A little bit about me: I'm an academic whose work straddles human-computer interaction (HCI) and science and technology studies (STS). I find myself limited by HCI's focus on computation and dispirited by STS's descriptive (rather than normative) orientation toward science and technology. I recently learned about Progress Studies and am eager to contribute to the field.

Now, my question. In their Atlantic article, Collison & Cowen define progress as "the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries." What does it mean to "raise" standards of living? Who has defined standards of living, and who has decided if they are in fact being raised? I can imagine a few ways to do this, and am aware of a few examples of works that have tried (Pinker's Better Angels comes to mind). 

What are the popular or canonical works that Progress Studies looks to understand what standards of living are and what it means to raise them?

Thanks for your time; very much looking forward to contributing more to this nascent discipline.

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

1 Answers

I think the term “standard of living” is not defined very rigorously, but is generally understood to mean the overall material conditions of life possible in a given time and place. There are reasonable definitions at Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Investopedia. (I checked Our World in Data's entry on “Economic growth” and their essay “The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it,” but these articles don't seem to define the term.)

I would consider it to include:

  • the size and comfort of homes and their amenities (heating and A/C, water and sewage, electricity, gas)
  • the availability and variety of fresh, nutritious food
  • the quantity and quality of possessions that the average person has (clothes, electronics, tools, jewelry, sporting equipment, etc.)
  • the opportunity to work a good job and to avoid excessive or harsh manual labor or other working conditions, and to have leisure time (including leisure for children in school, and the elderly in retirement)
  • the ability to travel with speed, convenience, and comfort
  • the ability to communicate for business or socializing
  • access to knowledge, entertainment, art and culture
  • overall health and protection from disease
  • safety from accidents and disasters

Hans Rosling has a simplified way to think about income levels that I find helpful, where he looks at drinking water, transportation, cooking, eating, and sleeping.

If (all else being equal) there is an improvement in any of those factors or similar factors, then living standards have been raised.

The typical metric used to measure living standards is GDP per capita. GDP doesn't exactly correspond to or capture quality of life, but it's the best metric we have, and it tends to be highly correlated with other quality-of-life metrics such as life expectancy or literacy rates.

I notice that Marginal Revolution University has a relevant video: Real GDP Per Capita and the Standard of Living