This post is an adaptation of a thread I just published on twitter that explains why the broader public isn't resonating anymore with the idea of progress, despite all the efforts from Silicon Valley and the progress studies community, and what we can do to revitalize the idea of progress in the public consciousness.

Link to the original thread:

In a world devoid of positive future visions, the technocratic utopias touted by Silicon Valley fail to inspire, to resonate. 

Thiel, Pinker et al believe this is because we've lost faith in capital P 'Progress', blaming naive nostalgia and the disasters of the 20th century as the drivers of this sentiment.

But they're wrong. It's not a crisis of faith, it's a crisis of results.

During the Industrial Revolution and up until the 1940s, technological advancements led to a significant increase in productivity and economic growth, and greatly raised the living standards for many. 

However, in the age of post-scarcity, the returns on wellbeing from technological advancement and economic growth plateaued (see What the Fuck Happened in 1971, also Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation)

Because, once we’re all literate and fed, relentlessly pursuing the same strategy that got us there only makes us compliant and obese. 

The machine that took us from A to B isn't necessarily the same that will take us from B to C. Doubling down on it won't just make us compliant and obese. It will create a world wrecked by overconsumption, isolation, democratic decay and environmental degradation. 

This also explains why people in less industralized nations, like India or Africa, are still very tech-optimistic and pro-progress, while the West recoils.

In this climate, of course people start to become skeptic — to see the progress imperative as a foe, not a friend. They retreat, or they revolt. Whether it’s MAGA, Degrowth, Bronze Age reaction or instagrammable cottage-core, technocratic disillusionment comes in many flavors.

I'm on the human maximalism side. I think progress is still hot — who wouldn’t want space exploration, healthier lifespans, infinite energy, electric cars?

And yet, I am extremely disillusioned with how basic the progress discourse is.

Because what the progress discourse lacks isn’t hotness, but sophistication. It lacks the depth, range and well-roundedness that come from *really* reckoning with this question:

“What is progress ultimately for?”

Because real progress has never been just a matter of technological advancement, or economic growth. Those were always proxies, enablers, for the only thing that truly matters: the human experience of being alive.

And by this I don’t mean the empty hedonism that late modernity has brought enough of, but something deeper:

How much do people feel their lives are aligned with their highest notion of what’s good— their sense of purpose, virtue, and the strength of their social bonds.

Of course, at the level of the individual, it's always possible, through effort and will, to live up to this. But thriving societies are measured by how easy 'the system' makes it for the average person to achieve this.

So imagine, how would the progress narrative shift if we were explicit about this?

If we were optimizing for how we want to future to *feel* — not which sleek gadgets can make it look cool.

Without a strong answer to this, we're doomed to a technocapitalist dystopia made of meaningless SaaS and consumer apps. A world where we get GDP growth, but stagnation of any real innovation.

But we can dream bigger than that.

What are the highest highs we can reach, if we're inspired by a much grander vision of how it should feel to be alive?

I’ve dedicated the past years to this question. This video presents the answer I found. It addresses what got us where we are now, and presents a new social vision centered on meaning and values. One of true human maximalism that can inspire a flourishing high-tech future.

My aim with this is not to eradicate the myth of progress, but to revitalize it. Because the irony in this is, that it's only by putting the human perspective first that we'll be able to gain a renewed sense of faith in the possibilities of technology and progress. And only then, can the future be great.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of the community on this. In the coming days, I'll post one thread more connecting this vision of meaning more concretely with stagnation discourse, explaining why institutions seem to reward 'bullshit innovation' more than meaningful innovation that truly pushes frontiers.


11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:47 AM
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I resonate with this. The issue is that culture is particular, but the type of progress the progress studies is generally committed to is civilizational (tech and institutions) not cultural (art and meaning). A community dedicated to progress would instantly become significantly more narrow if it committed to some particular vision of what is valuable and meaningful. While I am fairly committed to a particular vision of how to integrate civilization and culture to create a meaningful life, I wouldn't want the Progress Forum to commit to a particular view of, say, family values or the status of rituals in society.

Your video is still a broad tent view of meaning. Yet, I'd like to hear how one can actually engage in the project you describe without becoming partisan some particular view of what makes a meaningful life.

Actually, you can't really separate cultural progress from civilizational progress. The modern world didn't just come about because of the industrial revolution, but also because the set of new ideas about what it means to be an individual and live in society that liberalism promoted.  In fact, it was this set ideas what catalyzed the industrial revolution, rather than material or technological factors like geography or access to capital.

And, our project is super focused on technological, scientific and institutional progress. We are very pro-tech and markets. But we think that the way to unlock this type of progress is through redesigning tech and institutions around meaning:

In regards about culture and meaning being particular, that is also not quite the case. Liberalism itself is proof that you can have a dominant cultural system that is not affiliated to any particular way of life (and yes, it's now failing, but it's failing for another set of reasons). 

In fact, most of the people  engaging in our project have very different views of what it means to live a good life! In our core team of five, we have a very conservative orthodox jew living in Jerusalem, and a poly, queer, social justice political philosopher from the Bay Area —  the rest of us are all somewhere in between. 

And the people who are resonating with our message are also as equally varied! We have religious leaders and anarchists, rave organizers and hedge fund managers, radical environmentalists and tech accelerationists, midwives and alignment researchers. To be honest, even I have been surprised at the diversity of the people who have been writing us! 

There are obvious avenues for progress in our society: more income security, less working hours, ideally some degree of population de-concentration. Addionally, relatively poor countries still have a large room for economic improvement, and political and military risks are un un-acceptably large. 

On the other hand, your criticism of the "rockets and flying cars" progress ideal looks spot on to me.

ideally some degree of population de-concentration

Why? I like being in a concentrated city. I like having a lot of interesting people near me. 

Because cities are sitting ducks for nuclear weapons. We don't know if nuclear winter is real, but in case it were not, nuclear war would be survivable if human population and industry were spread.

When it comes to progress I would look for a world where reducing the damage done by nuclear weapons is not the prime consideration.

It is obviously a critical consideration; beyond that, I would say that the best countries in the world are those with a long history of descentralization and a relatively less hierarchical urban structure: Switzerland, Germany and the United States. It makes life cheaper, allows people to live in bigger houses, the enviorment is better... Urbanization was a necessary evil and a necessary risk. Fortunately, less neccesary now.

I would prefer if progress goes in a way that decreases the chance of nuclear war instead of minimizing its chance. 

I like living in a big city. I like being close to other interesting people. I'd prefer it if even more interesting people would live in a short distance. 

This may be a faux pass of the community rules about disagreement, but I don't think you've created anything interesting here. Your "new movement" comes across a lot more like a cult than a concrete way to find meaning.

You describe a crisis of modernity in very vague terms in this piece. You point to things that are bad, gesture that our emotions might not be positive, and suggest that we need to develop a new way of living and finding meaning. To find meaning, you recommend watching a video you made.

This is generally how your video comes across too. You describe the "void" which is a shorthand term for anxieties, concerns, and nervousness about the future, and then say it's solved by "the light in the void" which is further explained over the next 20 minutes to be, more or less, the meaning of life. You provide a few exercises about how to find this meaning for yourself, but the exercises tend to focus more on making the viewer feel a certain way rather than clear exercises that the viewer can build upon or share with others. It is a vibes-based way of thinking, not a structured one. Furthermore, it is not clear why a new movement is needed for people to find this meaning, rather than, say, to read a self-help book. (For a book that actually helps you to find meaning in your work/life, I recommend "What Color is Your Parachute" personally. It has been in print for 50 years)

To learn more about your movement/idea, you provide a link to your website. This website has links to two youtube videos (including the one discussed earlier) and another which is an hour and thirty minutes. I couldn't/didn't get through that one. The website touts the variety of people in the movement (Successful hedge fund managers! Interesting and cool anarchists!), but is light on how the system actually works. The only other thing on the website are two donation buttons, one for a $200 donation and and one for a $2,000 donation to the organization that you've started. 

I am not going to blatantly assume bad faith here, but if you do not intend for this to be a cult, then you need to make your pitch significantly more clear and cut to the chase of what you're trying to say.

  1. We never claimed, in any of our comms, that this movement is about a "concrete way to find meaning".  These are your terms, not ours. 
  2.  In this particular thread, I don't "suggest that we need to develop a new way of living and finding meaning". I suggest we need to revaluate what our idea of progress is. It's very clear in my writing.
  3. "To find meaning, you recommend watching a video you made." Eh... no? I suggest watching the video for my take on what the reframing of progress could be about (one that maximizes values alignment and meaning). Either you have extremely bad reading comprehension, or you're intentionally badly mischaracterizating what I'm saying.  
  4.  "You provide a few exercises about how to find this meaning for yourself, but the exercises tend to focus more on making the viewer feel a certain way rather than clear exercises that the viewer can build upon or share with others". Yeah, because the video about explaining what meaning is, not a manual. We actually have a lot of techniques, even a course on it (!), but since the video isn't about finding meaning, that's not what I'm highlighting. 
  5. "It is a vibes-based way of thinking, not a structured one" — Look, it's fine if you don't the will or capacity to get through the 1.30h lecture, but then simply you don't get to critizice that this is a "vibes based" way of thinking. The video you watched is the only "vibey" thing that we have, everything else is extremely robust.
  6. "The website touts the variety of people in the movement (Successful hedge fund managers! Interesting and cool anarchists!"..... Eh, what? This is my response to a comment above about how our notion of meaning is broad, not particular. Again, either you have very limited comprehension, or there's actually bad faith in your blunt mischarachterization.
  7. The only thing you're right is that yes, our website doesn't have as much clear information as we'd like, but doing this well takes a lot of work, and we only launched a month and a half ago (!) (most startups have equally simple websites during their first year). So yes, we're working on it, but we're not quite there yet. My deepest apologies. If you want more information though, we have enough information to keep you busy for at least a week (even though, given you couldn't get through the video lecture which is the summarized version of this, it's unsure whether you'd be able to engage with this properly):

Finally, this is much much more that we're doing, but not all of it is public (like is the case with a lot of movements or companies). We have alignment researchers at major labs (OpenAI, Anthropic, DeepMind etc) working with our notion of meaning. We have a working prototype of a GPT based chatbot that assists you get clear on your meaning (which will be launched later this year). We have a unique AI alignment strategy (some of it outlined in our ML research group). We have a dedicated working group working on meaning aligned economic policy (supported by some known names from the progress community too). Partnerships with highly strategic agents. Collaborations with acclaimed artists. Etc Etc.

We'll slowly publicly announce more of this over the course of this year, so you can just stay tuned to see whether I'm bullshitting or not. Wanna bet ;)?

I think I'm probably just not the target audience for your project, so I didn't "get it". I apologize for calling your stuff a cult and interpreting it through that lens.

A lot of what I was saying was an attempt to boil down your points to get to the meat of what the project is trying to say, but perhaps that kinda defeats the purpose of the artistic aspect of it. While I could argue about the numbered responses, or give suggestions on how to streamline the ideas you're proposing, if the point is in large part artistic I see how that's barking up the wrong tree. 

While I don't think this is for me, I apologize again for my critical tone and for calling it a cult. Best of luck.