How does human progress come about? My long-read Q&A with Jason Crawford

It’s important to study progress,
because it makes society much better off in the long run, especially over the
past two hundred years. So we need to know how to promote more progress and
reap its benefits faster. At the same time, progress and innovation can be
disruptive or alarming in the near term, and so we need explain why progress is
important to those who are alarmed by it. We need to paint an optimistic vision
of the future and explain why promoting progress is critical to achieving it. So
it was a delight to discuss this topic recently with Jason Crawford.

Jason is the author of the Roots of Progress blog, where he writes about the history of technology and industry and the philosophy of progress. He is also the creator of Progress Studies for Young Scholars, an online program for high schoolers about the history of technology, and he was formerly a software engineering manager and tech startup founder.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, including brief portions that were cut from the original podcast. You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.

Pethokoukis: In your first blog post back in March 2017, you wrote the following: “My motivation in this project is discover the nature of human progress: to learn its history and therefore to discover its nature. By progress, I mean progress of all kinds: technological, scientifical, political, moral.” Now it’s 2020. What have you learned? Did you learn things that were totally unexpected? Have you been forced to revise your priors in any way?

Crawford: The whole thing started
out as a very personal project, and then it became a more public project. In
terms of things that I did not expect to going in, there’s a number of things I
feel that I’ve learned that seem almost obvious in retrospect, and yet I would
not have anticipated them in the very beginning.

One thing that really stood out to
me as I was reading stories of invention and innovation of all kinds is just
how important the different kinds of funding models are. How is progress funded
and financed? How do we pay for it? I kept running into stories where it seemed
that progress stalled for years or decades, in part because it wasn’t being
funded. The people who were working on it had a hard time raising money, or
they were working with very few resources. Howard Florey’s lab at Oxford, which
developed penicillin at the end of the 1930s and into 1940, is a great example.
The lab was working on the biggest medical breakthrough of the decade, and yet
it was a very underfunded lab that was really scrapping around for resources.

That’s something we still think a lot about today. There’s a
debate about funding science and innovation. Is the government spending too
much? How much can the private sector do through startups and raising venture
capital? How much does government need to fund it? Since you brought up
funding, where do you come down on how we need to fund innovation and
scientific progress going forward?

Yeah,
it’s a tough question. Let’s look at research and development and split it up.

With
the development side, once something is a clear business opportunity for
profit, I feel we have for-profit investment mechanisms that do a pretty good
job of funding those things. All the incentives are aligned properly, in that
investors — especially in venture capital — are incentivized to take contrarian
bets. They’re incentivized to get in early, because it’s by investing in
something early that you get the biggest returns if it succeeds. They are in
competition with each other. And so they diversify, they take different
approaches. They’re all trying to find some niche where everyone else is wrong,
but they can be right. And they can be maybe the one person who backs an early
venture when nobody else will.

But
not everything works well in a for-profit investment model. Basic science and
basic research operate on very long time horizons — much longer than the
typical 10-year VC fund. It’s hard to capture value in basic research. If
you’ve discovered some fundamental law of physics or biology and put it out
there, it’s not something you can patent, and it’s not something you should be
able to patent. And so, how do you capture the value? How do you recoup your
investment on that? So instead, we funded these things with nonprofit models,
whether that is government — there has been a ton of government funding for
science since World War II — or that’s through nonprofit private foundations.

Actor Will Smith listens to start up pitches for his new venture capital (VC) firm Dreamers Fund at the TechCrunch Disrupt forum in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kate Munsch

But
I’m concerned that the incentive structures in the nonprofit world, whether
it’s private or public, are not aligned with the “social value” that
we get out of research. Again, there’s a really high value to the world in
being the first backer early in some project when it is not obviously going to
succeed. And yet, I don’t think that there’s a way in the nonprofit world that
the people who are right early get orders of magnitude disproportional credit
for what they did, whereas early seed investors do get that kind of credit in
the for-profit world.

If
we go back to that example of Howard Florey’s lab developing penicillin, people
wrote him very small checks of a few hundred British pounds. And who were those
people? I feel like they should be in a hall of fame somewhere as the people
who kept this penicillin thing going and ultimately saved who knows how many
millions of lives.

On
the other hand, if something doesn’t work out, in the for-profit VC world,
nobody really cares. I mean, you lost your money. Okay. You can lose all of
your investment — all 1X of it — in something, and it’s okay if you make up
100X on some other investment. So nobody really cares about your flops in the
venture world. But I’m concerned that in the nonprofit world, people shy away
from those risky things, because it’s seen as, “Oh, if you backed something
stupid or crazy and it flops, then that could be a career-ending move.”

Can you think about an example of that?

No,
not off the top of my head. It’s more of a hypothesis and it’s something I want
to look into more.

I certainly worry about the caution, for instance, in
government funding things. There’s not as much risk-taking as we’d like, and if
something goes wrong, then they’ll say, “Well, that’s government failing
again. It should never pursue those projects.” I remember in the 1990s and
into the 2000s, for instance, there was a lot of criticism by some Republicans
about government research projects which didn’t seem to have an obvious,
practical application, and they were just deemed wild goose chases. I do worry
about that.

Yeah,
there’s certainly a problem: When early stage business, engineering, or
scientific ventures are put up to a popular vote, they’re almost always going
to fail. They’re usually non-consensus prospects that only a couple of people
believe in and even experts don’t agree about. So if you look at the history of
progress, I think it’s clear that in order to make breakthroughs on a regular
basis, we need a way for those non-consensus, maverick, contrarian ideas to get
at least small amounts of funding to get off the ground and have a way to prove
themselves.

You clearly care about progress, but it seems to me that
Americans don’t care about progress the way we used to back in, say, the 1960s.
Now, instead of thinking about the future as a good place to live, we have a
lot of nostalgia and fatalism in our politics. Do you agree with that
impression? And if so, what happened to Americans’ enthusiasm for progress?

Anecdotally,
I definitely see the same thing when I look throughout history and look both at
how people looked ahead to the future — the future in general, or specific
developments that might occur — and at how progress was celebrated.

If
you read about the day they completed the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869,
the day the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, or the day in 1955 when the polio
vaccine was announced as being safe and effective, there were massive
celebrations and parades in the streets. Or in the case of Jonas Salk, people offered
him a ticker tape parade — which I think he declined, but they did want to
celebrate in that way. This trend maybe goes up to 1969 and the moon landing,
where those astronauts were absolute heroes. It’s hard for me to think of
something that we have celebrated in that way in the last 50 years. It seems
that we have taken on a much darker, bleaker view of the future. Anecdotally,
sci-fi seems to have become more dystopian.

Via Twenty20

I
don’t know all the reasons for this, but I think there’s a combination of two
things. On the one hand, there’s just some complacency. Life is really
comfortable today in a way that it never has been. And on the other hand, I
don’t think people are really taught the history. I don’t think you get it in
school. It falls between the cracks of history and science classes. I think
that people are just unaware of — or only very dimly aware of — how rough life
used to be just 50, 100, or 200 years ago. They don’t understand what we had to
deal with and the amazing amount of the material abundance, comfort, health,
and safety we now have. I mean, this is a gift from our ancestors, and I think
people take it for granted. I think they just aren’t aware of it.

At
the same time, I think people have gotten a lot more worried about the
unintended consequences of technology. They’ve gotten more concerned about
safety risks. They’ve gotten more concerned about environmental damage. They’ve
gotten more concerned about health impacts and so forth. Often, there are
legitimate concerns. Technology is power, and power can always be dangerous.
Technology is neither good nor bad, and we can use it for good or evil. We can
use it wisely or foolishly. And so there are real issues here, but at the same
time, I think people have turned a jaundiced eye to progress itself rather than
asking, “How do we make wise progress and good progress instead of reckless
progress or foolish progress?”

Let me read you something from the MIT science philosopher
Leo Marx:

“The initial enlightenment belief in progress perceived science and technology to be in the service of liberation from political oppression. Over time, that conception was transformed, or at least partly supplanted, by the now familiar view that innovations and science-based technologies are in themselves a sufficient and reliable basis for progress. The distinction, then, turns on the apparent loss of interest or unwillingness to name the social ends for which the scientific and technological instruments of power are to be used. Does improving technology mean progress? Yes, it certainly could mean just that, but only if we’re willing and able to answer that next question: Progress toward what? What is it that we want our new technologies to accomplish?”

I think that’s a good question. Can you answer that?

Yeah,
it is a good question. I mean, I think there are some obvious ends that
technology can achieve that most people would agree on. Improved health; the
reduction of disease; the extension of life; the ability to communicate and
learn; the ability for everybody in the world to get knowledge and experience
arts and culture; the ability for us to travel, visit each other, see the world
and other cultures, and conduct commerce; and et cetera.

Ultimately,
I judge progress on a humanistic standard. What is good for human life, health,
happiness, and flourishing? What is good for education, arts, and commerce?
What gives us more capabilities and more options in the world?

I think a lot of people would answer that question by
saying, “It’s going to give us a Chinese-style surveillance state, or social
media addictions, or truckers rioting in the streets because they lost their
jobs to autonomous vehicles.” I think people are imagining a dark future,
because optimists have been unable to paint an attractive image of what the
future might look like.

First
off, technology can be used wisely or foolishly. There are real hazards in any
technology, and that’s something we should be aware of.

A
typical reaction to this is to say, “If technology is risky, then maybe we
should slow it down or back off.” I have a slightly different take, or maybe a
very different take: Safety itself is, or can be, a goal of technology. Safety
is a goal that we achieve the same way that we achieve other goals like
material abundance or instant global communications.

We
achieve safety through applied intelligence and ultimately through safety
technologies, including policies, procedures, and best practices. So when we
think about safety, we should think of it as something that we need to
deliberately focus on and actively achieve rather than something that is
achieved through a slowdown or a stoppage or a passivity. Safety is not
achieved passively. It is achieved actively. And so I think the productive
question to ask ourselves is: How do we make sure that we develop safety technology
as fast as we develop risk-increasing technology? Then we can have the proper
balance there.

Another
issue that you brought up is the surveillance state, and this comes back to my
point that technology is not good or evil but can be used for either. It is
absolutely true that the tools of technology have given more tools to
governments — again, to use for good or for evil. Look at the ability to travel
throughout a large nation rapidly by train and to communicate through
electronic networks. These things have allowed central governments to exert
much more control over a wide area than they used to. In the old days of
kingdoms and empires, they had to delegate a lot. A king could not rule a large
area very directly. He really relied on barons, vassals, or satrapies, whereas
today it can be a lot more totalitarian.

Via Twenty20

Ultimately,
what that says to me is that, just as we need to develop safety technology in
line with other technology to reduce unintended consequences, we also need to
develop our moral technology, to use a phrase, in line with our material
technology to make sure that we use it for good and for human freedom and
flourishing rather than for evil and for totalitarian control.

Do you think that we have a good group of technologists in
Silicon Valley today? Do we have people that are forward-thinking — so, they’re
not just trying to create technology for the future, but also giving people a
vision of why all of the disruption that comes with technology is worthwhile?

I
mean, off the top of my head, not really. There are a few folks — I would say a
minority — in Silicon Valley who are thinking about the long term future and
coming up with ambitious projects and visions for the future. The poster child
for this perhaps is Elon Musk, who has a lot of very ambitious long term
projects going on. In terms of venture capitalists, the venture capitalists
from Founders Fund, which Peter Thiel is a part of, has made its name talking
about big, ambitious projects for the long term future. But a lot of folks in
Silicon Valley — and I say this as someone who’s spent most of my career in
tech and spent basically a decade in building tech startups in Silicon Valley,
so I know this community pretty well — are focused on “What are the
opportunities right now on the horizon? And what can we go after? What can we
achieve?”

There’s
nothing wrong with that. I mean, it’s one thing to look decades out and come up
with a sci-fi vision for the future, and artists absolutely should be doing
that. But when it comes to industrialists and inventors and so forth, I think
more progress in general is made at the horizon — at the frontier of just
figuring out what is actually possible right now and how can we move things
forward rather than painting a huge sci-fi vision.

Right. Not all progress has to be life-altering. Lots of
incremental progress, year after year, still pushes that frontier forward. And
we probably have a tendency to dismiss that because we don’t see it happening.
And then we look back and think, “Oh, actually, we’ve come pretty
far.” I mean, that’s obviously important too.

I want to make sure we get to the Progress Studies for
Aspiring Young Scholars program. What is this? And what is your goal?

Progress
Studies for Young Scholars is an online learning program about the history of
technology aimed at the high school level. We ran it over the summer as a
summer program, and it was successful enough that we are going to keep it going
into the fall. It’s going to be like an afterschool program that will run
through the fall and on an ongoing basis.

This
is a joint project between myself and a private school called Higher Ground
Education. And they’re running it through their high school brand, which is
known as the Academy of Thought and Industry. They approached me back in May
asking if I wanted to create an online program at the high school level, and I
jumped at the chance. I’m really proud of what we came up with. We’ve run a
number of classes of students through the program now, and it’s gotten a really
great reception.

We
go over the history of technology. We start off with the history of global
living standards. What was it like to live as a hunter-gatherer? What was it
like to live in the ancient or medieval world? And then how has our way of
living and our standard of living changed today? And then we go through a
survey of the major discoveries and inventions that actually created that
standard of living. How did we get here? How did we learn to mechanize
agriculture and create synthetic fertilizers so that we can feed the entire
world with something like 3 percent of the population and not have famines on a
regular basis? How did we learn the germ theory of disease and learn how to
fight germs through sanitation, water treatment, antibiotics, and vaccines? How
did we create an entire energy industry and learn to harness energy so that we
didn’t have to depend on wind, water, and muscles? And so on. It’s topics like this
that have created this modern world.

And you’ve lined up some amazing speakers.

That’s right. So we also have a speaker series associated with the program, which is actually open to the public. So anybody can join in on that part. We’ve had some fabulous speakers, you can find them all on our YouTube channel. We’ve had some folks like Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison who coined the term Progress Studies in The Atlantic a year ago. We’ve had some economic historians like Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey. We had Max Roser, the founder of Our World in Data, and a lot of other really interesting speakers.

It would be a dream come true for me if this subject
somehow became a standard bit of a high school curriculum. When I was in
school, I didn’t learn much more than Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell,
and… maybe a little bit about the robber barons. That was it for “progress
studies.” There definitely was nothing about why the world went from very poor
to far less poor just about everywhere.

So I think this is a fantastic project. Where would you
like to see it go next?

For
now, Progress Studies for Young Scholars is going to continue to run as an
online afterschool program through the fall. As for myself, I write essays
about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress on my site. And
I’ve been putting aside most of that work through this summer to focus on the
online program, but I’m going to be getting back to that and writing a lot more
about these topics.

Do you think this pandemic will inspire us to think more
about progress and not take things for granted? You talked earlier about this
complacency. Assuming this complacency is real, I’ve been thinking about things
that will break us out of it, and I’m wondering if this pandemic might be one
of them. It would certainly be one positive takeaway from the pandemic if we
realize that being technologically advanced, wealthy, and forward thinking
would certainly help to deal with any future crisis.

Yeah,
certainly. I think that’s possible. However, every event in history is subject
to interpretation, and different people will interpret it differently and come
to opposite conclusions based on their philosophical priors. So certainly, if
you thought that progress was done — if you thought that we’d basically did
everything we needed to do, and there were really no big goals left — I hope
that the pandemic has shaken you out of that and made you realize there’s
actually a lot left to do.

Research associate Phuong-Danh Tran, of RNA medicines company Arcturus Therapeutics, conducts research on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) at a laboratory in San Diego, California, U.S., March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan

But
people can interpret this in different ways. People can look at the pandemic
and say, “This just proves that we will always be at the mercy of nature.
This proves the hubris of mankind thinking that we could create a global
network of transportation, where people are flying all around the world. And
just think what will happen when the bacteria develop resistance to all of our
antibiotics, et cetera, and so forth…” You could take a very dim view of
it.

Conversely,
you could take a view that says, “Look, we have throughout the last
100-150 years or so, we have actually made enormous progress against infectious
disease.” We are not quite done, obviously, but we have solved most
bacterial diseases with antibiotics. We have solved most waterborne diseases,
at least in areas that are wealthy enough to have good water sanitation
infrastructure. We have solved most foodborne diseases and insect borne
diseases in areas that are wealthy enough to have good infrastructure and food
safety practices and so forth. And there are really just a few categories of
disease left, these highly contagious person-to-person-spreading, viral, respiratory
diseases — these things like COVID. And we just need to beat them back the same
way we beat back all the other diseases: through applied intelligence.

We
need better vaccines. We need better vaccine platforms so that we can develop
vaccines even faster. We need broad spectrum antiviral drugs in the same the
way we have broad spectrum antibiotics, which would make these viral pandemics
much less dangerous. That is the progress positive approach to take, and that’s
the approach I take.

My guest today has been Jason Crawford. Jason, thanks for
coming on the podcast.

Thanks again for having me.

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