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BPR Interviews: Jason Crawford on Studying Human Progress

Jason Crawford is an entrepreneur and writer. He is a leader in the incipient field of Progress Studies. He blogs at The Roots of Progress, which is funded by a grant from Emergent Ventures. This post is the first in an ongoing series of interviews of people interested in human progress.

Nick: When did you really begin getting interested in progress?

Jason: Well, this really all started about three years ago, in early 2017. That’s when I started reading. It really began just as a reading list. I was interested in studying the story of human progress really as a way to re-examine the foundations of my worldview and what I believed was important in life, in the world, in politics, and so forth. I realized that a lot of the things I cared about most, when I considered why I cared about them and why they mattered, really came back to having this keen appreciation for the story of human progress, for how far we’ve come, for how much of an achievement that is. Really, I wanted to appreciate how much of a gift progress is so as to not to take it for granted and actually really care that we keep it going and move forward. Because I think progress, human progress, is actually a historical anomaly. It’s really only something that has taken off in the last couple of hundred years. Considering the length of human history, that’s a very short amount of time. So there’s just kind of this fundamental belief that I have that progress — technological, scientific and, social — is something special to be really appreciated. And, I wanted to learn more about where it came from.

Nick: In doing that, you’ve taken the mammoth topic that is human progress and broken it into these small blog posts. I’m wondering how you choose the topics to investigate. How do you build your research program?

Jason: By this point, I’ve read enough to kind of have, I think, an overview of what were the most important technologies in creating modern industrial civilization and providing our modern standard of living.

To back up a bit, l tend to think of progress in three broad areas. There is technology and industry, science and knowledge, and government and society. So far, on my blog, I have mostly been focusing on the first of those three, with a little dabbling here and there into science and government. But, I’m focusing on technology and industry for now, so I am working on a survey of what I think are the biggest technologies.

Within technology, I’ve broken the subject into a handful of subcategories. I think about food and medicine, transportation, energy, materials and manufacturing, and information. I’ve sort of tacked on a couple more categories now. So I would add organization and management, as well as cleanliness, health and safety. With these categories, you can break each down further. For example, within energy, there’s steam, oil, electricity, nuclear, and so on.

So I just begin picking topics that are interesting, that I think are important. I read about them. And, I really try to go to ground level. I want to learn how do these things work and the history of them. So I’ll pick a topic as narrow as say, steel. It’s very important in the economy and it has a narrative, a story that one can tell about it: When was it discovered? What were the early challenges in working with it? What were the breakthroughs that allowed us to make higher quality material and products? What were the breakthroughs in cost, in speed, in the precision of manufacturing consistency and so forth. And, I just try to tell those stories. So for iron and steel on the blog, I’ve gone through the story of early iron smelting: What it takes to smelt iron; How ancient blacksmiths worked all the way up through kind of like the best of our process and how we got to the modern era of cheap, high quality steel.

Nick: How often are you surprised about which inventions and innovations actually matter in bringing about progress on a large scale?

Jason: A lot of the major ones are familiar, but sometimes there are certainly things that are like a little more obscure but surprisingly crucial. So, for instance, one thing that I’ve been thinking about is ball bearings for reducing friction. I’ve written some posts about the evolution of the bicycle and some other things in materials and manufacturing. I got into some very interesting Twitter threads, particularly with Nick Szabo who was pointing out the importance of bearings to me. He’s gotten it in my head as something I need to go research more. The wheel is often discussed as a very basic thing, almost a caveman invention. People talk about it along the same lines as fire, except it turns out that the controlled use of fire dates back before homosapiens, hundreds of thousands of years ago. On the other hand, the use of the wheel for carts or vehicles of any kind is only a few thousand years old. It’s largely within the realm of written history, or right on the border.

The reason for this is that, while making wheels is not all that difficult, what’s actually difficult in making a system with a wheel and an axle that actually rolls is mitigating the friction. The development of different types of bearings were actually very important to this.

So I think there are some kind of hidden topics like that, that you wouldn’t necessarily think are that important.

Precision manufacturing is another one of those things that we take for granted: the fact that I can make a screw and it will have this very fine threading on it. It’s incredible that we can make these tiny, very fine things with a high degree of precision.

Another surprise came while researching one of my most recent long-form blog posts was the importance of sanitation in the decline of infectious disease. Even after I’d read the history, it wasn’t obvious how important sanitation itself was. It wasn’t until I actually started digging into the numbers. When you just read the history, the most prominent things that are obviously vaccines and antibiotics. Those are, no doubt, extremely important and highly effective technologies. But, it turns out that when you look at the numbers, the mortality rate from infectious disease was consistently declining decade after decade for many years, maybe even centuries before either antibiotics or vaccines were in widespread use. So, when you dig into it, it turns out that there are different hypotheses as to why this happened, but the one that makes the most sense to me, that I think is most compelling, is sanitation, especially around things like water and sewage, but also around insect control and pasteurization of milk and even just like general hygienic process practices like hand-washing. All of those things seem to have contributed hugely to it. So yes, sometimes when you dig into these things, you definitely find things that you didn’t quite expect, although they always make a lot of sense in retrospect.

Nick: As you dig into historical technologies in your posts, do you have to ever have to relearn basic science?

Jason: I have had to revisit it, yeah. For instance, when I wrote a post about the development of the early electrical power industry — in particular this thing called the Current Wars, the industry competition between Edison and Westinghouse over whether AC (alternating current) or DC (direct current) should form the basis of our power grid. Edison was behind DC and at the time he was a huge, very famous name. But even the weight of his name and his fame could not make DC work because there are sort of fundamental reasons in physics and economics why AC is, or at least it was at the time with the technology they had, really the only efficient way to distribute power over long distances.

This has to do, fundamentally, with how you can step up and step down the voltage. But, to explain that, I wanted to go back to the basic principles of electromagnetism and, for a little while, I tried to work out the equations for myself. I ended up getting a little confused about how exactly it worked. So I did have to go look up some stuff on physics Stack Exchange and Wikipedia, and just do a little more research until I felt that I actually understood it down to the level of the fundamental physical laws and equations.

Nick: You mentioned trying some crafts like blacksmithing in a post from 2018. Have you done any more of this?

Jason: No, I haven’t done this recently, although it’s a lot of fun and I would love to get back to it.

Nick: What do you think you could learn from when you’re actually engaging physically with the traditional material processes?

Jason: There’s a lot of things you can learn. I mean, the reason I took the weaving class was that I wanted to understand how a loom works and I figured the best way to understand it would be to use one and to learn how to use one. The first time I looked at even a simple handloom, it just seemed super complicated. I was at this machine thinking “Why does it have all these parts? Why does it have all these pieces and all these things going everywhere?” I couldn’t quite grasp the complexity of it. Now, once I’ve actually used one, I now know what every part is, and how they work together.

But another thing I’ve gotten from doing these crafts is just a sense of the challenge. I took a spinning class, so I had wool that had been carded and straightened for me, but had not been spun into thread. And, I actually spun thread on a drop spindle. One of the things that drove home for me was just how much of a skill it is, in your motor skill and muscle memory. If you’re a beginner like I was and you’re spinning your first thread, your thread sucks. It’s really poor quality. It’s super lumpy. It has a really inconsistent thickness. It’s the kind of thing where you look at it and you’re like, “Oh God, I would not want to make any cloth out of this crappy piece of thread that I just spun.” It really gives you an appreciation for how much skill people must have built up and how much human capital was required.

It was a similar thing when I went blacksmithing. It’s a real art. A lot of human training and investment of energy goes into getting good at this craft just in order to make a high-quality product, or even just a consistent quality of product. So practicing these skills really makes you appreciate that we have machines to do all these jobs for us, how much it has improved the quality and the consistency of manufactured products.

Nick: With your blog, part of what you seem to be doing is telling the story progress and part seems to be to use these stories to raise the status of progress. I’m interested in how you think about the relationship between these two goals, and how you think that telling the story of progress changes the status we accord to it.

Jason: You’re absolutely right that my goals are twofold. One is to help people appreciate progress and the other is to help the world understand it and to understand it better myself.

I think the two go hand in hand because I think the best way to appreciate progress is to learn the basic facts of history: How much did it suck to before we had these technologies? What did people do?

So, appreciating progress can simply come from understanding that at one point we didn’t have central heating, nor did we have highly insulated homes and buildings in the wintertime, and that instead you had to build a fire in your own home. It wasn’t a luxury to have a fireplace, as it is today with a nice chimney that takes all the smoke away or even a gas fireplace. You were actually burning wood or coal inside your home, and you only had a chimney if you were lucky.

Or, one should know that you once had to get your water by going to the well, however far away that was, and literally haul a bucket home. If you wanted hot water, you had to, again, build a fire inside your home to heat the water.

There were all these kind of little things. I’ve only scratched the surface of what life was like. What was it like when it took two months to cross the Atlantic and when you were risking your life to do so?

I think understanding how far we’ve come, how many innovations there were and how many problems they solved, is my fundamental goal. I want to learn to see the world around me as a set of solutions to problems, for that to be key to understanding the modern world. You should be able to look at every man-made thing and know what problem it solved, what life was like before we had that thing, what challenges we had to overcome to create it. So I think when you just know some of those basic facts, it leads to an appreciation of progress. And, that ought to raise the status of progress and innovators that drive it.

Nick: Along similar lines, you’ve been highly critical of the “degrowth movement.” What do you think those people are getting wrong about the nature of progress?

Jason: I haven’t dug deeply into what they think and where it comes from. But, if I just sort of relate it more broadly to the romantic faction of the environmental movement, I think, for one, they don’t understand and appreciate everything I was just describing about rising standards of living. I’m not sure that they actually care enough, even if they did understand.

I think the most extreme part of ideological environmentalist movements like deep ecology or sort of romantic, greenist faction, actually has a somewhat negative view of humanity and human beings as such. In some of the most extreme positions, you find people literally see humanity as kind of scourge on the earth, as a cancer infecting the earth. As such, they would be happy to see fewer humans alive.

I think that’s a small minority of the environmentalist movement, fortunately, because I see that as a deeply sick and twisted view. But I think even among people with a fundamentally humanistic worldview, which I think is correct, there can be an idea that the best life and society is a gentle, quiet one that doesn’t get too ambitious or try to do too much. People just live nice, quiet lives.

I think they get a few things wrong. One, it gets wrong just how much potential we have to make things better. If you understand how much progress is possible, how much more we can do, how much better life could be, how our descendants will look back on times today and see us as horribly primitive and backwards the same way we can look back on life in 1700 and think how backwards and primitive it was, I think if you fully understand that, then you could never opt for even a stagnation approach, let alone a degrowth approach.

I think the other thing, though, is that there’s this misconception around what is risky and where risks are. There’s this conception that progress is risky and that if we just try to back off the accelerator and try not to make the progress too fast, that that will be somehow less risky.

I think that’s actually just wrong. There are all kinds of risks in the world and only some of them come from the progress that we make. A lot of them come from the outside. A lot of them come from the natural environment, which is not a sort of nurturing Garden of Eden. The natural environment is actually quite hostile. Or actually, a more truthful word for the natural world would be “indifferent.” Nature, the earth, the universe are all quite indifferent to our survival. So, we kind of have to make our way. And whatever challenges might face us, we are always going to be better prepared to face them if we have more wealth and technology, more like stored and accumulated resources, more knowledge, more science, more industrial capacity, and really more people to team up with to face the problems. I think those are kind of things that the degrowth perspective is missing.

Nick: You mentioned the environmentalist movement. Do you think that they explain part of the story about economic and technological stagnation over the last 50 years?

Jason: That’s a personal hunch that I would like to go investigate more. Let’s say that. I certainly see areas where I think over-concern about environmental issues has held things back, one of the biggest being nuclear power. I think people have gotten way too afraid of nuclear power and have overplayed and overstated the problems with it. Because of that, I think we’ve ended up with both a social context and a regulatory context that’s made it very difficult to develop what I think could be a very important technology, and that’s just sort of one central example.

Nick: What do you think an environmental movement that really believed in progress could look like?

Jason: That would be maybe what goes today by the name of ecomodernism or ecopragmatism. I think Steven Pinker called it “enlightenment environmentalism” or something like that. The most important thing is to realize is that environmentalism can be a misnomer. Maybe the right way adjective to give it would be humanistic environmentalism, right? Then, the bedrock that actually guides our standard of environmental protection is actually human life: survival, thriving, and flourishing on this planet and beyond.

When we think about it in that frame, we can acknowledge that we are going to alter the environment. We change the environment. We improve the environment to suit our needs. That’s how we live, and really how any species lives. And, that’s not a bad thing. So I think what we need is to discard the ideology that has this kind of romantic view of nature, that sees nature as benevolent and nurturing or sees nature as something sacred with value over and above its ability to be the home and the resource for human beings.

Nick: I have a few questions about progress studies as a community. The Effective Altruism movement often talks in terms of “talent gaps,” gaps between the amount and quality of work being done and what should or can be done. Do you think that there are talent gaps in progress studies? What should more people be doing that want to get involved with the community and help out in ways like you have?

Jason: Yes, certainly. I think there’s no way that there could not be a talent gap given that progress studies is fairly new that that term was coined less than a year ago in an Atlantic article from Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison. It’s just since then that people have really been talking about it. In fact, part of the motivation for that article was that Cowen and Collison saw a talent gap, or even an attention and resource gap.

What can people be doing? Well it kind of depends on where they’re coming from.

The first thing I would do is to tell people to reach out to me directly. I’m happy to be a central node in the network, to help connect people. I spent a good amount of my time talking to most of the people involved in the movement, so I’ve got the database in my head of who’s doing what and who has what kind of interests and needs. So absolutely reach out to me.

If you’re a student, you can study a field that’s relevant, like economics, history, history and philosophy of science, and so forth. If you are a researcher, obviously there’s a whole approach to finding research topics and a community with whom to share them.

If you have other skills, like you’re an engineer or a designer, there are people working on software and web projects to dig more into this stuff. For example, I do some work with the project, Our World in Data. And in fact, one of the things I’m doing right now is hiring software engineers and designers to help build out that software to make data about human progress available to the world and allow you to explore that data and visualize it better.

Really, there are many different things to be done and it depends a lot on your resources, interests, and what you can devote to it. I would say the first thing to do is just get involved in the community. On my blog, I’ve got links to online forums, in-person meetups. There’s a Slack group, a Reddit group, and so forth. Join some of these things, introduce yourself, say hi and talk about your interests. I think you’ll very quickly get connected to opportunities.

Nick: Have you come across any research questions in the area that you see as deeply under-investigated?

Jason: Definitely. One that leaps to mind because it was on Tyler Cowen’s blog Marginal Revolution recently was the question of why construction of all kinds has gotten so slow and expensive, especially in the United States. Why is it we can’t build stuff fast anymore? Patrick Collison has a whole page on his website just called “Fast” about projects that got built really quickly. This kind of thing seems to happen more quickly in other parts of the world too. China famously has put up buildings very quickly, especially I think there was a whole hospital or something they put up recently related to the Coronavirus outbreak. In the US, we can’t build a single subway line. In San Francisco, it can take decades even to just get new housing approved. So, there’s certainly some kind of bureaucratization there, which is another one of Tyler Cowen’s themes and I think that would be something really interesting for more people to look at.

Nick: Finally, one of your big questions is how we keep progress going. How useful have you found learning the history in answering that question?

Jason: I think it’s been helpful for a few reasons. One way is just that I’ve been building in my head a library of examples. So I am starting to see themes and patterns across them.

One theme that has jumped out and, and it’s kind of a second answer to your previous question, is funding mechanisms. Funding mechanisms are very important for how progress happens. It’s remarkable to me how many times in history there were very early attempts to work on technologies that we now know are extremely important. And those early attempts, often the problem is that somebody could not get funding or had a really hard time getting funding, causing them to proceed slowly or leave gaps of decades in the timeline.

How did that kind of thing happen? Why is it hard to find the right things to fund? Do we have all the right funding mechanisms today? What could we do to have better financing mechanisms for progress?

I think that the combination of venture capital investments plus NSF grants plus some like private philanthropy is probably not the ideal system. I bet we could find some interesting things if we just looked at what’s missing or what can’t get funded through existing mechanisms.

That’s an example of how, when looking at the history of progress, you start to see themes and those themes can suggest areas for further investigation