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The Future of Progress Studies

If you haven’t yet had the chance to check out the new Progress Forum, I encourage you to do so. It’s a discussion group for progress studies and all things related to it. The Forum is sponsored by The Roots of Progress. Even though the Forum is still in pre-launch phase, there are already many interesting threads worth checking out. I was my honor to contribute one of the first on the topic, “Where is ‘Progress Studies’ Going?” It’s an effort to sort through some of the questions and challenges facing the Progress Studies movement in terms of focus and philosophical grounding. I thought I would just reproduce the essay here, but I encourage you to jump over to the Progress Forum to engage in discussion about it, or the many other excellent discussions happening there on other issues.

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Where is “Progress Studies” Going?
by Adam Thierer

What do we mean by “Progress Studies” and how can this field of study be advanced? I’ve been thinking about that question a lot since Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen published their 2019 manifesto in The Atlantic on why “We Need a New Science of Progress.” At present, there is no overarching “unified field theory” of what Progress Studies entails or what underpins it, and that may be holding up progress on Progress Studies. I recently attended an important conference on the “Moral Foundations of Progress Studies,” co-hosted by The Roots of Progress and the Salem Center at UT Austin, where I discovered that many others were grappling with these same issues.

While a broad range of people are interested in Progress Studies, their moral priors differ, sometimes significantly. For example, the UT Austin conference included scholars from diverse disciplines (philosophy, psychology, economics, political science, history, and others) whose thinking was rooted in different philosophical traditions (utilitarianism, effective altruism, individualism, and various hybrids). Everyone shared the goal of advancing human well-being, but participants had different conceptions of the moral foundations of well-being, and even some disagreement about what well-being meant in concrete terms. There were also differing perspectives about what the “studies” part of Progress Studies should entail. Specifically, does it include progress advocacy, including the potential for specific policy recommendations?

Comprehension vs. Advocacy

Part of the confusion over the nature and goals of Progress Studies can be traced back to Collison and Cowen’s foundational essay. On one hand, their goal was progress comprehension. “Progress itself is understudied,” Collison and Cowen argued. They lamented that “there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress.”

But Collison and Cowen went further. Their goal was not merely to inspire the development of a field of study that could give us a better understanding of the prerequisites of progress, but also to formulate a plan for advancing progress. They argued that “mere comprehension is not the goal,” and advocated for “the deeper goal of speeding it up.” They went on to say, “the implicit question is how scientists [and others] should be acting” and that Progress Studies should be viewed as, “closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.” The presupposition here is that progress is important and that we need to take steps to get a lot more of it. Again, we can think of this part of Progress Studies as progress advocacy. And advocacy can entail both advocating for progress generally as well as specific types of policy advocacy.

This raises an interesting question we debated at the UT Austin conference: Can you study something and advocate for it at the same time? Some felt you really cannot separate them, while others believed that the broader questions about how progress has worked could be kept separate from any advocacy efforts. Of course, this same tension between comprehension and advocacy comes up in many other fields.

What Progress Studies Can Learn from STS

In this sense, Progress Studies might learn some important lessons by examining the older but loosely related field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS incorporates a wide variety of mostly “soft science” academic disciplines, such as law, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. These scholars analyze the relationship between technology, society, culture, and politics.

One conclusion from studying STS is obvious: comprehension and advocacy frequently get blurred. Many of the STS scholars who engage in critical studies of the history of technology seamlessly transition into anti-technology advocates, even as many of them claim they are “just studying” the issues. As I’ve noted elsewhere:

When thinking about of technology, STS scholars commonly employ words like “anxiety,” “alienation,” “degradation,” and “discrimination.” Consequently, most of them suggest that the burden of proof lies squarely on scientists, engineers, and innovators to prove that their ideas and inventions will bring worth to society before they are deployed. In other words, STS scholars generally fall in the precautionary principle camp, and their policy prescriptions have grown increasingly radical over time.

Meanwhile, as I discussed in my latest book, many STS scholars describe themselves as “humanists” while implicitly suggesting that those who promote technological progress are somehow callous oafs who only care about the cold calculus of profit-seeking and creating shiny new gadgets we don’t need.

While some STS scholars continue to do important and largely objective work, many others routinely show their more radical leanings in books, essays, and social media posts. Most worrying is their newfound love of Luddism, as they spin revisionist histories of “Why Luddites Matter,” insisting that “There’s Nothing Wrong with Being a Luddite,” and that “I’m a Luddite. You Should Be One Too.” Neil Richards, a law professor and leading STS scholar declares bluntly on Twitter: “Less metaverse, less crypto, less disruptive innovation. More regulation, more ethics, more humanity.” In other words, public policy defaults should be set squarely to the Precautionary Principle and anyone opposed to that is unethical and anti-human. Taken to the extreme, STS scholars marry up this Luddite revisionism with the retrograde philosophy of “degrowth” and produce book chapters with titles like, “Methodological Luddism: A Concept for Tying Degrowth to the Assessment and Regulation of Technologies.”

The Progress Studies movement might consider framing its work as a response to the growing extremism of the STS movement. STS scholars have become so remarkably hostile to the very notion that science and technology are central to human advancement that the field might today better be labeled Anti-Science & Technology Studies. Yet, these are the scholars that dominate many academic departments where students are learning about technological progress. Progress Studies scholars can push back against that radicalism and offer level-headed, empirical responses to it.

Ensuring A Big Tent 

To improve its chances of success, the Progress Studies movement should seek to broaden its appeal by avoiding a dogmatic party line on its moral foundations while ensuring that multiple disciplines and viewpoints are incorporated into it.

In terms of philosophical underpinnings, those interested in Progress Studies can take different approaches to the moral foundations of progress and human well-being. Many philosophers get frustrated when others fail to hammer out all the detailed nuances of the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of these matters. I understand that urge, but I’ve now spent over 30 years covering technology policy and have been constantly surprised about how many people can come together and agree on a broad set of principles about the importance of progress without sharing a common philosophical framework.

The same is true as it pertains to policy prescriptions. We need to ensure a “big tent” in this way, too. It is already the case that many people engaged in Progress Studies have very different perspectives on issues like intellectual property and industrial policy, for example. I have many friends on different sides of these issues. Importantly, there are not even clear sides on these issues but rather a very broad spectrum of viewpoints. Progress Studies scholars will likely always disagree on the finer points of both types of “IP” policy. Nonetheless, they can remain more unified in stressing the common goal of moving the needle on progress in a positive direction and highlighting the continuing importance of flexible experimentation with policies aimed at enhancing innovation and growth.

To the extent there is any litmus test for the Progress Studies movement, that’s it: advancing opportunities for innovation and growth is paramount. Regardless of how one grounds their moral philosophy, or goes about constructing a theory of rights, many people can agree that granting humans the freedom to explore, experiment, and be entrepreneurial has important benefits for individuals, families, organizations, and entire nations. Openness to change is what unifies us. Stagnation and “steady state” thinking—and the Precautionary Principle-based policies that flow from such reasoning—are the enemy. 

Thus, the Progress Studies movement can focus on both studying progress and advancing it at the same time, even if some will devote more effort to one priority than the other. And we shouldn’t forget that these two objectives are reinforcing: Comprehension informs advocacy and vice-versa. Progress is a never-ending process of trial-and-error. It’s all about learning by doing. We try, we fail, we learn, and we try again. This is as true for the individuals attempting to make progress in the real-world as it is for scholars studying it and seeking to promote it.

Let us get on with this important work, regardless of what motivates us to do it.

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