For the past year or so I have been hovering on the edges of the Progress Studies Movement. Before that I was researching and writing my new book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.
During that time, I focused heavily on my work and ignored the outside world. I originally conceived of my book as a history book. I did not start my project thinking about the concept of progress, but as I was writing my book, I realized that it was the only concept that fit the facts.
Once I published the book, I came up for air and was pleasantly surprised that a fledgling Progress Studies Movement was already in existence. Officially starting in 2019, it has been in existence for about two years.
I would love to report that the movement is growing fast and is having a big impact on how people view the world, but I am afraid that I cannot do so.
Currently, the Progress Studies Movement appears to consist of a number of young and talented thinkers who focus on blogs, Twitter and social media. These writers are all very intelligent, have interesting ideas and clearly believe that progress is important. In addition, there are other bloggers and authors who are interested in the concept of progress, but seem to be going there own way.
If the goal of the Progress Studies Movement is to create a handful of interesting blogs, then it has succeeded. But I don’t think this was ever the goal, nor do I think that it should be.
I think the Progress Studies Movement can be much more, and it is disconcerting to me that it has not grown faster over the last two years.
I believe that those who are influential within the movement need to think carefully about how we can create a healthy ecosystem that attracts new members, delivers benefits to society and allows members to contribute to the movement based upon their skills and interests while having confidence that their hard labor will not go unnoticed. I do not see evidence that much thinking along these lines has taken place.
This post is not meant to criticize any one inside or outside the movement. It is meant to give recommendations on how we can become more effective. Any movement that does not analyze itself is doomed to failure, so I hope that everyone who reads this blog (and also those who do not) take it as necessary, constructive criticism and not a personal attack.
I am writing this post because I believe that the Progress Studies Movement has the potential to make a real difference in the world.
As I see it, the Progress Studies Movement:
- Has no clear statement of beliefs
- Has no definition of progress
- Has no clearly stated goals
- Has no clear strategy for how to accomplish those goals
- Has no clear intellectual foundations to show that their ideas matter in the real world
- Has no appeal beyond a very small group of techies, economists and bloggers
- Has not given people outside those narrow groups a reason why they should engage with us
- Has not been able to move beyond the online world
- Focuses on topics that are far to narrow to ever be appealing to a broad audience
- Does not have a clear conception who is against progress and why
- Is spread across many different digital technologies making it difficult for the different sub-groups to communicate with each other
- Is failing to take advantage of people who want to help
- Is too easily criticized as AstroTurf, and not a real grassroots movement.
If this were the first year of its existence, I would say that this is to be expected. The fact that the movement is still in this state after two years is very disconcerting. It should galvanize people who care about the movement to take immediate action.
Below is a list of proposed solutions that I recommend:
We need to think about the ecosystem that we want to create
The first recommendation gets to the core of what we need to do. We need to think of the Progress Studies movement as an ecosystem with a division-of-labor and mutual benefits. Right now there is a lot of individual action, but relatively little cooperative action. And too many within the group are doing the same thing.
We need to create an ecosystem of progress scholars, social media and passive followers that want to join and immediately receive benefits from doing so. This ecosystem should:
- Be dynamic, growing, inclusive, cooperative and impactful
- Deliver informative, persuasive and relevant content to passive supporters that is easily accessible on the internet
- Make it easy for new progress researchers and social media actors to get immediate notice and support from the rest of the community
- Make outside academics, writers, publishers, public intellectuals, media, think tanks and political activists want to interact with us because they see great material benefits in doing so
Below is a graphic that illustrates the kind of ecosystem that I think the Progress Studies movement should become. The rest of this post explains more about each role and their importance within the entire ecosystem:
We desperately need a Progress Manifesto
The Progress Manifesto should be the single most important artifact in the ecosystem. The lack of one is a big problem. The main goal of this document is to convert the general public into passive supporters.
Currently, there is no one document that we can point to that:
- States our beliefs at a general enough level that most members can agree to it and yet specific enough to be actionable
- Clearly states why progress as a concept and us as a movement should matter to everyday people
- Clearly states our goals
- Has a clear definition of progress (more on this later)
- Delivers a clear call-to-action that hits people’s emotions and core beliefs
- Clearly defines the dangers of the movement not succeeding.
I believe that if that manifesto is properly written and distributed, it could bring a lot of people into the movement and get far greater media attention. Presumably, some of those people would follow up by recruiting their friends. A small percentage of those people could them become contributors that add real value to the movement.
A manifesto would give a great destination page for all other movement-generated content to link to. This manifesto can really become the centerpiece of our movement.
Writing the first draft of a Manifesto is easy. I am working on one right now. Getting it reviewed in a way that it accurately reflects the entire movement without getting it hacked to pieces by a committee is a bit more of challenge. But I really think that we should give it a try.
If we cannot do this simple task, it is difficult for me to see how the movement can succeed. The lack of such a document speaks volumes as to the lack of unity, cooperation and inclusiveness within the movement. The process of writing such a document will help to get us as a movement beyond that state.
We need a clear definition of “Progress”
If someone were to ask me “What is Progress?”, I could give them a clear definition. If someone were to ask me “How does the Progress Studies Movement define progress?”, then I would do a lot of equivocating and then finally acknowledge that I am not really sure.
This is a serious problem.
Definitions are difficult. No one really likes writing them. It is also easy to get bogged down in irrelevant academic arguments, so many people just skip defining a concept.
I believe that avoiding a clear definition for progress is a mistake because people already have a definition of that concept in their heads. They may not have thought about it too much about it. They may not be able to easily articulate that definition with a specificity that stands up to rigorous questioning. But the vague definition that they have in their heads has a real effect of how they conceive of problems, the assumptions they make, and the actions they take. We as a movement will have great difficulties communicating with each other if we cannot align on one definition.
As I see it, there are a few definitions that people in the movement seem to acting upon:
- Progress is advancement of scientific knowledge
- Progress is technological innovation
- Progress is technological innovation on the leading edge.
- Progress is the increase in standard-of-living of people (my preferred definition)
- Progress is increased per capita GDP
- Progress is some combination of the above
- Progress is “uh not sure, but why does it matter?”
I am sure that there are other definitions that a few people within the movement have, but I would guess that the vast majority of people hold one or more of the above. We really need to narrow it down to which one is the most useful definition of progress.
In my book, I use the following definition:
“Progress is the sustained improvement in the material standard-of-living of a large group of people over a long period of time.“
I go on to state elsewhere:
“Advancement in scientific knowledge, technological innovation and institutional creation are important causes of that progress, but they are not progress itself. If new knowledge or an innovation does not promote humanity’s material standard-of-living, it cannot be called progress…
Progress is closely related to economic growth, but it is not fully expressed by the statistic of per capita GDP. Progress also includes improvements in food, education, energy, health, housing, literacy, water quality, air quality, sanitation, longevity, transportation, peace, security from violence, human rights, communication, and even entertainment. For this reason, I believe that per capita GDP understates the positive effects of progress. But economic growth creates the wealth that finances all the improvements in these other domains.”
I believe that my definition is the one that should be adopted by the Progress Studies Movement because it is both correct and relevant to the vast majority of people on planet Earth. It is correct because people matter more than ideas, and because the vast majority of technological innovation leads to no gains in material standard-of-living. If an innovation remains as a unique prototype or failed product that never diffuses through society, it does not affect standard-of-living. It is only when the innovation delivers tangible benefits to material standard-of-living that it matters.
The definition is relevant because people care deeply about their own and their family’s material standard-of-living. The vast majority of the people do not care much about science or new technologies for their own sake. Scientific breakthroughs or technological innovations might capture attention for a brief period of time, but that is all.
Scientific advancement and technological innovation are not progress. They are a cause, and only two of the many causes, of progress. We should care about both, but not to the exclusion of everything else. If all this movement does is focus on science and technological innovation, the vast majority of people will not see any relevance in their lives. So they will never join.
It is also important to state that changes to per capita GDP is not progress. It is a metric that gives us a high-order understanding of changes of material standard-of-living. Like all measuring devices, though, it has flaws that do not perfectly capture the concept.
Economic growth is much closer to my definition of progress than the others. It is very difficult to achieve progress without economic growth. And most people see the relevance of economic growth to their lives. But as I mentioned earlier, it fails to capture many other improvements in people’s lives that progress creates for material standard-of-living.
Regardless of whether you agree with my definition, we need to come to an agreement on one quickly. It causes too much confusion, when everyone is operating with different definitions on a concept that is so critical to our movement.
We need to give outsiders material benefits for engaging with us
There are a number of writers who have written excellent books about progress, but they do not seem to be affiliated with the movement. I also wrote a book on progress that was released earlier in the year. There is also a much bigger group of people who write in economic history and other related fields.
Right now I do not see any reason why those people should engage with us other than the generosity of their hearts. The situation is even worse for someone like me who have written books but does not have the same social status of say Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Joel Mokyr, Dierdre McCloskey or Johan Norberg.
What goes for these progress writers goes even more for other outside actors. Right now academics, traditional media, social media, think tanks, publishers, political candidates and other actors have no reason to engage with us.
Right now the only people who engage with us are people in social media who are very interested in progress for its own sake and are willing to devote large amount of time to a small community. That is a great way to start, but it cannot grow that way.
Outsiders need to see a dynamic, growing and relevant community full of large numbers of passive supporters. They do not want to waste their time on anything else. Academics, think tanks and writers need to know that engaging with us will give them access to a large group of people. Journalists and social media activists need to know that focusing on us will help their traffic and ratings. Publishers need to know that engaging with us will sell books. Political activists and candidates need to know that engaging with us will get them votes and name recognition.
Right now none of that is happening because no one thinks we matter. And, unfortunately, they are correct.
I have noticed that there is a very limited amount of sharing links to other content within the movement. I understand that everyone wants to shine the spotlight on themselves, but the goal should not be personal advancement. It should be advancing the cause of the movement.
We need to give authors a reason to want to get our attention and confidence that if they write good work in the field of progress, it will spread like a virus through the community. Right now that does not appear to be happening.
We need to cultivate a community of new scholars
This follows on the previous point, but it shifts to writers who are less well known. I do not know the personal situations of other authors, but I have noticed a very different way that I am being treated within the Progress Studies movement compared to how I am being treated by other groups.
When I published my book at the beginning of the year, I got lots of great feedback from very respected professors and writers plus a lot of great blurbs. The support was incredible and inspiring. It felt great to get recognition and feedback from people whose work I really respected.
But then when I contacted the most active members of the Progress Studies movement, it was like hitting a brick wall. No interest. Too busy. Sorry.
If there had been dozens of other books published on the topic of progress in 2021, that attitude would be understandable. But the best of my knowledge Johan Norberg’s “Open” is the only other example printed this year (I have not heard much mention of his book within the movement, either).
Why exactly are these books hardly mentioned in Facebook, Twitter, blogs and social media sites within the Progress movement? That seems odd and very counter-productive.
Of course, I have a self-interest in promoting my book and my blogs, but that is not the point. We all have a bigger group-interest in promoting each other’s work. All real communities share this view. Sometimes it feels like the Progress Studies movement does not.
I feel like the root cause is that more established communities know that by sharing the work of others, commenting on their work, and supporting them, help grow their field. Indirectly, by helping others, they know that they are helping themselves in the long run.
I feel like too many of us view others within the movement as competitors for a very small spotlight. Perhaps I am misreading the situation, but if this is true going forward, the Progress Studies movement will never grow.
So you mean giving them money, right? No. In most cases it does not cost very much money to get started researching, writing and posting. It is dramatically easier than it was 30 years ago. The hard part is getting noticed in a very big internet universe. No one knows that you even exist, and it is hard to get people’s attention.
But the number of people actively contributing content within the Progress Studies movement is tiny: a few dozen at most. In such a small group, it should be incredibly easy to get attention within the group, but that is not how it is now. The reason is that we do not have a healthy ecosystem where content is rapidly shared.
I some ways it is like an entrepreneur starting a business. The vast majority die within a few years, usually due to a lack of revenue flow. That is why incubators and venture capitalists step in with financial support and skills development. They help the entrepreneur bootstrap their way to become self-supporting.
I believe that a healthy ecosystem would be the perfect incubator to help new contributors grow rapidly. When one self-supporting contributor grows, that makes the ecosystem grow more. This will then attract others who considered contributing but thought that it was too hard. And each contributor that breaks through gives more reasons for the general public and outside institutions to join us or engage with us.
We need to focus more on sharing each other’s work internally, commenting on each other’s work publicly and supporting each other. It is not a zero-sum competition. We need to market the group, not the individual. Everyone wins if we cooperate more.
That is how healthy intellectual communities usually work, and I would love to be a part of one that is focused on the concept of progress. Currently it does not feel that way within the movement and comments that I have heard from others suggest that I am not alone in this feeling.
All of us, including me, need to spend more time cultivating a community of contributors and a little bit less time on doing our own work and promoting our own work. Those who have high profiles on social media, in particular, need to do so. In the long-run, they will benefit greatly from doing so.
Doing so will really create a productive division-of-labor within the community. Some people love marketing and engaging with outsiders and, yes, a little self-promotion. Other people would much rather focus on their work and leave the marketing to others. But those contributors want to feel confident that they can trust others in the community to share an ever-enlarging spotlight.
We need an ecosystem where people can specialize and then count on others to do their part. We need more social media. We need more researchers. We need more Content Synthesizers (more on this below). But we need most of all is more cooperation and trust among the various roles within the ecosystem.
All of us win if the movement grows. None of us win if we become a set of individuals competing for a small and shrinking spotlight. Because in the end, no one really cares about us as individuals, but they just might care about progress if they hear a reason to do so. Because we do not have a dynamic ecosystem, most people are not hearing a reason to do so.
I do not think that technological solutions can solve this problem, but here are a few ideas that could help:
We need a “RealclearProgress” page
I use RealClear quite a bit because I can count on at least some relevant content every day. I think that the Progress Studies movement really needs something like it. It could consist of blog posts, book summaries, and Amazon book pages when a new book is first released. It should include contributions from those outside the movement, but it should focus on people who are toiling within the movement. I am not sure if the technology allows it, but a link to key Facebook or Twitter posts would be nice as well.
I doubt that we will generate enough content to publish daily, but a weekly cycle seems reasonable. I think that this could generate a great deal of interest from movement followers, as well as give researchers within the movement the confidence that their work will reach of broad audience without having to devote a great deal of time to self-promotion. That is a real win-win.
I have no idea what technology RealClear uses and if it will solve our needs, but we need something like it. If this page really grows, outsiders might want to write more progress-related web content and publish books on the subject. That helps all of us.
We need a “Best Books Written About Progress” webpage
We also need a static page that lists all the best books on the subject of progress. I started something similar for my online library of book summaries (example here). We could also add a number of other sections where there is related content, such as economic history, public policy, institutions, energy, technology and innovation (more examples here).
At the risk of shameless promotion, I think this page should also have links to the summaries on my library of book summaries so people can get the main points very fast and then make a more informed book purchase decision. New releases could temporarily get a higher profile. If this gets strong traffic, authors and publishers will come to us and it will keep growing.
And the top link should be the Progress Manifesto.
We need to make related content more easily consumable and accessible
Currently, Progress Studies does not seem very intellectually rigorous. Do not get me wrong; we have a lot of very bright people thinking interesting thoughts. And they have obviously read a number of important books. That creates a great deal of interesting topics for blogs, but I think that we need more.
Coming from an academic background, I would like there to be more intellectual depth to the movement. In particular, we need to show that our definitions and assumptions are not just created out of thin air. Fortunately, I think that there are relatively easy solutions for this.
Before the progress movement was created in 2019, there had already been generations of researchers who produced hundreds of books and thousands of articles that is at least somewhat relevant to the concept of progress. Most of them did not specifically mention the term, but I think their ideas were clearly related. Most of this literature is in history, economic history, economics and a few other disciplines.
We need to make this literature far more accessible for the rest of the world. Matt Clancy has done a great job doing so with his blog on technological innovation, pseudoerasmus has also done a great job for economic history. I also have a site with almost 300 summaries on books that are at least somewhat related to progress. What we are doing in common is taking really complex books and articles and distilling them down so interested people can quickly gain the necessary foundational knowledge.
I think this type of work is really important, which is why I have devoted a significant amount of my time to doing so. There is a HUGE number of great books and articles out there that few people have more than a basic awareness of. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people have lives of their own and are not willing to devote the rest of their lives to reading the literature (I know, hard to believe, right?)
So what we have is a very small group of people with highly specialized knowledge in a field, and the rest of the population that is hardly even aware of its existence. This is one of biggest drawbacks of the modern world. We now have so much knowledge that it is like drinking from a firehose for years on end just to catch up. And that usually does not turn out too well.
If someone who is really knowledgeable about a subject related to progress delivers content from this literature in a way that interested readers can absorb it in 1% of the time, that is a huge benefit to the movement and society in general. It shows that the movement is backed by a great deal of evidence, and it gives interested followers a way to become further engaged in the movement. I am not sure what to call those people, but “Content Synthesizers” or “Content Aggregators” or “Content Analyzers” are the best terms that I can think of.
In addition, this type of content makes it far easier for new researchers to ramp up quickly on a wide variety of topics, so they can spend more of their time thinking and writing. Currently, researchers are forced to spend a vast amount of time to keeping up with more and more specialized fields.
This also allows idea from other fields to cross-fertilize. Daniel Epstein, in his book “Range” (summary here) makes the compelling case that breakthrough ideas generally come from completely different fields. In other words, a breakthrough in history might come from an idea that was originally developed in biology. I am a big believer in having at least a basic background knowledge in a wide variety of topics, as it gives you a wider variety of inspirations. Many fields get caught up in discussing the same topic using the same methods, and they miss everything else.
I believe that we need more Content Synthesizers similar to Matt Clancy and pseudoerasmus in the field. Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of thing that people can do in their free time while they are earning money doing something else. We just need to create an ecosystem that encourages them to start doing it, and gets them plenty of traffic from passive supporters.
We need to encourage outside scholars to focus more on the concept of progress
This section is more relevant to the more distant future, but it is something to keep in mind as we design our ecosystem.
I believe that the concept of progress can become a unifying concept. By that I mean that the concept touches on many different fields of research, each of which can make very real contributions to our knowledge of progress. Better yet, because it focuses on material standard-of-living, it is relevant to everyday people.
Even before 2019, there were a few scholars wrote important books that examine the concept of progress. I mentioned their names earlier. But I believe that we can do much more to get other fields interested in the subject. Just a few of the fields that could help us better understand progress are: biology, paleontology, anthropology, sociology, economics, economic history, economic complexity, culture, geography, psychology, brain science, network theory, complexity theory, engineering, urban studies, and philosophy.
Each of these disciplines has a huge amount of knowledge on a subject that progress researchers know little about but who can view the concept in a different way. I would love to get one researcher from each of the these fields who applies the knowledge and methods of their discipline to the field of progress. For example: I would be very interested in understanding the psychological consequences of living in material abundance. Or in understanding what characteristics of networks or urban planning most contribute to advancing progress. The possibilities are endless.
But right now, no one has an incentive to devote years of their career to carving out a new sub-discipline related to their field. Their colleagues would look at them like they are crazy, so they would be risking their careers. And even if they publish a book or article, it would probably be ignored by the progress community.
If we had the dynamic, growing and relevant ecosystem that I describe in this post, they would have strong career benefits to doing so. With a subtle shift in their focus, they could suddenly become relevant to large numbers of people. In a few decades, they might be hailed as the founder of a new sub-discipline with many followers. If we build the ecosystem, this is far more likely to happen. Once we reach a certain level of size and relevance, we can start contacting people to see who might be interested.
We need to develop real policies
Ultimately, people are going to have to believe that we can deliver better solutions to their problems than other groups. The movement needs a few researchers who can develop concrete policies that:
- Roll back governmental and institutional policies that currently constrain progress.
- Spread the benefits of progress to developing nations and the working class and poor in wealthy nations.
Right now I believe that the people within the movement, think of that we need to create new institutions and policies to increase progress. I think that it should do the opposite. I think all the rich nations today already have invented most of best practices that we can imagine. Maybe we can improve on them a bit, but that is not what is going to make the big difference.
What we have to push back on are policies that are intentionally or unintentionally constraining progress. This is coming at the problem from the opposite side. Since government is the initiator of many of these bad policy, we need to be involved in public policy.
As a former professor in Public Policy, I already have some ideas, which I will share at a later date. I am sure that others can come up with other ones. If we as a movement can point to real policies that are popular, non-ideological and effective, we can gain much more credibility within the general public.
We need to broaden our focus beyond the leading edge of technological innovation.
People in the Progress Studies Movement are obsessed with the leading edge of technological innovation. We do so for a very good reason. It matters… a lot.
But we must remember that, though it is the most important factor in creating progress, it not is only one. And leading edge innovation is not the only innovation that matters. I would argue that the continuous improvement and cost reduction of existing products is actually more important than “game changing” innovations on the leading edge. And the diffusion of existing technologies to developing nations and the working class and poor in wealthy nations is also more important.
Part of this gets back to definitions. Many people in the movement cannot make up their mind whether technological innovation is progress or whether it is a cause of progress. Even more of an issue, people in the movement are not thinking about all the other causes of progress.
If we use the example of a rock being dropped into a pond. The leading edge is the ripple that spreads throughout the pond. I would argue that progress also includes all the innovation within the expanding circle. As the circle expands, more and more technologies are being differentiating, and each of those inventions are constantly being improved and costs are being reduced. So the focus of the leading edge misses most of the action.
Also this focus on the leading edge seriously undermines the limits the scope of what contributors can post. Again and again I see posts about amazing innovations that were created this year and that they foresee in the future. These innovation each predict a bright future. But do they? I would argue that the overwhelming majority of them will sputter out with little impact on society.
Worse, the innovations that do actually have a real impact take decades and even generations to fully work their way through society. Innovation is not just invention of the first instance of a technology. It includes the long process of making a viable prototype and then a sellable product. It includes learning the skills necessary to make it, test it, produce it, market it, distribute it, etc. It includes building organizations that combine together all the people who possess those skills. It requires existing organizations to train people, hire new people, change internal processes, and push back on the seller to create necessary modifications to better match their circumstances. For every innovation that actually affects society, it is just the start of a long chain of events that take a very long time to realize. And even then, changes to the original innovation are not done, they need to be adapted to work with more recent innovations.
That is why progress is so complicated. It involves the interaction of so many different forces. If we focus on only part of it, we understate the importance of all the others.
The focus on the leading edge of technological innovation reduces too much of the movement to “clapping for the newest innovation.” I think people notice that and they do not see how that is relevant to their lives, so they do not join.
It also leaves us open to criticism that all we want to do is increase the profit margin of high tech companies and create jobs for more techies like us. We must make it clear that progress is far broader then “high tech.”
We need to broaden beyond the USA and Western Europe
This observation is closely related to the previous ones. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people post data on the United States or maybe some other wealthy nations and ignore the rest of the world.
I get it. Most of us are Americans or Europeans. We care about our society. But there is a big world out there with many potential joiners.
We need to think about how the concept of progress relates to people living in Argentina, Congo, India and other developing nations. A focus on the leading edge may excite a few techies in these nations, but I doubt that it has much influence on the rest of the world.
Development economics has a huge literature. In fairness, much of it is useless to developing nations and some of it is actually harmful. But we need to think more about how the concept of progress relates to the rest of the world. I think the emerging field of economic complexity gives us a real opportunity to expand our impact beyond wealthy Western nations.
I have my thoughts on this topic, but I will share them on another post.
We also need to broaden beyond college-educated professionals.
It is pretty obvious that virtually all of us have some sort of a college degree. We need to remember that this is not true for most people. We need to relate better to the needs of the working class and poor in wealthy nations. We all agree that they matter, but it is easy to lose sight of them. We need to show why progress matters to them and how accelerating progress benefits them.
Right now the dominant paradigm is that these people are the losers of progress, so the government needs to protect them from progress. We need to show why this is not true, not just in the long-term future, but right now.
I am not saying that I expect large numbers of factory workers to join our movement, but we need to better consider their interests. This is particularly true when we move on to develop concrete policy proposals.
I have my thoughts on this topic, but I will share them on another post.
We need to acknowledge and understand the opposition to progress
If you read books and blog posts about progress today, it is easy to come to the conclusion that progress is obvious. It is easy to believe that we just have to get out the real facts and then people will change their mind. Progress is, in fact, obvious, but getting out the facts is not enough.
We need to acknowledge the fact that there are many people who are very hostile to the idea of progress, and they have a great deal of influence throughout society.
Right now it probably does not matter very much because we are so small and not many people are noticing us. But if we follow the recommendations that I have above, I believe that we can grow rapidly as a group. That is great. That is the goal.
But the bigger we grow, the more we will become a target from our opponents. Our opponents are not ignorant of the facts. They know the facts, but they have a strong vested self-interest in denying those facts. Worse, they can be very ugly and aggressive with anyone who tries to pop their bubble.
People in politics, the traditional media, social media and many in positions of power have a very strong vested interest in people not believing in progress. After all, if progress exists, it is working fine and we will all benefit from it in the long-run, then this overturns many people’s interest in transforming society to match their visions.
People are far easily motivated by fear, anger, and resentment than by positive emotions. That is why politics and media have been so relentlessly negative. It is not because things are getting worse; it is because they have a strong self-interest in cultivating negative emotions and they are getting better at it.
Cultivating fear, anger, and resentment has basically become a business model for many institutions in American society. Sorry to be so blunt, but I think that it is true.
A few decades ago this was reasonably contained to partisan politics. Over the last few years, though, this business model has metastasized into many other institutions and society.
I think that we have all felt a change in American society over the last decade and particularly in the last two years. We all have our views on the cause. I have my views, but now is not really the time to share them.
I will say that I have noticed that skepticism or opposition to progress are closely linked to political ideology. I know of no good polling to support my views, but my sense is that that center of the ideological spectrum is largely supportive of the idea of progress and its desirability. Unfortunately, too many of them take that progress for granted and go on with their lives.
The problem is on the Left and Right. My sense is that most of the Left as becoming down-right hostile to progress, while the Right is becoming increasingly skeptical (partly because they see the growth of Left and decline of religion as part of the progress that they fear). The old pro-progress Center-Left and Center-Right that I remember vividly from the 1990s seems to be fading fast. And they are being replaced by hard-liners on both sides who hate progress.
I believe that the Progress Studies movement must acknowledge that these hostile anti-progress views are an existential threat to progress if they are left unchallenged.
This is the trickiest of all the topics that I address in this post. I was once very active in politics and was a professor in Political Science and Public Policy. I also ran for state-level office once. Though it was a big part of my life, I made the decision to drop out of politics because it was becoming toxic, stressful and terribly unproductive. My guess is that many in the movement are also very worried about joining the political arena for the same reasons.
Let me be clear: right now is way too early to get into politics, but my guess is that as we grow, the politics will come to us. And it will come hard. I strongly oppose affiliating with either major party or ideology, but there are other options.
I would like to think that the concept of Progress is a very useful concept for rebuilding the shattered ideological Center of American politics. Progress is a concept that people understand, it is optimistic (in contrast to the negative toxicity that dominates both parties) and it can transfer into some concrete public policies that can really bring benefits to society. Particularly if we conceive of progress as broad-based increases in standard-of-living, I believe that it can become a unifying concept that it once was.
But as I said, it is way too early for that. Right now I think that the best thing the movement can do is get out the message that Progress is still working, and it is the policies of those hostile and skeptical of progress that is causing most of the problems today. We also need to point out that ideologues and media have a strong vested interested in creating negative emotions to further their power and business model. This undercuts their claim to being neutral deliverers of facts.
In order words, the problem is not progress, but those who are either intentionally or unintentionally are trying to roll it back.
We need to be careful of being perceived as an AstroTurf movement
For those who do not know, an AstroTurf movement is a political movement that looks like it comes from the grassroots, but it is actually funded by a few rich donors or interest groups. Funny word play, huh?
The concept is obviously pretty snarky and I am not sure that enduring AstroTurf movements actually exist, but as we grow stronger, I guarantee that we will be accused of it. We need to make sure that the charge cannot stick before the charge is ever made.
Currently at least one organization within the movement is receiving a substantial amount of money from a few wealthy donors. I have no problem with this. I think “seed money” is important for getting new institutions going and venture capitalists play a very important role. Particularly, if this money is allocated to create the ecosystem that I advocate, then it could really transform the movement.
It will be easy, however, for opponents who want to avoid engaging with our ideas to spin this as a conspiracy. For now, we cannot do much about it other than error towards transparency, legality and honesty. If we do not do anything that we do not want to see on the front page of the New York Times, then we have nothing to worry about… hopefully.
Anyway, I know that this was a very long post. You are a brave soul to have read this far. I am sure that other people within the movement will have a number of other great ideas. Some of them will likely be better than what I have proposed. We just have to start creating that conversation, which is something that we have not done until now.
If you have a social media account I would encourage to respond to this post and share your own ideas on the topic.
I still very much believe that a strong, growing and vibrant Progress Studies Movement is possible, but we need to make far more progress in 2022 than we did in all the previous four years combined. I am optimistic that we can do so, but we have to start now.
Let’s make it a New Year’s Resolution for 2022!