Before we begin today, let’s briefly discuss the ratings for the final episode of America Unearthed. The season finale pulled in 454,000 viewers, about on par with the season’s average, but losing 80,000 viewers from the rerun of Expedition Unknown that served as its lead-in. As of this writing, the Travel Channel had not announced whether it would cancel or renew the series. I’d have a hard time justifying renewing a show that brings in fewer viewers than a rerun, but the show does well on streaming services, which might make it a more attractive purchase. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the Atlantic this week, the head of a software infrastructure firm and an economics professor joined together to propose the need for a new field of science to study progress and advocate for methods that would accelerate technological, economic, and social progress. Patrick Collison of Stripe and Tyler Cowen of George Mason University said that progress is not widely studied and that this is slowing down the development of our civilization:
Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”
There is a good reason that there is no “progress studies.” That would be because “progress” is subjective, relative to the observer, and inherently a political or social goal rather than a scientifically objective end state. If they can’t see that, then they don’t deserve to be proposing new fields of study.
The two men, for example, propose a goal of “improving” lifestyles by three percent per year. How does none measure an improvement in lifestyle and livelihood? Is adding Netflix a 0.01% improvement? What about having a tree in the neighborhood instead of a concrete slab? How do you measure the value of a bird’s song? More to the point, how does one define “progress” objectively? Liberals’ view of progress is not the same as conservatives’. Americans’ goals for progress are not the same as the Native tribes of the Amazon or the ayatollahs who run Iran. It is dangerous to assume that the values and goals of upper middle-class Americans of the twenty-first century are universal, or universally good.
Because Collison is a technologist and Cowen is an economist, their view of progress is almost strictly material. They write of progress as improved access to consumer products, enhanced wealth generation capabilities, and better health care. When they do speak of less directly material concerns, such as the arts, take a look what they have to say. Here is how they describe the flourishing of Renaissance Art, which they weirdly decide is the most important progress in the arts in the past thousand years: “Along the cultural dimension, the artists of Renaissance Florence enriched the heritage of all humankind, and in the process created the masterworks that are still the lifeblood of the local economy.” Ah, yes, the economic value of art—the real reason that Renaissance art is more important than medieval or Baroque art, or—heaven forfend—non-European art.
That’s another blind spot in their analysis. The two men view progress almost exclusively through a Western lens, focusing on European and American cultural developments and then assuming that such developments are necessarily progress. (They briefly mention Muslim and Chinese science of the Middle Ages, but only in passing. All other examples are European or American.) They praise the Industrial Revolution as because it “elevate[d] standards of living for everyone,” though this is a debatable point. Working conditions were atrocious and many were sicker and more miserable than before, in environments that were cramped, polluted, and dangerous. By some accounts, it took generations before the elevation in standards of living were felt across all social classes, and even then because of specific political, economic, and social choices.
The authors seem to vaguely be aware that what they are proposing is not really an academic field of study but rather a pollical and economic policy workshop. According to them, “Progress Studies” would be all about generating policy solutions to achieve predetermined outcomes: “It would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.” The two ill-defined words are “successful” and “progress.” These are intimately tied to current American cultural values, and therefore the mask falls away and we see that this not an intellectual field of objective scientific study but basically an excuse to rope scholars into a policy workshop whose goals would be set according to political views about the direction society should be heading—a political and philosophical question.
The focus that the authors place on “optimal” management, “efficiency,” and “productivity” as proxies for progress speaks to the inherently short-sighted, materialist, and capitalist goals behind their seemingly high-minded appeal to intellectualism. They seem bling to the potentially dangerous potential for politicizing Progress Studies by defining progress according to ideological goals. Who decides where society should be heading? It might seem self-evident that “progress” involves healthier people, more secure lives, etc., but these are generalized bromides whose application is inherently ideological. What is “health”? What makes a lifestyle comfortable? The more you drill down into the application, there more obvious it becomes that the values on display are those of the observer, not an objective measure of human wellbeing.
That’s not to say that there is no value in investigating how to measure the potential impact of policy decisions in order to select those that best help reach specific goals. That ought to be a prerequisite for politics. But dressing it up as objective science only gives cover to those who want to pursue ideological ends while pretending that their policy choices are self-evident, inevitable, and unopposable.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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