My journey as CEO for The Roots of Progress starts this week—yet in a way, it started at least four decades ago. I grew up in West Germany, a country that after the Second World War saw massive progress, with living standards and opportunities similar to those in the US. Yet I also saw what happens when progress is missing: my family regularly visited our relatives in East Germany. After crossing the heavily fortified border (where our car was searched on the way in lest we smuggle in books with prohibited ideas) 10-year-old me experienced a bleak world. In the East, coal dust lay heavy in the air, my cousin stood in line for hours to get a bottle of ketchup, and our relatives waited 10 years (!) to get a rickety car made of plastic, without any modern safety features. I remember crying tears of relief after crossing the border in the other direction (our car searched again, this time to make sure we didn’t smuggle out any citizen of the East). How fortunate was I to live in the flourishing West, and to not be imprisoned in the stagnation of the East!

So when I saw the CEO role posted last summer, I reached out to Jason right away. With my experience growing up in divided Germany, this part of the post just rings so true:  “The progress of the last few centuries—in science, technology, industry, and the economy—is one of the greatest achievements of humanity. But progress is not automatic or inevitable. We must understand its causes, so that we can keep it going, and even accelerate it.”

Progress isn’t automatic—and as a parent, I want my children, and all children, to grow up and live in a world where we continue and accelerate it. I want them to see that humans are problem solvers, that the challenges we face today can be solved just like ingenious humans, working together, solved the problems of the past. And more than that: I want us to inspire kids to become the next generation of problem solvers. At my last company, Mystery Science, our ultimate goal was to ensure that “the next generation of children grow up and see that it’s an amazing world we live in, full of possibility and wonder—and that they develop the ability to figure things out for themselves.” In a way, I see part of my mission here at ROP to provide these kids with more inspiration, by showing that progress is real and desirable.

Our multi-year goal at ROP is to build a thriving progress movement, working with many others who share similar goals. We’ll need to build a team, both at ROP and as a network of like-minded travelers taking on different parts of the movement’s efforts.

In my 25+ year career, I’ve been involved in building and growing organizations in diverse fields, from personal aviation to schools to ed tech. I love bringing together talented, can-do people and empowering them to do great work. I’ve learned how important it is to create a strong culture that supports the mission, and look forward to building that type of culture here. I also have seen how good operational systems can remove friction and make it possible to do high-impact work and have fun doing it.

Building ROP from an impactful blog to an organization that leverages the ideas of progress into a movement—one that not just tweaks things at the margin but changes the culture—is a great challenge. It’s work that requires both strategic thinking and detail-oriented execution. I’ve tackled similar challenges at previous roles and it’s exactly the type of challenge I love (and people I’ve worked with think I’m pretty good at it).

As Jason shared in his welcome email to me on my first day, we’re embarking on a huge journey together: we’re setting out to create a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century and to build a movement to establish it. It’s a huge quest, and I’m counting on fellow travelers to join us for mutual support.

Setting out on this journey this week, here’s what I see as our first initial steps:

Near term (next few weeks): I know I have a lot to learn! I’ve done a lot of reading in the last few months. I’d love to directly tap into the expertise of others now. I’m planning to go on a listening tour, to talk with people who are active in the progress movement and adjacent spaces (intellectuals, organizational leaders, foundations and donors with an interest in the space). I’m also eager to meet people who run related programs, especially programs that can help us shape our career accelerator for progress intellectuals (e.g., fellowship programs, grant programs, internships), even if these programs are in totally different fields. If you feel this describes you and you’re up for a call, email me.

Medium term (by summer): create and launch a v1 prototype of a career accelerator for progress intellectuals. This program will take the form of a limited-time fellowship for anyone who demonstrates strong writing talent and has an ambitious career goal in progress studies. The fellowship will help them take their careers to the next level by providing money, coaching, marketing and PR support, and connection to a network. Our vision is that in ten years, there are hundreds of progress intellectuals who are alums of our program and part of our network, and who are where they are in their careers thanks to our support. To figure out the details, I’m looking to talk with current and aspiring progress intellectuals. So if you fit that description and are up for a zoom chat, email me.

Once we have a more developed plan, we’ll of course be raising more funding to support this plan, provide the fellowships, and build the team. If you’re a potential (or current) donor, reach out and I’ll make sure to keep you posted.

My email is heike@rootsofprogress.org.

Over lunch on my first day, I read a blog post arguing that a key way to fight off doomerism is to show how humanity has solved problems before and the potential for doing so again: “We must learn to tell better stories about humanity. Celebrate humankind and all of our achievements, and share this with your children.”

A progress movement built around a core of solutionism, humanism, and agency will do just that. That’s the mission and work I dedicate myself to. As Jason concluded his welcome email to me: Let’s go make some progress!

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This forum and the movement in general are not really popular outside of some very small elite circles. I hope that changes and you manage to propagate the memes more widely. The normalization of declinism and romanticism^1 in most mainstream communities creates communication barriers and reduces the ability of society to make positive actions.

However, I am against progress maximalism as expressed on this forum. Let me elaborate my view, parts of which have definitely been expressed before:

The ideas of The Roots of Progress would be obviously correct in a world slightly different than ours.

I see "progress" as mining knowledge, enabling technology. There is no creation; every idea is waiting to get discovered, validated and applied. If something would improve our lives, it is indeed a moral imperative to “get it out of the ground”.

Almost all positive things that happened to humanity so far stem from mining technological progress (fire, agriculture, domestication of horses, fossil fuels, electricity, extermination of pathogens, contraception, computers, Internet),  and the rest being some progress in social and political technology (religion, morals, basic freedoms, democracy, rule of law), with all of it being enabled by communication technology (language, writing, books, Internet platforms). We will make progress on all of the above in the future.

Of course, there is often negative "environmental impact”, coming from disruption or negative externalities . But in the end we always solve this by creating better social or scientific technologies, or the problems just disappear as people adapt.

Progress happens by mining for knowledge and applying that in the world. Some great people create new mines, others improve processes of existing mines. We need multiple mines doing their things, bringing about different ways to do stuff. Understanding the mechanisms behind mine creation and preservation will obviously give returns far exceeding the invested effort, if we leverage this knowledge to improve mining.

Unfortunately we find ourselves in a different world. A few years back we discovered mithril under a single mountain, which looks like it will make all but a tiny number of other ores obsolete in less than half of a human lifetime. Moreover, it is inherently easier to extract than what we are used to in other mines.
The obvious goal missing from the progress framework is not to improve processes in all mines everywhere, it's not even to optimize the mithril mining process. It is to make sure there are no demons of the ancient world^2 waiting inside.

The progress movement is nevertheless a positive thing, for various reasons:

  • if we close the mine for good, the spirit of progress must live on; almost no other mines can pose dangers that outweigh the benefits;
  • if for some reason the mithril vein is not as deep as it looks (and this is quite possible, but definitely not the modal outcome), we are soon again in the world where progress studies is obviously correct;
  • progress in other mines can make us better equipped for dealing with the one that matters;
  • (very ambitious) understanding the mechanisms of progress itself, if those generalize enough, might make us able to control the progress in the mithril mine.

But we must not forget that the following two bitter statements look more and more true each day:

  1. Most existing problems look like they will be solved by default using just the outputs of the mithril mine! The actionable insights of progress studies will often be in areas which take several decades to give results.
  2. Human agency is not infinite. We are not that smart. If we blindly rush into the unknown, it is possible we dig too deep. More importantly, given the mithril mine is going so well by default, focusing on minimizing the probability of things going wrong looks better than thinking about progress in areas which will get steamrolled by the mithril revolution.


^1: Romanticism of the past, or of nature, the status quo, or of anything that only looks nice but falls apart when faced with the test of “does moving in that direction really make our lives better?”
^2: It also makes sense to fight smaller negative externalities, because when the technology is so powerful, the sheer speed of deployment might overwhelm defensive mechanisms against irresponsible and bad-faith use, and be too fast for people to adapt while retaining sanity.

You might want to consider posting this as a top-level post as well.

Welcome, Heike! Very excited to be working with you.

The future of this civilization will be decided by our relationship with knowledge.  Just as animals have to adapt to a changing environment or die, our relationship with knowledge has to adapt to a changing environment too.

Currently we're operating from a "more is better" relationship with knowledge philosophy left over from the 19th century.  That philosophy made sense in the long era of knowledge scarcity, an era we no longer live in.   Today we live in a time when knowledge is exploding in every direction at an accelerating rate,  a revolutionary new era very unlike the early knowledge scarcity era.   New conditions require new thinking.

The idea that we should be generating more and more knowledge so as to obtain more and more power represents an immature understanding of the human condition.  Such an assumption is instead bad engineering, as it doesn't take in to account the limited nature of human ability.  

https://progressforum.org/posts/zNx24zqq2kg45CuTb/our-relationship-with-knowledge

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