Recent Discussion

Authors: Kartik Akileswaran, Jeffrey Mason, Jonathan Mazumdar

Progress Studies (PS) has set out to understand the massive improvement in living standards in recent centuries and how scientific, technological, economic, and institutional factors have influenced that transformation. Naturally, the movement has focused on the places that have experienced these transformations most dramatically – today’s high-income countries. 

But given the need for ever greater investment – financial and human capital – in pushing the knowledge frontier, developing countries with large and growing untapped talent pools will have an increasingly important role to play too. This is why more attention should be paid to catch-up growth in developing countries in the wider PS movement, because it has the potential to influence dynamics at the global frontier and indeed is already affecting the...

It's easy to disprove an equal distribution; however, it's also very easy to disprove a distribution that closely fits opportunities (say, measured by economic development).

I'd also like to note that IMO performance is a strong but quite noisy signal of top talent distribution, due to some countries' educational and career systems not particularly caring about it (France comes to mind);  some countries kneecapping their performance on purpose (China doesn't let anyone participate twice), and the cultural importance of high-school competitions varying between countries.


I had the pleasure of talking to Jim O’Shaughnessy for the Infinite Loops podcast. We discussed whether humans deserve progress, how to make progress cool, the two types of optimism, and more.


Also on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other links on the show page.

See all my interviews and talks here.

In “What if they gave an Industrial Revolution and nobody came?” I reviewed The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, by Robert Allen. In brief, Allen’s explanation for the Industrial Revolution is that Britain had high wages and cheap energy, which meant it was cheaper to run machines than to pay humans, and therefore it was profitable to industrialize. He emphasizes these factors, the “demand” for innovation, over explanations based in culture or even human capital, which provide “supply.”

While I learned a lot from Allen’s book, his explanation doesn’t sit right with me. Here are some thoughts on why.

Suppose you took Allen’s demand-factor approach to explain, not the 18th-century Industrial Revolution in Britain, but the 20th-century Information Revolution in America. Instead of asking why the steam engine...

Imagine you could go back in time to the ancient world to jump-start the Industrial Revolution. You carry with you plans for a steam engine, and you present them to the emperor, explaining how the machine could be used to drain water out of mines, pump bellows for blast furnaces, turn grindstones and lumber saws, etc.

But to your dismay, the emperor responds: “Your mechanism is no gift to us. It is tremendously complicated; it would take my best master craftsmen years to assemble. It is made of iron, which could be better used for weapons and armor. And even if we built these engines, they would consume enormous amounts of fuel, which we need for smelting, cooking, and heating. All for what? Merely to save labor. Our...

Thanks Jason for the article, I think it's a useful lens for looking at the past.

The idea of having the right economic conditions for progress and invention reminded me of what Bill Gates calls the "Green Premiums" for the changes we need to make to move away from higher emissions (I imagine others have made the point before). Gates's argument is that we need to create the right environment to "prime" the world for investing and creating these more sustainable technologies, and it seems like a proactive way that one may try to recreate the an Industrial Revolution Britain. (Whether it would work or not is a different matter!)

What would a Travel Guide for Progress look like? Surely it would include Britain for the technological progress of the Industrial Revolution (more specifically, Manchester for textiles or the first iron bridge in Shropshire)

Progress may also include arts (Florence and the Renaissance), government (Philadelphia, Athens), architecture and materials (the Pantheon with its use of Roman concrete), amongst other categories
What/where else?

Not sure if this is quite what you are looking for, but I've been keeping a list of progress-related museums that I have visited or want to visit, large or small, including:

... (read more)
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I got invited to speak at Learning Night Boston and give an intro to progress studies: why study progress, and why do we need a new philosophy of progress? There are then a few minutes of Q&A. (It was in a bar and the audio quality is poor, sorry.)

Please let me know how to delete my account and all comments and posts related to it. Much appreciated