It’s easy to assume that things naturally improve. After all, in our lifetimes technology has advanced, life expectancies have risen, and standards of living have improved. Yet in historical terms, progress is a relatively new phenomenon, only invented a few centuries ago. And the danger is that if we take the idea of progress for granted, we might slow or even reverse the rate of progress. That would be a disaster given that we have an obligation to leave a society to future generations that is in better shape than we received it. Technologist Jason Crawford joins the show to talk about the ethical obligation to pursue progress.
What are the different types of progress? What is the history of progress? Is progress uniform? What progress have we made that is universally good? Is there an ethical imperative to pursue progress? What is sustainable progress?
The Roots of Progress, blog by Jason Crawford
The History of Steel & the Roots of Progress, The Roots of Progress website
Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, Free Thoughts Podcast
Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, Free Thoughts Podcast
The Reality of Moral Progress, written by David Boaz
0:00:04 Paul Matzko: Welcome to Building Tomorrow, where the future is free. I’m your host Paul Matzko, and I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of progress. And when I say that word today in 21st century America, it’s not a particularly remarkable thing to say. We take progress for granted. We just kind of assume that things have gotten better during our lifetimes and will continue to get better in the future. Our electronics will get faster and cheaper. Our standard of living will grow higher and the improvements to our society over the past few hundred years, from the rise of modern liberal democracy and markets to the attenuation of racism, antisemitism and misogyny, all that will just continue. But that’s just an assumption. It’s an act of faith. Yes, we’ve progressed significantly across many dimensions in the modern era, but progress is never guaranteed, it’s fought for, it’s contingent, it’s incremental. Indeed, the idea of progress itself had to be invented before we could actually progress.
0:01:06 Paul Matzko: Put yourself in the shoes of your great-great 20 times great grandparent, who was a medieval peasant. I know everyone likes to imagine that your ancestors were royalty but the odds are that your median ancestor was a pig farmer or some such. But take a second and think about what progress would’ve meant to your distant ancestors, if you could jump in a time travel machine and say, “What does progress mean to you, grandpappy?” Nothing, it would’ve meant nothing. They would’ve wrinkled up their eyes and wondered if you were daft.
0:01:34 Paul Matzko: The idea that things will just get better over time by some ineluctable law of society would’ve been utterly alien to someone conditioned to think in terms of the harvest cycle, who marked the passage of time by which years had good harvests and which ones were lean, you know when they’re gonna starve. Who never traveled more than a few miles from their birthplace. Perhaps if they lived near one of the larger towns they might be able to comprehend progress by tracking the construction of the cathedral, but it was started generations before their birth and would be completed long after they were dead.
0:02:10 Paul Matzko: But during the Enlightenment, philosophers invented the idea of progress. I don’t have time to dig into this fascinating story, but it was an act of creation, a drawing forth of a thing that barely existed through imagination and willpower. Life could get better, if only because we were determined to make it so. But if the idea of progress had to predate the fact of progress, if you will, then that should also be a cause for concern. It means that we might be able to dis-invent progress, to shed the belief in social, technological and scientific advancement that has propelled modernity.
0:02:47 Paul Matzko: It is dangerous to take progress for granted. Now, thankfully, there are people who are pushing back against our lackadaisical attitudes towards progress. So Aaron Powell and I asked one of them, Jason Crawford, to join our show. Jason is the author of the website The Roots of Progress, he’s a former software developer and a start-up founder. Welcome to the show, Jason.
0:03:08 Jason Crawford: Yeah, thanks a lot for having me.
0:03:10 Paul Matzko: Okay, so, “Progress.” What is progress? How do you define that concept?
0:03:18 Jason Crawford: Progress is anything that helps us live our lives better. So, in technology and industry, progress means economic progress. More wealth, more income, more savings, more technology, more industrial capacity, more ability to control our world. In science, progress means more knowledge, more data, more theories, more understanding of the world and ability to know what’s going on around us and predict it. And in society, progress means better government, more peace, more freedom, more human rights, civil rights, individual rights, economic rights, and universal rights for everyone equally. So that’s what I mean by progress. I judge it by a humanistic standard. Life happiness, thriving and flourishing.
0:04:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Does progress though have… The term, we typically think of it as almost having a direction. Progress means moving forward, but by your definition, it’s anything that helps us lead our lives better. Progress could move backwards too? Like, we took a wrong turn, maybe we’re all on social media and things got really bad and progress would be going back to the way things were?
0:04:34 Jason Crawford: Possible. I think if you look at the history of progress, literally just rolling things back or kind of undoing steps is rarely how we fix problems. So let me say, first off, progress is not automatic or inevitable, right? There’s no law of nature that says that it must happen at all or that things must go in a positive direction. For various reasons we can slow, we can stagnate, we can even regress. We can lose the things that we’ve made. And even when we’re trying to move forward, progress is messy. Progress is not a simple linear thing where we always know what to do next and every step is positive and every step is forward and we never make mistakes and we… No, it doesn’t work that way at all. Progress entails risk. Progress entails setbacks, progress entails mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes are harmful or destructive. But if you look at the history of… What usually happens when we make… When we mess up somehow. Usually what happens is we don’t go backwards, we actually go forwards. We don’t remove things that we… We don’t undo things we add things. So for instance, automobiles, right? Automobiles were invented, they were a boon to humanity but they also entailed new safety risks.
0:05:50 Jason Crawford: We didn’t roll back the automobile, literally or figuratively., We didn’t undo it or stop automobiles, we added safety features. We added seat belts, we added all kinds of… Not to mention we added traffic regulations, we added all kinds of ways to make driving safer. X-rays are another example that I tend to use. So, we discovered x-rays, we discovered that they had medical applications, then we discovered that they were killing people if you overexposed people to x-rays. Well, we didn’t stop using x-rays. We developed safety standards for them. We minimized the use of them now to medical necessity, we put shielding in front of the parts of the body that don’t need to be x-rayed and so forth. So it’s pretty rare… If you think about what are the things that we literally just sort of hit the undo button on. Well, okay, there was a time when we thought putting cocaine in soda was a good idea. We rolled that back, right? Occasionally, we just say, “Whoops, yeah, let’s not do that, let’s undo… ” But that’s rare. Usually even the mistakes of progress we fix by moving forward with new mechanisms, rather than by simply rolling back.
0:07:02 Aaron Ross Powell: What about the uniformity of progress? And this maybe applies more to progress in institutional changes and social changes, but I could see it playing out in technology and science as well, that what makes my life go better isn’t necessarily what you think makes your life go better. And so what I might call progress you think is actually regression, or are we only talking about things that we kind of uniformly agree are steps in the right direction?
0:07:30 Jason Crawford: Yeah, certainly not everybody agrees on progress. Any given step… I mean, virtually every step in the progression of mankind has been questioned, fought, opposed, denounced, so we never just agree on it. Even in the middle of the 19th century, when society as a whole was very gung-ho on progress, at least European society, and everybody was super optimistic compared to now, even then there was a backlash. There was this sort of romantic counter movement where people felt that all of this technology and all the factories and machines and everything were just taking us away from nature, taking us away from family, taking us away from kind of all that is good and peaceful and beautiful. And so, even then not everybody saw it as good. And of course, not every change will benefit everyone equally, right? Some changes are… Every change is gonna be sort of good for some people, maybe neutral for some people, there’s a few things that are probably pretty universally good. When we started filtering and chlorinating water to purify it and get bacteria out and stop making everybody sick, that was probably pretty universally good. Even that I’m sure was opposed and fought. There were some people who had at least thought it wasn’t worth doing and didn’t see the value and thought it was just a big waste of time and effort. But I think that did actually clearly benefit everybody.
0:09:13 Jason Crawford: But on the whole, when you add up… So at a micro level, when you look at any particular year or any particular innovation, it’s not gonna be even, it’s gonna be lumpy, it’s gonna be bursty on a time frame, but when you zoom out and you look at the broad sweep of decades and centuries and you look across all of society and all of the economy, then I think at that level progress is not completely smooth or universal, but much closer to that. At the high level, really pretty much everybody benefits and the progression is pretty strongly upwards, or it has been over the last few centuries.
0:09:57 Paul Matzko: So, there’s some kind of inherent ambiguity in… Because people aren’t always going to agree about what progress looks like across all domains or what counts. But let’s stipulate this, I think most people get that things are… Life is better now, across the variety of fields today than it was a few hundred years ago. It’s hard to find someone who wouldn’t agree with that. So let’s kind of stipulate progress. You make the argument with your website that there is an ethical imperative to pursue progress. Can you flush that out for us?
0:10:29 Jason Crawford: Yeah, I just think if your moral standard is what betters human life, what allows us to live longer, healthier, happier lives, to do more of what we want to do in life, to be more connected to our loved ones, to be… To pursue the careers that we want, to be healthy throughout as much of our lives as possible, etcetera, by that standard, scientific, technological and economic progress over the last few hundred years has done so much good for so many people that it’s got to be regarded as simply the greatest story ever, the greatest gift ever, to mankind and to our generation, is all this scientific and technological and industrial world that we have built since over the last few hundred years. And to take that away from people would be if we were to somehow be knocked back to the economy and the world of the 1600s or 1700s. The suffering would be so immense that it would have to be regarded as just the worst form of torture that you could put on humanity. So I think when you look at it that way, it is a moral imperative to keep this going, if at all possible, right? If in 100 or 200 years from now our descendants can be as well off compared to us today as we are compared to our ancestors from 100 or 200 years ago, then it’s absolutely a moral imperative to keep that going and to give them that gift and to not take it away.
0:12:14 Aaron Ross Powell: It seems like an argument against that, and one that’s particularly common among, say, environmentalists, is that “Yes that’s great, and it’s great that we have this economic growth, but at what cost? That we may have… If we can move things in the right direction we ought to do it, but we don’t have the benefit of hindsight to know that the individual choices that we’re making are in fact the right direction”. And so if we, say, use up all of the resources then the economic growth we have today comes at the cost of pretty poor living conditions, if they’re living at all, for people 200 years from now, and this turns into why a lot of them argue, “Well what we need to do right now if we really want to make things better in the future or at least sustain what we’ve got is to, say, scale back our use of natural resources and emissions and whatever else to like 1850’s level,” that that’s the only sustainable thing. So how does that notion of sustainability fit in with progress? Given that we can’t have perfect insight into the future and what our actions will actually look like when they’re fully played out.
0:12:51 Jason Crawford: Yeah, of course. Well, I mean, first off, we can only go on the best knowledge that we have and the best predictions that we can make. By definition, there’s nothing else. I have a different concept of sustainability and I think it’s important to differentiate between a couple of different concepts of sustainability. So first off, I absolutely think that we should think and act long-term. Right? I do not advocate simply living it up and having a short-term party in this generation while we kind of whittle away or fritter away all of our resources and then leave nothing to future generations. That’s not… I would not consider that progress. Progress is or should be, sustainable progress. But note that I said, “Sustainable progress.” I think that what is important to sustain is that upwards curve. When we talk about sustainability, we have to ask ourselves what exactly is it that we want to sustain? Now, typically, these days when people talk about sustainability, they’re talking about the sustainability of a particular concrete industrial process or resource, such as… So, burning of fossil fuels is not sustainable because there’s a finite amount of them, an enormous amount by the way, but a finite amount, and so we’re using them up and so we can’t continue that forever.
0:14:50 Jason Crawford: You know, whereas something that depends on solar power, well even that is gonna run out but I guess it’s so many hundreds of millions or billions of years in the future that it’s effectively sort of infinitely in the future and therefore much more quote-unquote sustainable. But what I think matters is not the sustainability of any particular specific industrial process or resource or technology, but rather the sustainability of growth. And part of the way that humanity has sustained growth historically is actually by switching technologies when we run out of particular resources. So if you look at the 19th century, a lot of what we depended on, the resources we depended on in the 19th century were sort of various types of biomaterials. So there was a lot of plant and animal usage, there was a lot of… We used natural fertilizer to grow our crops, we relied on animals for all kinds of bone and shell and hair and horn, ivory tusks and tortoiseshell combs and so forth.
0:16:01 Jason Crawford: We relied on plants for things like rubber or Gutta-percha, which was an alternate sort of essentially form of a rubber-like substance. And what we found was that in the 19th century, as industrial production ramped up, as population grew, as we wanted to make more and more things, as people got wealthier and wanted more material goods, there just wasn’t enough of this stuff to go around. There weren’t enough elephants to make all of the billiard balls that we wanted, there weren’t enough tortoises to make all of the combs, there wasn’t enough rubber and Gutta-percha to make insulation for all the electrical wires that we were stringing all over the place. And so, in the 19th century… Oh, and there definitely wasn’t enough fertilizer to feed everybody. So what happened was, we made a shift in all of these cases to much more abundant mineral resources, especially oil. So oil became our new lighting, instead of the sperm whales. Oil became the basis for plastics, which replaced a lot of animal products such as bone, shell, and horn. Plastics also replaced, in many cases, rubber and Gutta-percha so… Oh, and of course the Haber-Bosch process gave us synthetic ammonia, which is the precursor of synthetic fertilizers, so now we could make fertilizer literally from air and water through an industrial chemical process.
0:17:31 Jason Crawford: So that was how we sustained growth, by switching away from these biosources, which actually may today be considered quote-unquote sustainable because they’re biological, but they were not gonna sustain the economic growth rates and the improvements in the standard of living that we wanted to sustain. Now, today we’re using these mineral resources, especially oil. And we have decades, if not centuries, of oil, left, by the estimates that I’ve seen. But however much time it is, sure it’s finite, all that means is that we need to keep moving forward, develop technologies and find better and new and even more abundant resources and processes that can sustain the next level of growth. Nuclear power, for instance, is extremely fuel-efficient. An extremely tiny amount of nuclear fuel gives you an enormous amount of energy compared to any other fuel source, pound for pound. So what we need to be doing is sustaining growth, not specific processes, by switching to these more abundant and these new resources and technologies that allow another order of magnitude or multiple orders of magnitude of growth.
0:18:54 Jason Crawford: And this is directly opposed to sort of some people’s notion of sustainability which literally advocates de-growth. And the de-growth movement, I think, is one of the most pernicious and one of the things that worries me the most about the modern world, is that people are seriously advocating de-growth as a solution. I think if you care about human life, de-growth at best is admitting defeat. It’s saying, “Well, we wanted to keep moving forward with industrial progress, we wanted to keep improving wealth, we wanted to keep improving standard of living, we wanted to keep lifting people out of poverty, we wanted to keep moving the world forward, but we failed. We couldn’t figure out how to do it, we ran out of resources, and so we just had to fall back to a previous level of poverty, honestly.” And I hope we don’t do that.
0:19:39 Paul Matzko: What’s your… So let’s say someone brought the counterargument and said, “Look, you might think of progress as a thing that applies to everything from economic growth to societal progress and the like, but what you’re really concerned about is GDP, economic growth, technological innovation, it’s material. It’s progress in a material sense. But there are more important things that we should measure than material prosperity, and those are things that don’t really fit very well into your system.” What would your response be to that critique?
0:20:21 Jason Crawford: It’s true that material progress is not the only form of progress, and it’s not the only form we should pay attention to or care about. At the beginning of this conversation, I outlined three broad areas of progress that I think about, and technology and economic progress is only one of the three, the other two being science and society, or government. And yeah, I absolutely think we should be looking at progress in all of those, and I think over the last few hundred years there has been progress in all of those, although I admit in society and government it’s the hardest to see and the most difficult case to make that they’re… And certainly, the place where I would say there has been the least consistent progress and it’s been the messiest and there’s been the most regress along with progress. So, I think that’s difficult. But I think that over a long enough time frame we can see progress in all those areas and I think, going forward, we can make progress in all those areas.
0:21:23 Jason Crawford: I would say also that all of them are really intertwined. And I think they all, over a long enough time frame, advance or regress together. And we can talk about some of those connections but I just wanna point out that when people say, “Oh… ” even material progress itself gives us all sorts of spiritual benefits. Think of how much of an emotional and spiritual benefit you get from the ability to see the faces and hear the voices of your loved ones, no matter where they are in the world, right? And compare to in 1800 if your spouse or children or dearest friend decided they wanted to take a trip across the Atlantic between Europe and America, let’s say, first off, they’d be on the ocean for months, incommunicado. Then, even when they were on land, to talk to them you had to literally send a letter back and forth.
0:22:26 Jason Crawford: If they fell ill you might not hear about it until they were long dead, right? And so just the connection that we’ve got. Think about the fact that today virtually anyone in the world has access to some form of virtually all of the art that has ever been created, the ability to explore… Whether that’s a visual art, of which you can find pictures of, at least online, whether that’s music, you can wake up in the middle of the night and decide that you want to hear your favorite piece of music performed by the greatest artist who ever performed it, living or dead, the greatest recording of it they ever did, no matter how spontaneous or wonderful that was, it’s been recorded and you can just pick up Spotify or your iPhone and plug in your headphones and hear it on demand any time.
0:23:16 Jason Crawford: Knowledge, the expansion of our ability to access knowledge through the internet, through Google, through Wikipedia. My ability to get an enormous library of books on demand through e-books, through my Kindle reader, I can… The promise of Kindle, think of a book and you get it in 60 seconds. So, I think that material progress opens up… Not to mention the time, by the way, if you’re familiar with the late great Hans Rosling and his Gapminder project, he’s got this great talk about the washing machine and how the washing machine saved time and labor that you would be spending washing clothes, what can you do with that time? Well, his family would go to the library and get books. So he says, “It’s as if we had a machine where I can put clothes into the machine and books come out.” And I think that is a marvelous illustration of how material technologies can give us the ability to focus on the spiritual and intellectual values.
0:24:16 Paul Matzko: Hmm. Now, I’m going to assume that you weren’t born obsessed with the hockey stick chart of GDP growth. So when did your own appreciation for the importance of progress develop?
0:24:28 Jason Crawford: Yeah, I got interested in this project and began this project about three years ago, and it happened because, for a number of reasons, but I would say the biggest and central was that I decided I wanted to re-examine the foundations of my world view and my political philosophy. I grew up with a pretty laissez-faire free market, individual rights approach, very much inspired by Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism, and just kind of that general milieu. And I have spent much of my life talking to many people about philosophy and politics, from a variety of backgrounds, and what I realized was that people’s views of politics depend a lot on what problems in the world they think are important and most pressing. People don’t just disagree in politics on how to solve problems, they disagree on which problems matter, right? So think of, for instance, a sort of left-wing environmentalist who’s very focused on global warming, climate change versus, say, a right-wing deficit hawk who’s very focused on the national debt, versus a social justice activist who’s very focused on racial inequality, you know, all three of these people, if you get them in a room together, they’re just gonna be talking past each other for the most part because they don’t even… Each one is focused on their own problem and sees the other one’s problems as perhaps overblown, overhyped, overrated, “But this! My thing! My thing is the thing that’s gonna kill us all.” Right?
0:26:05 Jason Crawford: And so I asked myself, “Well, where does my own worldview come from? What’s the ultimate justification of it and what’s the justification for caring about the problems that I care about, like long-term innovation, economic growth, the vigor of humanity’s push forward into more knowledge and more technology?” And I realized that it was ultimately rooted in this keen appreciation for the story of human progress. How far we’ve come, how much of a struggle it was to get here, how much of an achievement it is, how much of a gift it is that we have all received from our ancestors and how much we ought to appreciate that and how much it’s really under-appreciated and taken for granted in the culture today, I think. So I said to myself, “If this is the foundation of my worldview, I better go research it, understand it, see if it actually supports the ideas that I think it does, and really get to know it on a deeper level,” and that’s how I began.
0:26:19 Paul Matzko: Now, you’ve worked as an engineer for a number of tech companies, including Amazon, Groupon and you’ve described what inspires you in that work and in the work you do now. How ordinary is that? What role do abstractions like a belief in progress play in motivating the folks like you who work in tech?
0:27:20 Jason Crawford: The tech community is a pretty broad community of fairly independent thinkers. And there’s no one mentality that pervades everyone. I think some people are a lot more focused on… Are motivated by and resonate with this concept of human progress. Some are more in the social justice camp and everything… And there’s really everything in between. I do think, certainly, in my own career as a… Especially as a start-up founder and being involved in some early-stage start-ups, this notion of human progress was at least in the background, and this is another reason I decided to study it, was because being a start-up founder is a difficult job, and I would sometimes look in the mirror and say, “Why am I doing this? Why did I choose the hardest path?” Maybe not the absolute hardest, “But why didn’t I choose… ” You know, I could be making a lot more money and have a lot more stress if I just went and worked at one of the big tech companies, Google or Facebook or something. “Why don’t I just do that? Why don’t I take the easier, more comfortable path?”
0:28:31 Jason Crawford: And there are a variety of reasons, part of it is just my personality, but part of it is, again, this keen appreciation of how much I owe to those who came before me, over centuries and millennia, who took the hard path, who did something that no one had ever done before, who had some form of innovation to give to all of… Everyone who came after them, and I just feel deep in my soul that if there’s any chance that I have to, in some small way, do something similar and contribute something new to the future of humanity then I’ve got a responsibility to at least try to pay it forward. And that’s a deep thing that motivated me and another reason that I wanted to go learn the story.
0:29:17 Aaron Ross Powell: Something you said made me think of this tension that we sometimes see, especially among younger Americans. You mentioned kind of the wide range of ideological views in the Valley, and that some are as pro-progress as you and some are less and some might even be the kind of anti-growth mindset. And when we look at polls of millennials or younger… On the one hand, we see things like support for socialism, support for climate change action that would lead to de-growth, to stuff that’s the like, “Slow it down, less dynamism, we need to make sure that everything is more steady,” but on the other hand, there is an exuberance for the new, in terms of embracing the latest app. Like, I’m now… I used to think that I was hip and with it but I’m now old enough that I’m constantly surprised at like there’s some big thing that all the young people are into that I have never heard of before. It…
0:30:16 Jason Crawford: What? You’re not on TikTok?
0:30:19 Aaron Ross Powell: I am not on TikTok. TikTok came around, I think, right at the point when I stopped being aware of the latest social media stuff. And so they run for that and so many of them want to be founders of companies and make new things, and the Valley is full of that sort of dynamism. Is that a genuine tension or is there some way to kind of put those together that makes sense?
0:30:48 Jason Crawford: I think part of it is just a natural human inability to achieve perspective. You know, when people are evaluating a concrete change that it’s right in front of their face and is affecting their life one way or another, most people don’t apply the same standards that they use to think abstractly about big picture issues. That’s just, to my mind, a kind of universal human… Or a human tendency that has always been around. There are a very few people who I would say truly take ideas seriously wherein they really think hard about, “What does this abstraction mean, what does this idea mean, what does this philosophy mean, how should it be applied in practice?” And then kind of consciously and deliberately apply it to every area of their life. People who operate like that are a small minority.
0:31:45 Jason Crawford: Most people will adopt some sort of philosophy or ideology not purely on intellectual grounds, partly on emotional grounds, partly on tribal grounds, a very kind of social, very much maybe just the tradition they were born into or raised in or kind of how they were influenced by their friends and family. And then they’ll adopt that, but then, again, when it comes to something that’s sort of like concretely right in front of their face, they’ll just evaluate it on its own terms in a very concrete way. And I think that’s what’s going on here. People pick up a certain ideology of de-growth, of maybe sort of romantic green-ism, where they’re just picking up this kind of anti-technology, anti-progress type of view and then that’s what they… When they choose what political rally or march to go to and what signs to hold up or how to vote in an online poll, that’s kind of what’s driving them. But then when you put an app in front of their face or an iPhone in their hand… Right? I mean, it’s the irony of all of these activists at every rally where they’re decrying big oil, and then you look in… Looks like every single thing they’re wearing or holding in their hand is basically made of oil, right? And they don’t even know it, because they don’t know that plastics and synthetics come from oil, because they’re not educated in these things. So it’s that kind of paradox.
0:33:18 Paul Matzko: What do you… I mean, so we’re kind of touching on the kind of tech backlash, “Tech-lash,” if we wanna be real clever, the… This kind of neo-Luddite movement. Are there any particular sources, I mean, you’re rooting this in human nature or a kind of natural tendency to privilege the concrete and the immediate over abstractions. But in this particular moment, it seems like we are… I mean, there’s something historical about this moment. Like, it’s not just an ahistorical human nature tendency that… That is that as well but like, skepticism towards tech is peaking or is rising… Peaking, I don’t know. To be optimistic we’ll say peaking, in the 2010s in the way that it was not in… 20 years ago, in the 90s. So, what are the particular sources do you think of our neo-Luddite movement?
0:34:15 Jason Crawford: I think you’re right about the tech-lash. I don’t know if it’s a neo-Luddite exactly, I think it is more… My basic diagnosis is that it is the typical tendency to… And I don’t know if this is a distinctly… I think there’s something about this that’s kind of an American tendency, but maybe it’s a more general human tendency, to root for the underdog and then to turn against them or to become wary, suspicious and sometimes outright hostile when the underdog becomes the champion, right? So the thing about tech now that I think is obvious and clear to everyone that was not the case maybe 10-15 years ago, is that tech now clearly has won and has a lot of power and influence. The top, what, four or five companies of… By market cap, are all big sort of tech giants. We got the first few trillion-dollar companies, right, were all tech giants. Facebook I think, if not already then soon, has more active users than the Catholic church has members, and way more than any country has citizens. Right, there are over two billion now, Facebook is, I’m pretty sure.
0:35:28 Jason Crawford: So and then we’re starting to see… So not only this but software and computer companies in their various forms are now sort of taking over in a way every industry. So a lot of the software companies that now… And this was… So this was not true a generation ago, but a lot of the software companies now are not pure software companies. There are companies that are actually sort of entering a non-software industry, such as Uber and Lyft have done in transportation, or in a way Amazon did ahead of its time in retail, or in a sense, all the social media companies are, “Media companies.” And so, all these companies are sort… You know, it was one thing when you had Microsoft as the tech giant, and Microsoft was just making software that ran on computers and it didn’t seem to be invading and taking over some industry, but now we’ve got these tech giants and they’re coming and they’re sort of disrupting every industry. It’s the old Marc Andreessen line about, “Software is eating the world,” that was probably the most prescient, you know, one of the most… One of the best predictions of the 2010s.
0:36:42 Jason Crawford: And so, I think that’s what’s happening. People are seeing this and any time that some person, company or industry rises to that level of influence, I won’t say power ‘cause that’s a loaded word, but let’s just say “Influence,” and especially if they do so rapidly, or if it seems to come on people very much out of nowhere, I think there’s this tendency to view that with suspicion. Right? I mean, in a sense it’s no different than at the end of the 19th century when there were… When you had the rise of big corporations and the huge railroads and huge financial companies, JP Morgan and all those folks, back then as well people viewed that with suspicion and felt that there was this, for whatever reason and with or without justification, they saw it as this concentration of power that was pernicious and felt that needed to be slapped down. And this is a recurring theme certainly in American history and maybe broader than that.
0:37:41 Paul Matzko: So it’s not about tech per se, but about kind of social institutional construction in the shape of society. That makes sense. Now, you’re someone who has a foot in kind of two technological worlds. In a sense, you’re part of software eating the world. I mean you’re… As a program/developer in the Valley. But you also are interested now, a lot of your articles on your website are about like iron extraction and smelting and physical technology, as opposed to digital technology. As someone who is… But yet, today we’re in a place where a lot of people when they hear “Tech,” in fact, even how we’ve been using it in this conversation, tech means Silicon Valley, means software, to the modern mind. We think of software as technology and there’s a lot of development and progress in that regard. Why do you think we’ve come to the point where tech and digital innovation have become so nearly synonymous? And why do we not see equivalent progress… Why does it feel like the pre-digital era is when we made physical technological progress and now we’re in a digital era where most progress is digital?
0:38:54 Jason Crawford: Yeah, great question. That is like an open question of debate, discussion, and research. It’s true… So first off, technology in its broadest sense, of course, doesn’t just mean computers and the Internet. And in the 1830s the highest tech and most exciting place to be was in railroads and locomotives, and maybe in the end of the century it was electricity, and so in my work… So, I did spend most of my career in the tech industry. I have made a shift now and I’m working full-time on what is now termed Progress Studies, researching the history of technology and writing about it on my blog. And so, with that focus, since I’m focused on human progress as such, I’ve been looking broadly across the board at everything from steel and cement to electricity to medicine, antibiotics, vaccines, sanitation, to the history of the bicycle. And I’ve covered all those on my blog.
0:39:27 Jason Crawford: As for what’s going on now, it’s true that the most of the innovation it feels like in the last 50 years or so has really… Like, the really huge leaps have been in information technology. In computers, in the Internet, and in the convergence of all of our electronic devices and electronic… All of our forms of communication and recording and processing information, convergence into digital and the computer at the core.
0:40:28 Jason Crawford: So there’s sort of two ways to look at that. I would say one way is in a certain sense, this is natural. All areas of technology go through these kind of S-curves where they start off slow as people are just figuring them out, then they reach a kind of inflection point, they start accelerating really fast as they go through this exponential growth. And then, you know, at a certain point, they have kind of… They start nearing the limits of the applications that they can have. The world gets saturated with this technology, it starts to mature and it starts to level off and plateau. And so you get what’s called an S-curve. Now, all technologies go through this. It’s pretty natural. What… People have been… So, there is this hypothesis now about, “Are we in the middle of something of a stagnation, has progress actually slowed down?” I don’t have a strong opinion on that question, although I’ve seen some evidence that indicates that. So when you step back and look at it from these S-curves, I think what you might say is that we’ve been going through this tech… I almost just use the word technology again in the narrow sense. We’ve been going through this sort of computer software and internet S-curve.
0:41:46 Jason Crawford: It is maybe starting to… The growth of that is maybe starting to slow down, because it’s, in a natural way, because it’s kind of starting to mature and we’re seeing the beginnings of the plateau. But what hasn’t happened, what’s been the case in the past, there’s been multiple S-curves going on at once, and they’re overlapping. So, oil and electricity, for instance, were sort of going on at the same time, like two very different forms of energy technology that actually worked together. And then coming right on the heels of that was the automobile, the internal combustion engine, the automobile, mass manufacturing was getting figured out at that point, and then right after that we had plastics and we had antibiotics, and so there were kind of all these different things across a variety of areas that… All these overlapping S-curves that were going on at once. And so if one was starting to plateau perhaps, others were still going strong. One hypothesis is, okay, it looks like now maybe we’re starting to hit the plateau of computer technology, what’s the new S-curve to replace it and keep growth going? And maybe there isn’t one, and maybe that’s the problem.
0:42:55 Jason Crawford: Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one on the near horizon. “Near,” in sort of a grand historical context, I’m very optimistic about the future of Biotech. I think there’s a revolution there waiting to be happened. But that might still be a couple of decades out. And so maybe there’s a gap in between the S-curves. Now, how did that happen, how did the world get into that position? I don’t know, I think that’s a really interesting theme of future research.
0:43:21 Paul Matzko: Hmm. Very interesting. I’m thinking here that people who favor progress, and I’d include us at Building Tomorrow with you on that, we confront the issue, which is that we are always inclined to take for granted past progress, that progress recedes into the assumed background if you will. That once we have a thing, it’s marvelous and new and magical for a brief moment and then it becomes mundane and ordinary. We forget the story of struggle and growth and progress that informed… I was thinking of this, I watched whatever the movie about… The Current War, current wars, about Nikola Tesla and Edison and…
0:44:07 Jason Crawford: Yep. And Westinghouse.
0:44:09 Paul Matzko: And Westinghouse, who I suppose is kind of the real hero of the story. And they clearly thought of it as magic. I mean not… They were scientists, but I mean people were like, “Wow, this transforms our lives,” and it was an everyday marvel. And how quickly… How different that is from our attitude about electricity. And that across basically every innovation, every example I can think of, of growth, how quickly we lose our wonder and awe at growth and progress. How do we mitigate that, as people who favor growth and progress?
0:44:51 Jason Crawford: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. There was a great quote and I’m trying to remember, I think it was from Douglas Adams, something along the lines of… Just getting it from memory, it was something like, “Any technology that comes along before you’re aged 15 or so, is just part of the natural order of things. Any technology that comes along between the age of 15 and 35 for you is really cool and new and exciting and you could probably make a career in it. And anything that comes along after age 35, is an abomination that’s against the natural order.”
0:45:29 Paul Matzko: Like TikTok for Aaron.
0:45:29 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes.
0:45:30 Jason Crawford: Yeah, right, exactly. So, I think that it’s humorous, but there’s a grain of truth in that. And you’re absolutely right that we take progress for granted, we forget even progress that happened within our own lives. We forget what it was like before, and we just very quickly get used to it. And I think that that’s part of one of the things that I’m trying to counter, and the way I’m trying to counter it is just by telling the story. I think part of the problem is the stories are not out there, they’re not taught.
0:46:00 Jason Crawford: I think this is a whole missing subject in education, in both K-12 and university education, students don’t learn this stuff, you know? It kind of falls between the cracks of history and science classes. There’s no progress class, there’s no history of technology, it’s, you know, that stuff is… If it’s touched on, it’s very little. And so, people just don’t… Kids just don’t learn what life was like. And so… You made a statement earlier in this conversation where you said that “Oh, few people would disagree that we’ve had an enormous amount of progress the last few hundred years.” That’s not actually true. Many people are unaware of nearly how much progress has happened. They have a false view of the past as this sort of halcyon, lost, idyllic days, some Garden of Eden that we fell from. And people also as, again, as Hans Rosling found out, have a simply factually mistaken view of the current state of the world. If you ask people about poverty, for example, “What do you think has happened… How has extreme poverty changed around the world in the recent decades?” A lot of people will think that it’s actually increased, when the actual answer, the simple fact, the measurable fact, is that it’s decreased enormously. So.
0:47:22 Jason Crawford: We need to teach people this, and it’s not taught in schools, and even an interested layman I think has a hard time, like these stories are not very accessible. I go out to research these things, and a lot of the books are dry, they’re disorganized, they’re dense. You have to wade through a lot of stuff to kind of get the real story or to find the gems. And so part of what I’m trying to do is to take these books that only a history buff could love or research papers where stuff is kind of maybe accessible only to expert researchers in the field, and I’m trying to take that and synthesize it, summarize it, condense it and tell the essential story in an engaging way, accessible for a broader audience so that more people can learn these stories. And they are fascinating stories, like when you get into it. This is just amazing, really cool stuff that deserves people’s attention and I think can be really fun and engaging stories, if it’s told the right way.
0:48:24 Paul Matzko: Now, we don’t have time for the hour and a half level of explanation of the history of iron extraction and smelting, which is utterly fascinating, we’ll have to put a link to an example of one of your full talks in the show notes, but can you give us just real brief, a few minutes, what’s an example of this kind of under-appreciated example of technological progress, something that’s become mundane and that you are trying to excavate and show people just how marvelous it was?
0:48:57 Jason Crawford: Yeah, sure. So, you brought up iron and steel. That’s a great example, those things… That metal is everywhere around us today. It’s in our cars, it’s in our buildings, it’s in electrical infrastructure. And yet before the Iron Age, metal… Or iron, in particular, was… Had this sort of mythical quality. It was seen as a gift from the gods, and the reason for that is that the only form that it was ever found in was meteoric form. So, iron doesn’t just exist out in nature in a convenient form that we can just make things out of. It’s found in the ground, it’s quite abundant in the ground, but in the form of iron ore. And iron ore basically looks like rust. In fact, chemically it’s sort of essentially equivalent to rust, it’s iron oxide. Looks like kind of reddish dirt or rock, and it doesn’t look like the sort of thing that you could make a skyscraper out of. And every once in a while a meteor would fall to the ground and it would have pure metallic iron in it, it hadn’t been oxidized. You can just imagine the wonder of some pre-historic person who went up… This thing falls from the sky with a huge crash, it’s got to seem like something sent from the heavens, from the gods, and you go up to it and it looks like a big rock, but when you try to chip away at it instead of chipping and flaking off like a brittle rock would, it’s actually malleable and it bends and it deforms.
0:50:33 Jason Crawford: That must have been quite amazing. Tutankhamen was buried with a dagger which we believe, based on its nickel content, was made out of meteoric iron. So it had this kind of mythical status. Oh, and the early words for iron, by the way, in like ancient Egyptian and Sumerian, they roughly translate as, “Metal from heaven,” or “Metal from the sky.” So the whole story of that, what we actually found out was you take this reddish rock and you build an enormous fire, or a really, really hot fire, and you put this red rock crushed up in with charcoal, and you burn it in a furnace for hours and hours, and then what will drip out of it is this kind of spongy iron mass that you can then hammer, and through working it over and over with a hammer and tongs and a fire, you can actually turn it into something. That’s quite amazing. And then the whole story of how. In the early days, there are… Blacksmiths would sort of work with the iron, and early iron, simple, the iron you’d get out of those early smelting processes, it was actually somewhat soft, and so they kind of found all these ad hoc ways to harden it.
0:51:51 Jason Crawford: Which, thousands of years later, we finally figured out the chemistry of it, in late 1700s, early 1800s, after thousands of years of blacksmiths, through very ad hoc trial and error methods, figuring out how to work with iron and make it harder, and give it a good cutting edge if you wanted a blade or a sword or something. We finally figured out what was going on was that there was carbon in the iron and that getting just the right perfect amount of carbon in there was key to making the metal really hard and strong, but not too brittle, which would happen if it got too much carbon in it, as in cast iron. And so in the 1800s we finally figured out, through the Bessemer process, you might have heard that term.
0:52:39 Jason Crawford: The Bessemer process is a really fast efficient way of getting the excess carbon out of the iron so that you can make a good cheap wrought iron or a hard steel. And it was on that basis that we built the railroads, which were originally built of wrought iron but which were a form of iron that was too soft, and the rails were wearing out from the heavy trains that were going over them and had to be replaced like every few months. So we replaced them with steel rails which lasted for years. We built skyscrapers out of steel girders. We used steel plows in the prairie to break up tough prairie soil and actually plow the lands and all the American farms of the 1800s. And so it became this commodity that did wonders for us, all over, when it used to be this thing you reserved for royalty.
0:53:21 Paul Matzko: That’s fascinating. You’ve mentioned here, a couple times, how you’re working on Progress Studies, and I think, I suspect this is from the… An Atlantic essay written, last year by economist Tyler Cowen, and Patrick Collison, who’s a founder of Stripe, where they called for a new science of progress and the establishment of Progress Studies departments, at universities and the like. So why do you think this needs to be a separate area of study? Why can’t this just be something you do within a current disciplinary framework?
0:54:19 Jason Crawford: Yeah, so you’re right that that term was coined in that article in the Atlantic by Cowen and Collison, and they called for it as a sort of interdisciplinary field, and what they said was, “Look, we already… It’s true, we already have History, Economics, Economic History, History and Philosophy of Science,” and so forth. Many disciplines that are already relevant. What they said was, one, we need something that’s a little more interdisciplinary and pulls across all of these fields to answer key questions. And two, something that’s a little more prescriptive, right? Something that doesn’t just tell us what is or has been, but tells us what to do. Now, my take on it is that Progress Studies is not a separate field, it’s not something you would go get a new Ph.D. In or, you know, it’s not a field distinct from History and Economics and so forth, but it’s more of a school of thought that conditions how you would approach any or all of those fields. So Progress Studies, to my mind, is approaching any or all of those fields with a belief that progress is real, that it’s important, that it’s good, that it’s, as I’ve said before, a moral imperative, but at the same time, neither automatic nor inevitable.
0:55:39 Jason Crawford: And so, when you come at History, Economics, etcetera, with that sort of basic framework of premises and values, then I think it changes how you approach the field, it changes what questions you ask, it changes what you consider interesting, or important, and it changes what you are gonna do with the answers that you find. And so that’s what I think we need. It’s not a separate new field, except for maybe a small number of people who choose to go interdisciplinary as, in a way, I am doing. I think for the most part it falls within History, Economics and so forth, but it’s just a kind of different way of approaching those that cares a lot more, values a lot more human progress, and just sees that as something much more important and worthy of study.
0:56:27 Paul Matzko: I think for my last question, maybe you could tell us something about your time as a start-up CEO, of Fieldbook back in, I think, 2013, I saw. What did your experience as a start-up CEO, even of a… Fieldbook ultimately was… Failed. But during those years when you were trying to get a start-up off the ground, running it as a CEO, what did that make you think about the shape of the US innovation economy right now? And did that make you bullish or bearish on the US’s future role in global innovation?
0:57:09 Jason Crawford: Oh sure, so just for context for listeners, yeah Fieldbook was a start-up I worked on for five years, from 2013 to 2018. It was an information tool that was basically a cross between a spreadsheet and a database. For anyone who’s used another tool called Airtable, it was similar in concept and in form. And yeah, unfortunately, the business didn’t really work out. We ended up shutting it down and sort of selling the team in a talent acquisition, or an acquihire. What did that make me think about US progress? Look, in some ways, it’s never been easier to start a new company than it is right now today. There are so many resources, both in terms of knowledge. Marc Andreessen has said that a teenager with a cellphone and some sort of internet connection in a Third World country has access to more knowledge about startups today than he, Andreessen, did when he was an undergrad at Illinois. So the knowledge and the learning is out there, between so many sites and blogs and great Twitter accounts and so forth. The money is out there, there are so many ways to get funding and to find funding, whether it’s on AngelList or through Y Combinator or whatever, and then there’s such a network of mentors and advisors out there that you can also find the same way.
0:58:48 Jason Crawford: Because of that there’s sort of more competition than ever. And I think that’s one of the difficult things. So, somebody said once, “It’s never been easier to start a company, it’s never been harder to grow one,” and that might be true. I think that’s a good thing. Let’s have… One of the things that my broad reading about progress has shown me is that innovation and progress is highly unpredictable, it’s hard to tell where exactly breakthroughs are going to come from or what form they’re going to take. Sometimes we see a big goal and we just kind of make an effort for it and we achieve it, and that’s great. And we should keep doing more of that, but sometimes things come totally out of left field, or even when we knew… And that can be people didn’t know a thing was even possible so they weren’t trying for it. It can also be people knew that something was a grand challenge problem but the solution was quite different from the form they were expecting, like in the 1700s when people were looking at the longitude problem of finding your position at sea. And many people just sort of assumed that, like all previous navigation methods, it would be an astronomical solution that involved looking at the sky.
0:59:41 Jason Crawford: And then, actually, it turned out one of the key breakthroughs was just literally inventing a better clock, or watch, the marine chronometer. So that’s one of these things where the solution was just it came up from this one innovator who had an idea and pursued it, and it wasn’t what the kind of establishment at the time thought it was gonna be. And so, the upshot from that, I think, is that we just need more experiments, we need a kind of very diversified portfolio of experience. We need to be trying all kinds of different things. And that means we need to remove any and all barriers, any and all kinds of things that are gonna filter out, like certain classes of experiment. You get that sort of thing when there’s like too strong of a social consensus around what’s gonna work or not, or what’s good or bad. Too strong of groupthink that kind of pervades that, too much of a central authority or centralization of resources, such that to get money for a certain thing you must go through this one board or committee, or past this… Or fill out this one application, or past this one set of standards.
1:01:10 Jason Crawford: I think any time you get too much homogenization and standardization that way, you’re sort of… By nature, any of those processes has blind spots. And so I think we need a diversified portfolio of different ways that we’re approaching innovation and invention and progress. So that the blind spot, any one blind spot, will kind of be filled in by a different process that doesn’t have that blind spot.
1:01:41 Paul Matzko: Filling in blind spots. Well, that’s something that all of us at Building Tomorrow, both in the studio and you in the listening audience, can be a part of. Each of us has different skills, training, experiences, and interests that uniquely qualify us to address blind spots about progress in our own little domains. If we do have an ethical obligation to pursue progress for the sake of future generations, then what are you doing to fulfill that obligation? That’s all for today, but until next time, be well.
1:02:13 Paul Matzko: Thanks for listening, Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Building Tomorrow, please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.