The Roots of Progress

Flywheels of progress

What causes progress?

I’ve been investigating this for five years, and I still don’t have a full answer. But part of the picture is starting to come into focus. Here’s my current, incomplete model:

Progress compounds. It builds on itself. Progress begets progress. This is why progress is super-linear: exponential, or indeed, over long periods, even super-exponential.

The form this takes is a number of feedback loops, or self-reinforcing cycles. By the nature of such loops, they act as if they had inertia: they are hard to get started, but hard to stop once going. Hence, a flywheel: the perfect metaphor for a loop or cycle with a lot of inertia.

There are several of these, at multiple levels, overlapping, and all operating simultaneously. Here are some that I can see:

In general, the form of a variable that grows in proportion to its size is an exponential curve. If an economy invests a constant percent of its resources into growth each year, and those investments earn a constant return over time, then that economy will grow exponentially at a constant rate. When we see exponential growth in GDP over time, I think this is what’s going on.

But occasionally, something happens that changes the exponent, kicking us into a new mode of production with even faster growth. This happened with the Industrial Revolution. I suspect it happened with the Agricultural Revolution some ten thousand years ago. Perhaps it even happened with the beginnings of behaviorally modern humans more than fifty thousand years ago.

Thus, over the very long term, progress is super-exponential. Not only do we kick into a new, higher growth mode periodically, but it takes less time to do so with each fundamental shift. Indeed, the next shift could happen soon as this century: many have suggested AI as the driver; J. Storrs Hall has suggested nanotech.

By at least one analysis, progress is hyperbolic, and will become infinite at some point in the future, when we will reach the singularity. (One imagines that some source of friction will be discovered that will make progress not infinite but merely unfathomably fast.)

In any case, when we ask, “what causes progress?”, at some level, the answer is, “all of the factors above”: technology, and science, and invested wealth, and good legal foundations, and philosophic ideas… etc. Certainly, if you wanted to advance progress, you could reasonably decide to work on any of those in order to do so.

What’s unclear to me is: what are the root causes of progress? Of all the causal factors, which are necessary and sufficient? Joel Mokyr might argue that it was science; Deirdre McCloskey that it was moral values; Steven Pinker (or Ayn Rand) that it was the Enlightenment; Robert Allen that it was coal.

As the breadth of answers, and of answerers, indicates, this is a hard problem—one that entire careers and shelves full of books have been devoted to; in fact it’s perhaps the biggest question in economic history. So I don’t have the answer now. Maybe in another five years.


Thanks to Kris Gulati for commenting on a draft of this essay.

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

Social media link image credit: Flickr / Newtown grafitti

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