reward, I’m not sure how to answer that question exactly.
ZK: So, you know, I wrote this column for a bunch of years under the moniker of the edgy optimist. And my point at the time was in a culture and in a time when optimism is in short supply, highlighting things going better than we think is constructive. But the point about the edginess was not to fall into the Voltaire Candide this is the best of all possible worlds, willy nilly. It was to say that in a moment of time where there’s an imbalance skewing toward negativity, it’s important to be a counterpoint to that, to remind people it’s also important intellectually, to be honest about, we don’t know what the future’s gonna bring. But the flip side was if our culture were radically optimistic were incredibly heady a la 1999, it would also be important in that culture, in that moment to say, Hey, wait a minute, maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Maybe we’re over promising. Maybe we’re only seeing the sunshine and the silver linings and not paying sufficient attention to the clouds. So to some degree, I’ve always thought about The Progress Network as a collection of individuals who are very different in their sensibilities. Very few of whom are animated by outrage on the one hand, but also very few of whom are eyes only on the good, right, that there always needs to be a full spectrum awareness of what’s going on in the world, not one, not the other. And that the goal is really constructive progress. Mindful progress means balance. It doesn’t mean skewing totally in one direction or another.
EV: Right, like we’re not sticking our heads in the sand. I mean, do you think there’s any possibility, though? Like, do you have any like great nights of doubt where you wonder, like, are we in a van driving towards the precipice and we’re just asking people to get in the van with us?
ZK: No, I, I don’t, I don’t actually have those dark nights of the soul. I have the dark nights of the soul of, can we talk ourselves into our worst fears? And on that score, I fully believe we are capable of that. And I fully believe human beings have done that at regular intervals in recorded and known history. You know, so the idea that we can make our fears true, I, I believe is absolutely a risk. And in pandemic land and some of the social cohesion questions, not just in the United States, but globally, those concerns are more acute. You know, they’re more in evidence about our ability to really be driven by our fear and not by our hopes, so that I do wonder about the overall arc.
You know, I think we should probably have another conversation about, about what did progress destroy. Did it really destroy satisfied tribal societies, where people had a place of belonging and a certain amount of meaning? Does the nature of modern progress really wound human needs, particularly for community and family and connectivity? I think those are absolutely vital questions. I come out on the, if human beings had been so content with their static lot, there wouldn’t have been change, but that’s a, I suppose, a debatable philosophical question, but no, I think on, on the whole, it remains better to be alive today in most societies in most of the world than it would’ve been to be alive at any other point in time, in terms of your ability to live a meaningful life, an aware life, a connected life a long life and a healthy life.
EV: Yeah. This is why I asked Jason about in particular women’s rights and just expanding rights generally, because I think that question becomes even more acute. Like there is no way I would even choose to be born as a woman in the US 15 years ago over being born… Well. Okay. You know what I’m saying. I wouldn’t choose born 15 years prior to when I was born. No way. Right? Like it’s not a question at all that even enters the mind. So that for me is a very strong argument.
ZK: Well, we will keep having these conversations and hopefully pushing ourselves and others, to be honest, aware, disciplined, and never drink the Kool-Aid.
EV: Hosanna to that. I also should mention that if you enjoyed this conversation, be sure to follow Jason online at therootsofprogress.org. And he is @jasoncrawford on social media. And of course you can always find us at theprogressnetwork.org. If you wanna find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right? Please visit our website at theprogressnetwork.org. And if you want something other than gloom and doom when you open your email in the morning, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. It’s a roundup of progress news from around the world, and that’s at theprogress network.org/newsletter. And please, if you like this show, if you could tell a friend, share an episode, leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, that would help us out a ton. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas. The show is produced by Andrew Steven and edited by JordanAaron. Executive Produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thank you so much for listening.
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