The Roots of Progress

2020 in review

As a rule, I avoid writing posts about what I’m doing and how this project is going. I dislike navel-gazing. I figure you all are here for the content, and that I care about the project itself twenty times as much as anyone else.

Once a year, I make an exception and do a year-end retrospective. By now it’s a tradition. If you’re interested in this project, I hope you’ll appreciate reading a bit about my work; if you just subscribed recently, this can serve as a summary and guide to what you missed earlier.

2020 was the fourth year of this project and the first full calendar year I’ve been doing this full-time. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

Reading

My favorite book of the year was Where Is My Flying Car?, by J. Storrs Hall, a work of ambitious futurism that shows us where our technology and living standards could have and should have been by now, and how amazing the future could be. It sets out to discover why we don’t have flying cars yet (when everyone expected them back in the ’50s or so) and ends up examining the cultural and political causes of the Great Stagnation. My review was one of my most popular posts this year.

A very close second was The Gifts of Athena, by Joel Mokyr. Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth was, in a way, the book that kicked off this whole project, and Gifts of Athena was even better. It brought my understanding of the relationship between science and technology to a new level.

Mokyr was one of many scholars I interviewed this summer—some for my interview series The Torch of Progress, and some for the study group I ran this fall. These programs gave me an excuse and a forcing function to catch up on a lot of their work. The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon, was a qualitative and quantitative survey of the innovations that transformed the American standard of living over the last 150 years—which then argues that no more growth is to be expected (I disagree; see my review). Bourgeois Dignity, by Deirdre McCloskey, argued that the enormous increase in global incomes over the last few hundred years was due to economic freedom and a new morality that honored the work of the bourgeoisie. Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, by Margaret Jacob, paints a picture of the intellectual culture of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and how it led to the Industrial Revolution. I also read The Great Stagnation, The Complacent Class, and Big Business, all by Tyler Cowen. (I will admit to skimming through parts of some of the above in order to make my interview deadlines… but I’m not telling which ones.)

The broader theme of my reading this year is that instead of primarily concentrating on histories of specific technologies, as in previous years, I’ve been reading books with broader themes about economic history and about progress itself. Part of this is that, now that I’ve learned a lot of the detailed, ground-level stories of progress, I’m in a better place to evaluate more abstract theories. Part of it is that, now that I’m doing this full time, people expect me to be an expert, and that means I need to understand what other experts have said about progress.

And part of it is that I’m writing a book proposal, and to explain why the world needs another book on progress, I need to know the market better. To this end, I read: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, one of the most influential popularizers of the idea of progress in recent decades. Rosling’s book is not about progress per se, but about why people don’t believe in it. Rosling has polled people on basic facts about global development, such as whether poverty is increasing or decreasing or roughly how many people have electricity, and found that not only do they get the answers wrong, they do significantly worse than random. This indicates that there is a false narrative actively misleading them about global progress. Rosling’s explanation is basically a set of cognitive biases, which make up the bulk of the book. I also read Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, by Johan Norberg, a survey of ten major areas of progress with a brief history of each. I was familiar with all the trends, but there were many new details and stories that I enjoyed. And I read How We Got to Now, by Steven Johnson, one of the more successful histories of technology. Johnson’s book covers six different “story lines” of technology, such as refrigeration, lighting, and glass. I found it fairly episodic, but it was an entertaining curiosity tour through many technology stories, and Johnson is a good storyteller.

In March and April, when the covid pandemic was taking off and was top of everyone’s mind, I spent some time investigating how we fund research, and especially how we ramp up science and invention to fight a big challenge. On this topic, I read Pieces of the Action, by Vannevar Bush, an autobiography that covers his role leading research in World War 2 at the OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development). I also read the medical chapters of Scientists Against Time, by James Phinney Baxter, the official history the OSRD. Those chapters covered penicillin, antimalarials, and pesticides including DDT. I was hoping to find lessons that could be immediately applied to the pandemic, but the main theme that stood out to me was the importance of serious, competent leadership at the highest levels. Finally, I read Pasteur’s Quadrant, by Donald Stokes, which argues that modern research funding and organization is too strongly organized around a false dichotomy of “pure” vs. “applied” research. I found it interesting but not spot-on; see my review.

Before covid, I spent some time researching the history of finance, corporations, and governance. Two good books on those topics: The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, by John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, and A History of the Global Stock Market, by B. Mark Smith.

To round out the year, I read The Great Bridge, by David McCullough, a history of the Brooklyn Bridge, and The Perfectionists, by Simon Winchester, a history of precision in engineering. Both enjoyable.

I’m reading more books in parallel, which means I’ve made progress on some books that I haven’t finished: Arts and Minds, by Anton Howes, a delightful history of the Royal Society for Arts; Wisdom’s Workshop, by James Axtell, a history of the university; Scientific Freedom, by Donald Braben, which I’m reading with an Interintellect book club; A History of World Agriculture, by Marcel Mazoyer & Laurence Roudart, dense but very informative; and last but not least, The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles Mann, a deeply insightful exploration of the opposition of the conservationist and the techno-optimist mentalities. Hopefully I’ll finish at least a few of these in 2021 and will have more to say about them.

I’ve been doing a bad job of keeping up the bibliography, but I’m working on an overhaul—watch this space.

Becoming a professional at this stuff also means that I’m going into more depth, and starting to read scholarly papers and primary sources. A few papers I particularly enjoyed:

Highlights from the primary sources include:

Writing

I posted 47 articles on this site (including this one), totalling over 64,000 words, about a 50% increase from last year. Given that I was full-time all year, I might have done more, but a lot of this year went into curriculum development for my high school course, Progress Studies for Young Scholars, and into my book proposal.

Some highlights:

I also, for the first time, published in other magazines:

Magazine bylines weren’t a focus of 2020, but I hope to do more of this in 2021.

Speaking

Another reason I didn’t write more was that I spent a lot of time on speaking events this year.

My interview series The Torch of Progress ran from June through October and interviewed many top names in progress studies and economic history, including Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison, Max Roser, Dierdre McCloskey, and Joel Mokyr.

I also ran a shorter series of panel discussions for the Interintellect called Doing Better, with discussions on science funding, optimism, and education.

I gave a few talks myself in some important venues:

Another goal for 2020 was to ramp up my interviews for other people’s podcasts, conferences, etc. I did 30 of these, which you can find on my interviews page. Highlights include Metamuse, the Charter Cities Podcast, and Idea Machines.

Social media

You should follow me on Twitter. I post a lot of quick thoughts, observations, quotes from books and articles, and sometimes in-depth threads. One of my most popular threads of 2020 (over 1,200 likes) was on the surprisingly prominent role of excrement in daily life in the past, which turned into a post here.

My audience has almost doubled in 2020. I have over 13,000 Twitter followers, and almost 3,000 email subscribers.

Teaching

In June I launched a summer program in the history of technology for high school students, Progress Studies for Young Scholars, as a joint project with the Academy of Thought and Industry (ATI). I developed the curriculum and content for the program, and taught the first cohort of students. We taught several cohorts over the summer with other instructors.

The program went well enough that ATI is now incorporating it into their history program, and I’m continuing to work with them on curriculum development. I’m really looking forward to announcing the updated course.

By popular demand, I also turned the program into an adult-level study group, which ran from September through December. We met weekly to chat with guest speakers such as Robert Gordon, Margaret Jacob, and Richard Nelson.

Community

In the beginning of the year, we were starting to do some in-person progress meetups in San Francisco, which were going great: 30–40 people at each one, and enough interest that we were going to meet every two weeks. Of course, covid shelved all that.

Our community has kept going strong on Slack, which has over 1,200 members now. Join us for discussion.

I’m also on Clubhouse, with almost 6,000 followers. For those in the beta, there’s a Progress Club you can follow. We do progress discussions sometimes on Sundays.

Next year I’m planning some new community initiatives, to be announced.

Support

I’m still mostly supported by grants, but my Patreon has grown to 87 supporters.

It’s important to me to be paid for my work directly by the people who benefit from it—whether that’s through writing books, speaking, or a large base of small donors. So if you’ve found my work valuable, consider becoming a patron.

Plans for 2021

Looking back on 2020, the biggest thing I expected but didn’t do was write a lot more articles. Teaching and (to a lesser extent) speaking took precedence.

However, the bigger goal that all the articles were supposed to add up to was a book, and that I still feel on track for. Preparing the high school program forced me to outline the entire history of technology and organize it, and was exactly what I needed to push me over the threshold to be able to write a book. My big goal for the year was to write a book proposal, and I’ve done that now.

In 2021, I plan to wrap up the curriculum work and then buckle down to really focus on the book. Hopefully that will mean more articles as well, as I complete the research and try out ideas.

Thank you

I’m here because of you, my audience and fans. I do this ultimately because there are people out there who want to hear what I have to say. The likes and shares, the comments and replies, the emails, the unsolicited article and book recommendations—all of it lets me know that I’m not shouting into the void, that my words are sticking, and that the seeds I plant are growing in others’ minds. Thank you, Happy New Year, and best wishes for 2021.

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