“Progress” sounds like a good thing – in fact it’s almost embedded in the definition of the word.

However, as a mad-at-the-world, angst-ridden teen, I was opposed to progress.

Pretty funny how that works out.

Jason Crawford has been studying the stories behind some of our most game-changing yet under-appreciated innovations like the bicycle, the process of refining steel, and why we use alternating current in our electrical grids.⁠

And, he’s been posting his finds on his blog The Roots of Progress.

Jason and I have a conversation in which we disabuse my 16-year-old self of some misguided beliefs, and we also dig into both the small-scale and large-scale dynamics or our societies that actually stimulate innovation.

Check out the full conversation with Jason below to learn:

  • Why the concerns about excess population growth and rising inequality aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – and why progress itself is potentially the solution to these problems
  • Why a bottom-up view of historical innovation is necessary to better understand our history – and how bottom-up views combine with top-down “grand theories” to give us an accurate picture of progress
  • Why some inventions are “behind their time” (like the bicycle) and what they can teach us about innovation

Check out the episode at the links below. If you enjoyed the episode, the best way to support the show is to share with your friends, so send them a link.

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Check out more from Jason and The Roots of Progress here:

Show Notes:

  • [01:04] Disabusing my 16-year-old self of some misguided assumptions about the nature of progress – and all the ways in which life is better now for just about everyone than it was in 1700.
  • [10:10] Common arguments against “progress”: zero-sum thinking and Malthusian concerns about population. And, the unexpected developments that change the population calculus.
  • [17:16] Why Jason is skeptical of arguments about “relative happiness” and increasing inequality.
  • [19:27] Behaviorally modern humans have been around for a long time, so why wasn’t there “progress”? What changed that caused us to start inventing things much more quickly?
  • [28:13] Are there broad sociological trends that kickstart progress (like WEIRD psychology and the Catholic Church)?
  • [34:27] Jason prefers to take a bottom-up approach to understanding progress through specific examples of inventions like bicycles, steel, vaccines, etc.
  • [41:02] What about ideas that potentially require several things to go correctly at a time? Do these kinds of ideas resist “tinkering” or are do they have tangible intermediate steps?
  • [45:40] Are we really in a period of scientific and economic stagnation – as argued by Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison, Peter Thiel and others? Or, are we just waiting for the next “S Curve” of progress to take off?
  • [53:14] Why hasn’t the increased accessibility to information facilitated by the internet resulted in more progress? What are the negative impacts of things like bureaucratic calcification and institutions that optimize for things like prestige and politics over progress?
  • [01:06:42] Coming soon on The Roots of Progress: Mortality rates and public health improvements, agriculture and the economics of food, and how to build a bridge that doesn’t collapse.

Links and Resources Mentioned