The Roots of Progress

Interviews and talks

Here are interviews and talks I’ve given on other people’s shows/forums. See also the speaker series for Progress Studies for Young Scholars and my “Doing Better” series for the Interintellect.

In reverse chronological order (most recent at the top):

Slate Star Codex meetup

Joshua Fox · October 25, 2020 · 1 hour, 15 minutes

A talk summarizing and integrating the writing I’ve done on the relationship between science and invention, including “Science and the Industrial Revolution,” “Pasteur’s quadrant”, and “Innovation Is Not Linear”.

In brief, I argued that:

Most of the talk elaborates on these points, giving examples of each point, different ways each point is true, and reasons behind each.

Ignite Long Now

Brady Forrest · October 20, 2020 · 5 minutes

A lightning talk on cement at Ignite Long Now: “Instant Stone (Just Add Water!)”, based on my previous posts. (The Ignite format is five-minute talks with slides that advance automatically every 15 seconds—speakers don’t control their slides, so they have to rehearse and they can’t go over.)

Charter Cities Podcast

Mark Lutter · October 5, 2020 · 1 hour, 2 minutes

Topics include my latest understanding of the stagnation hypothesis, funding models for progress, and of course cities as innovation hubs.

Some excerpts from the transcript:

You put all those together, chemical engineering, oil, electricity and germ theory. Those four things together, again, each of them is pretty much equivalent to I would say, the computer and Internet revolution. Between the four of them, they really directly revolutionized every area of life in the economy. You don’t have to downplay computers in the Internet in order to see or discount the huge impact that computers in the Internet have had in order to see that yes, one revolution just doesn’t stack up to four of them all going on at the same time.

To me, the stagnation question has become, where are the other revolutions? Any one revolution is going to only last you so long. It’s going to go through an S-curve. It’s going to eventually level out and plateau as it saturates the market and you’ve done everything that you can do with it. Why did we let four of them all level off and why did we only replace them with one? By the way, what’s coming next? The only thing worse than going from four to one is going from one to zero, major revolutions happening at a time.

On safety culture, regulation, and the FDA:

The other thing you mentioned was regulation. I am very sympathetic to this and this is the practical implementation in many ways of the safety concern. If you just want a concrete example of this, look at the evolution of the FDA over the last 114 years or whatever that it’s been. In 1906, I believe it was the FDA is created in response to some very real concerns about some really horrible things that apparently were going on in meat packing and other just food and drug, obviously. Those things were being created to not very high purity standards were being adulterated and it was not anything that anybody really wanted.

More than a 100 years later, the FDA is blocking rapid COVID testing and is getting in the way of us actually fighting a pandemic. I think, something went wrong in those 114 years and we should really – I think somebody should tell that story and look into what was it? Where did it go wrong? How did it get to this point where it’s arguably adding more roadblocks than it’s actually doing good?

On technology risks:

I think in terms of existential risk, the biggest lesson is we just need to get better at correctly anticipating risks. We need to get better at predicting them. Then, we also probably need to get better at actually figuring out what to do and getting people to do it.

Sometimes even times when risks have been foreseen, they have not always been heated. Antibiotics for example, Alexander Fleming who discovered the action of the penicillin mold, he very early on saw the possibility of antibiotic resistance. Yet, antibiotics were still overused and overprescribed in the early days, just because they were seen as such a miracle drug. We need to get better at predicting risks and we need to get better at actually coming up with plans and putting those plans in place.

Listen above or read the transcript.

52 Living Ideas

Shrikant Rangnekar · September 27, 2020 · 1 hour, 9 minutes

Topics included:

Highlighter Town Hall

David King · September 23, 2020 · 52 minutes

Highlighter is an social network that lets you share and discuss snippets of what you’re reading. You can follow books as well as people. Founder David King hosted a “town hall” discussion with me on the relationship between science and invention, “basic” vs. “applied” research, and progress in general.

Passionate Homeschooler

Joel Marquez · September 2, 2020 · 52 minutes

In this episode, we discuss the forces that drove civilization to reach the heights of prosperity that we see today, and we ask why it’s taken for granted, instead of revered.

The Lunar Society

Dwarkesh Patel · August 25, 2020 · 49 minutes

A new podcast by a CS student at UT Austin. Topics included the great stagnation, prescriptive vs descriptive optimism, and the linear model of innovation.

AEI's Political Economy

James Pethokoukis · August 19, 2020 · 27 minutes

Topics include: asymmetric risk in funding progress, how celebrations of progress have changed, and how to use progress for good.

Transcript available here.

Show page

Venture Stories

Erik Torenberg · August 16, 2020 · 1 hour, 11 minutes

Listen to “Progress Studies in 2020 with Jason Crawford” on Spreaker.

Topics included:

Post-Industrial Forum

Frode Odegard · July 28, 2020 · 59 minutes

The Post-Lean Institute and SRI International co-sponsored this interview with me titled “The Path to Progress: Building the Future Faster.” Get the video here (free registration required). Intro begins about 4 minutes in, and the interview itself begins at about 06:30.

Build the Future

Cameron Wiese · July 28, 2020 · 46 minutes

We talk with Jason about the three layers of progress, how much better the world is now vs. 200 years ago, misconceptions about the space race, knowledge creation, prescriptive optimism (including a take on COVID), and much more!

Listen on the show page, Apple, or Spotify.

Salon of the Refused

Rob Tracinski · July 18, 2020 · 56 minutes

Topics include: the stagnation hypothesis, the notion of a “culture of achievement”, and why the ancient Greeks didn’t think science would improve technology.

Audio version

Philosophy for Flourishing

Craig Biddle & Jon Hersey · July 15, 2020 · 1 hour, 15 minutes

Audio version on Apple Podcasts

Philosophy for Flourishing podcast

The Neoliberal Podcast

Jeremiah Johnson · June 15, 2020 · 1 hour, 4 minutes

In addition to the usual topics we got a bit into my evolving views on the major drivers of progress and where we might be falling short today.

Apple Podcasts

Mr. Bright Side

Matthew Boulton · June 14, 2020 · 1 hour, 24 minutes

“Never has there been a better time to be alive in human history.” So claims the opening line of this podcast.

Guest Jason Crawford delivers an overwhelming case to back it up–which is his business. As a writer on the history of technology and industry, his expertise and encyclopedic ability to highlight example after example of real-world progress in the past centuries, decades, and years will stun you. As a thinker and writer on the philosophy of human progress, he helps reinforce Matthew’s desperate calls to look, see, and appreciate how good we’ve all got it.

You may also learn about Jason’s promising new Progress Studies for Young Scholars program, the importance of funding in the realization of progress, and of evaluating various funding models to ensure optimal allocation of resources. On this last, hear Jason defend his bold claim that: “Anything that can be for-profit ought to be.”

Show page, Apple Podcast.

Some bite-sized excerpts:

52 Living Ideas

Shrikant Rangnekar · May 23, 2020 · 1 hour, 23 minutes

In this talk, I gave an introduction to the idea of progress studies and to the progress community/movement. I explained some of the intellectual precursors and adjacent movements, and concluded with a bit on who to follow and what might be the future of the progress movement.

Academy of Thought & Industry

Michael Strong · May 14, 2020 · 59 minutes

An interview by Michael Strong, founder of the high school Academy of Thought and Industry. Topic include tinkerers vs. scientists, the role of institutions, philanthropy, hazards of technology, and the progress movement itself.

Plugged In

Jordan McGillis · April 9, 2020 · 36 minutes

Progress studies, “natural resources”, the relationship of energy to the Industrial Revolution, culture and progress, pollution, property rights, and more.

Show page

Todd Nief

February 24, 2020 · 1 hour, 14 minutes

“Progress” sounds like a good thing – in fact it’s almost embedded in the definition of the word. However, as a mad-at-the-world, angst-ridden teen, I was opposed to progress. Pretty funny how that works out.

Jason Crawford has been studying the stories behind some of our most game-changing yet under-appreciated innovations like the bicycle, the process of refining steel, and why we use alternating current in our electrical grids.⁠ And, he’s been posting his finds on his blog The Roots of Progress.

Jason and I have a conversation in which we disabuse my 16-year-old self of some misguided beliefs, and we also dig into both the small-scale and large-scale dynamics or our societies that actually stimulate innovation.

Show page

Brown Political Review

Nick Whitaker · February 23, 2020

A brief excerpt:

Nick: What do you think you could learn from when you’re actually engaging physically with the traditional material processes?

Jason: There’s a lot of things you can learn. I mean, the reason I took the weaving class was that I wanted to understand how a loom works and I figured the best way to understand it would be to use one and to learn how to use one. The first time I looked at even a simple handloom, it just seemed super complicated. I was at this machine thinking “Why does it have all these parts? Why does it have all these pieces and all these things going everywhere?” I couldn’t quite grasp the complexity of it. Now, once I’ve actually used one, I now know what every part is, and how they work together.

But another thing I’ve gotten from doing these crafts is just a sense of the challenge. I took a spinning class, so I had wool that had been carded and straightened for me, but had not been spun into thread. And, I actually spun thread on a drop spindle. One of the things that drove home for me was just how much of a skill it is, in your motor skill and muscle memory. If you’re a beginner like I was and you’re spinning your first thread, your thread sucks. It’s really poor quality. It’s super lumpy. It has a really inconsistent thickness. It’s the kind of thing where you look at it and you’re like, “Oh God, I would not want to make any cloth out of this crappy piece of thread that I just spun.” It really gives you an appreciation for how much skill people must have built up and how much human capital was required.

Read the transcript (no audio).

Antipessimists

Tyler Willis · February 23, 2020 · 1 hour, 42 minutes

Jason is a rationalist to the core and in this discussion, we discussed the meta behind his work more than he traditionally covers. We talked about history, his beliefs and background, his motivations, and the ways that the progress movement may evolve. We also covered some of the tactical work he’s done over the past 3 years.

Show page

Building Tomorrow

Paul Matzko and Aaron Ross Powell · February 20, 2020 · 1 hour, 3 minutes

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.

Listen or read the transcript on the show page or find it on iTunes.

Idea Machines

Ben Reinhardt · February 16, 2020 · 1 hour, 4 minutes

Ben has thought deeply about many topics related to progress, and in this interview, we were able to get straight to the heart of many issues. In particular, we covered the importance of funding mechanisms, the effect of culture, and how to build a culture of progress. Recommended.

Only Everything

Caleb Hirsch · February 14, 2020 · 1 hour, 4 minutes

Caleb is an old friend and we chatted about progress and perfectionism. Listen on the show page.

Agora Politics

Alex Murshak · February 10, 2020 · 53 minutes

Discussed stagnation and low-hanging fruit; lines of progress that were cut off, such as in insecticides, nuclear power, and supersonic passenger jets; and the ideas of free will and agency and their relation to progress.

The Troubadour Magazine

Kirk Barbera · February 5, 2020 · 1 hour, 38 minutes

The Troubadour typically covers the arts; this was a wide-ranging conversation at the intersection (or perhaps the union?) of my and Kirk’s areas. In addition to some of my usual topics, we touched on progress in ancient Greece, and the relation of art to progress. Watch it on Facebook.

Palladium

Ash Milton · January 27, 2020 · 1 hour, 48 minutes

A long, involved conversation; we went deep on issues of political and social philosophy.

Market Power

Craig Palsson · January 23, 2020 · 33 minutes

In addition to many topics familiar to readers of this blog, this one touches on my own research process, and what someone can take away from progress studies if they are interested in contributing to human progress itself.

That's BS

Jordan Myers · October 26, 2019 · 49 minutes

This one got more philosophical than usual and covered more of human pre-history. It was fun, check out the video above or the audio version on Fireside.fm.

Venture Stories

Erik Torenberg · October 17, 2019 · 54 minutes

Listen to “The Roots of Progress with Robert Tracinski and Jason Crawford” on Spreaker.

Covers everything from “sustainability” to what it felt like to live under the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War.

Self in Society

Ari Armstrong · September 17, 2019 · 1 hour, 20 minutes

Covering progress studies, Malthus, the steam engine, Haber-Bosch, “liquid rock”, textile production, plastic, and of course the bicycle:

You can also listen via iTunes or YouTube.