This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Jason Crawford, founder of the U.S.-based non-profit organization Roots of Progress, about human progress, why it has slowed, and how a new philosophy of progress can help to accelerate it.
You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Jason Crawford, a software engineer, start-up founder and historian, and philosopher of human progress. In August 2021, he launched the U.S.-based nonprofit called Roots of Progress, which is dedicated to establishing what he calls a “New philosophy of progress for the 21st century.” I should say that Jason’s thinking and writing on the history of technology, and the case for progress as a field of study, has had a significant influence on me.
I’d strongly encourage listeners to check out the Roots of Progress website, to find a catalog of his essays on these topics. I’m grateful to speak with him about progress, including what it is, what we understand about it, and how a new philosophy of progress can help us achieve more of it. Jason, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
JASON CRAWFORD: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
SEAN SPEER: What got you interested in the idea of progress in the first place? How did you go from being a software engineer and start-up founder, to an historian and philosopher of progress?
JASON CRAWFORD: It happened very organically. I began studying progress as an intellectual hobby and started writing a blog as a side project. I became so fascinated with it and so obsessed with the topic and the question that I ended up making it my full-time focus and career. I really just began by realizing how much the story of human progress was the foundation of my entire worldview, just like the way I see the world and society and what’s important. In my opinion, the progress of the last few hundred years in science and technology and industry and living standards, has completely transformed our lives, I believe, for the better, and it’s completely unprecedented.
The rates of economic growth, and progress in science and technology that we’ve seen over that period are just completely unprecedented in history. For thousands of years, things moved extremely slowly, and then, only recently were we able to actually expand production faster than we expand population, such that individuals can actually have better lives. If you look at that vast sweep of human history, you just look at that huge pattern, I think you have to see the last couple hundred years as—what’s happened there is just one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to humanity.
I think you just have to wonder, how did it happen? What specifically were the steps? Why did it take so long to even begin, and how can we keep this going into the future? It seems like there are so many problems still remaining, and so many things yet to be solved. I wanted to understand that just for myself. Then the more I got into it, the more that I realized that not everybody even agreed that this was necessarily a good thing, or that we should keep it going, or that it’s not going fast enough. Some people think that it’s going too fast, or that it’s even going in the wrong direction.
I also realized that my perspective on this, like I said, really was a foundation for my whole worldview, and what I think is important, when I think about, “What kind of society do we want? What kind of legal frameworks do we want, and regulations? What do we want to be teaching in schools? What should we see in art and entertainment? What kind of person, what kind of accomplishments or character should we uphold, as is something that we admire?” All of those things, a lot of it for me goes back to the story of progress and wanting to keep it going.
I think for other people who don’t have that same perspective are very focused on different things, and it just changes the whole way you see what’s important in society.
SEAN SPEER: A major premise of your work is that progress is something that can be studied systematically. You wrote when Roots of Progress was established as a non-profit organization in August 2021, that one of its key goals was to establish a “Clearer understanding of the nature of progress, its causes, its value and importance, how we can manage its costs and risks, and ultimately, how we can accelerate progress while ensuring that it’s beneficial to humanity.” Just let me ask you, why do you think it’s important to study progress, and talk a bit about progress as a field of study, like, say, history or anthropology?
JASON CRAWFORD: I don’t think progress is exactly a separate field of study, I think there are a number of academic fields already obviously well established that are very relevant. The closest would probably be economic history, but obviously, economics broadly, history broadly, the history and philosophy of science, perhaps industrial or organizational psychology, all these different fields have some bearing. The term progress studies was coined by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison in an article in The Atlantic a few years ago.
They were calling for, again, not exactly a new field, not a new department within the university, let’s say, but something that was more cross-disciplinary, and something that had more of a prescriptive bent rather than purely descriptive. As medicine is to biology, right? We don’t only want to understand progress, we also want to be able to control it, and to effect it, and like I said, ultimately to accelerate it, while also making sure to steer it in a good direction for humanity. I think that’s why progress needs and deserves to be studied.
What is needed, again, it’s not as if we don’t already have a ton of people doing economic history, and so forth, but I think there is a certain synthesis that you need across all of those disciplines. That’s why, I myself, I’m not an academic, and what I do is not anything that would be considered new by the standards of academia. I don’t do primary research in that sense, but I read what the academics put out, I read a lot of academic books and research papers, and so forth, and primary sources and a bunch of other things.
I try to synthesize and summarize, for a general audience, for a non-academic audience, put it all together, paint a picture, show the narrative, and explain, “What does this mean?” and give some philosophical interpretation. I think that’s a crucial layer that needs to happen in purchase for the value of summary and synthesis itself and in part, to communicate what academia has found to a broader audience, and again, to communicate its significance.
SEAN SPEER: You and others, like past Hub Dialogues‘ guest, Tyler Cowen, believe that progress stalled, sometime in the early 1970s. This may be a surprise to some listeners who are accustomed to the idea that we’re living in an age of rapid progress. Can you make your case, Jason, what are people missing?
JASON CRAWFORD: First, we are living in an age of rapid progress, it’s just not quite as rapid as it used to be. To be precise, to say that progress stalled might sound as if it went to zero, but certainly it has not gone to zero. Progress is still faster now than at any time before the Industrial Revolution. However, I do think that it used to be even faster in the late 19th and early 20th to mid-20th century. Now, I did not start out with this view. Actually, I started out quite skeptical of that view, and I came around to it just by studying the history of what actually happened.
Here’s the case as clearly and concisely as I can make it. Consider the 50-year period that ended about 100 years ago, from 1870 to 1920, let’s say. In this period, we got by my count, five major innovations. We got electricity, the whole electrical industry, lights, generators, motors, everything. Two, we got the internal combustion engine and the automobile and airplane, based on that, and the rise of the oil industry. Three, we got a revolution in communications with things like the telephone and radio.
Four, there was a revolution in applied chemistry, which gave us things like the first synthetic fertilizers and plastics. And five, there was a revolution in public health that came from the germ theory and applying that to things like water, sanitation, and vaccines, and so forth. Five major breakthroughs across virtually every area of industry. If you look over the last 50 years, so the same dates, but add 100 years, and look from 1970 to 2020, roughly, what did we get? I would say we got one to two, depending on how generously you count, equivalent breakthroughs.
One obviously is the computer and internet revolution. That is huge, no doubt, and I don’t want to downplay that or dismiss that at all. Then two, we’ve gotten a lot in genetics, I would say, although it feels to me, like we’ve barely scratched the real potential of that field. We got synthetic insulin, we got mRNA vaccines, and a whole bunch of things in between. Then you look at some of the other fields that were revolutionized in that previous period that I talked about.
What has happened, what has fundamentally changed in manufacturing, construction, transportation, energy? Do we still have roughly the same kind of power plants that we used to, or flying in the same kind of jets, driving the same kind of cars, our factories, and so forth, our construction? All of it looks basically the same with, to be sure, some incremental improvement, which is important and nothing to be sneezed at. We haven’t had the breakthrough, revolutionary, paradigm-changing type of things that we’ve had in other fields. I think just from that alone, you can see, no matter how amazing you think computing and the internet are—it is amazing—I just don’t think that stacks up to five, I would say, revolutions of equivalent magnitude. Or another way to look at it is like, we had a revolution in information technology, but we had one of those back in the previous period also with telephone and radio.
Then on top of that, we had everything else stacked up, electricity and internal combustion and chemicals et cetera. Then I think you can see this in the numbers as well, if you look at statistics like GDP growth has been on a long-term downward slide, TFP growth also, and so I think you see both a quantitative and a qualitative case that things have slowed down at least a little bit.
SEAN SPEER: If listeners are persuaded by your compelling argument, it leads to the inevitable question, why? Why do you think progress slowed over the past 50 years or so?
JASON CRAWFORD: I have three main hypotheses and they’re not mutually exclusive. They all go together. One is the burden of regulation, which has grown enormously. A significant amount of it—a lot of it on the rationale of safety and public health and so forth, but some of it implicitly motivated by wanting to slow down the engine of material progress. In particular, as the environmentalist movement grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, they saw progress and the whole counterculture saw progress as perhaps the wrong goal in the first place, and in many ways detracting from human life and wellbeing.
There was an explicit desire to slow things down and if not outright to stop and reverse them, that is the actual goal, or at least the spirit of some of this regulation. Not to mention that the way it has grown has actually grown out of hand even far beyond what some of the initial regulation was even intended to be. There’s an excellent explainer of NEPA in the U.S., the National Environmental Protection Act, written by Eli Dorado that I recommend folks look up where he explains that the mountains of paperwork that are now essentially required by NEPA were never even written into the law in the first place. They are a result of how the law has evolved in practice through the decades and through lawsuits and so on and so forth.
That’s hypothesis number one. Number two is the centralization and bureaucratization of research, scientific and technological research, and particularly the funding and the way that we fund these things. In the U.S. now, and I think throughout a lot of the world, we fund them largely through a small number of centralized bureaucracies. That is the kind of situation that can lead to a lot of consensus and groupthink and hardening in, locking in the dead ends. If science goes down a wrong path and that status quo gets locked in because of the way the funding works, we can lose a lot of time because we didn’t explore some less popular potentially maverick paradigm overturning type of ideas.
An example of this, from what I have read about it, is Alzheimer’s disease, which we have really stalled on progress. We’ve had many drugs and trials that have not cured the disease and haven’t even really shown very much effectiveness against its symptoms. A good hypothesis for why, is that they’ve all been based on this one hypothesis for how the disease works based on a certain plaque known as amyloid plaque. A lot of people are starting to think that this was actually wrong. There is a story that for decades it’s been difficult to get funding if you were a researcher pursuing essentially any other hypothesis because there was a group of people who were controlling the funding, who were locked into a certain status quo.
Then my hypothesis number three is just around deeper cultural attitudes towards progress, and an overall cultural loss of enthusiasm for it. I think we as a culture have really lost a bold ambitious vision for the future.
We used to dream of moon bases and flying cars and today the most optimistic vision that you can muster out of anyone who’s at all in the mainstream is, a future in which we avoid disaster. Stop climate change and prevent pandemics and so there are all these terrible things that people are worried about and if we can just not have them, then maybe that’s a bright future, but that’s not actually a better future than today. It’s just avoiding a worse one.
What about longevity technology? What about actually curing disease? What about extending our lifespans? What about exploring space? Not just clean energy, but actually much more cheap and abundant energy. By the way, going back to that notion of stagnation over the last 50 years, one of the metrics, key metrics that is stagnated over the last 50 years is per capita energy usage, at least in the United States.
If you ask most people, they don’t even see this as a sign of stagnation. They see it as a sign that, “Oh good, that rising energy usage was terrible and was disastrous. It’s a good thing that we reigned it in.” But from my perspective, energy is absolutely fundamental to the economy and to creating material well-being. We should be using more of it, obviously, it should be clean, abundant, reliable, cheap energy, but we should be using more energy on a per capita basis.
I think there’s way more economic value to be created by doing so. It’s that perspective and attitudes like this, I think ultimately affect where the best talent and energy, and resources go into. Over the last 50 years, it just has not been directed at a bold and ambitious vision of a technological future.
SEAN SPEER: One of Peter Thiel’s arguments, Jason, that resonates with me is that the free market critiques of excessive state intervention in the 1970s taken to their extreme became a case against agency in shaping the future. It reminds me of Michael Boskin, George HW Bush’s chair of the council of economic advisors’ apocryphal line about computer chips and potato chips. How much is a philosophy of progress fundamentally about human agency? How can we channel human agency in a direction that doesn’t result in the micromanagement of the economy?
JASON CRAWFORD: I think it is a lot about agency. I think that is one of the absolutely key and fundamental concepts. One of the key questions about progress is how much of progress is in our control. How much can we accelerate it? How much can we steer it? Is it just unfolding inexorably due to some materialistic historical forces or is it something that we can guide and direct? I have a deep belief in human agency, both at the individual level and the social level. I think we do have a significant amount of command over our destiny and that we should exercise that.
I think that we can solve our problems, and I think we can make the future better. Again, that is not, I think, so much of a very popular view these days. That’s one of the things that I definitely want to help bring back is a sense of agency, again, at both the individual and the societal level. You asked how do we direct agency without micromanaging, or what was the term you used?
SEAN SPEER: It seems to me that one of the challenges in the 1970s was that we took the notion of human agency to such an extent that we had central planners trying to manage the economy which amounts to steering the notion of agency too far in one direction. I think the opposite in a way has happened, that we’ve recoiled so much from central planning that we now, as you say, at some level subscribe to this notion that progress unfolds due to spontaneous market forces for which we have no control.
If our economy produces computer chips or potato chips, we really have no role in making that determination. In fact, if we try to, we’ll probably screw it up. It seems to me on one hand we need to rediscover human agency. On the other hand, we need to constrain it such that we don’t come to replace the functioning of the market with the hand of central planners.
JASON CRAWFORD: Yes. I’m not a fan of central planning either morally or practically. I do think that central planning was more or was the approach that was in vogue in the early through mid-20th century. Especially around say 1930s or so through the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, were really the height of what I’ve been referring to as technocracy. The idea that we’re going to make progress, progress will be driven by a technical elite who will manage everything top-down.
SEAN SPEER: Exactly.
JASON CRAWFORD: That may have had some notion of collective agency, but it eliminated a lot of notion of individual agency. I’m an individualist, and so when we did get a societal pushback against that, when the counterculture arose especially around the ’60s, I think what happened was a lot of people looked at that and they looked at these very techno optimist folks, who were also very authoritarian. And they rejected the authoritarianism, and they also rejected the notion that we even wanted progress. They said, “If this is progress, if this is what progress consists of, if it consists of individuals losing autonomy, then we don’t want the authoritarianism and we don’t want the progress, let’s just throw all of it out.” There was this false dichotomy between technological and industrial progress, on the one hand, and individualism and autonomy on the other hand. One of the great tragedies of the 20th century is that things were set up that way, such that if you wanted to push back against authoritarianism, you were pushing back against progress as well.
I think this is a false dichotomy, and I think certainly in the late 19th century, we had a much more individualistic and laissez fair world with a lot of progress in it. One book I will refer people to from a generation ago but with new relevance today is Virginia Postrel’s book, The Future, and Its Enemies. She draws the line, not between the technocrats and the reactionaries, but she actually puts them both on one side as what she calls stasists, meaning people who want stasis everything to stay the same, versus the other camp is the dynamists, people who embrace change and want to create a better future, not just keep everything the same.
She actually points out, I think, very astutely how the technocrats and the reactionaries maybe come from different places but end up with a lot of sympathy for each other and using each other’s methods. That’s how you get the bureaucracy of the state which is a very technocratic thing implementing a reactionary agenda in environmental regulation that seeks to say obstruct new construction of projects. Which, incidentally, as we’re seeing today is even obstructing the construction of what you would think would be environmentally friendly projects like clean energy infrastructure. We can’t even build that because of all the obstructions that we’ve put in place.
SEAN SPEER: Let me put another term on the table. In a July 2021 essay for the MIT technology review, you called yourself a “solutionist” that represents a third way between complacency and defeatism. What is solutionism and how does it translate into a public policy agenda to boost progress?
JASON CRAWFORD: I used the term solutionism because I was getting tired of the debate between optimism and pessimism. I wanted to draw the lines in a different way and define some different terms. One of the reasons I like the term agency which you brought up earlier is that I think it’s more specific and clearer than optimism. Now, in a sense, I’m very sympathetic to optimism but I think that the term optimism, it can mean a number of different things, and not all of them are good. There are different kinds of optimism and different people have gotten to the same thing with different terms.
Hannah Richie, in a recent article for Vox, Paul Roamer at The Economist, and a number of different people have talked about there’s—I think Roamer called it complacent optimism on one hand versus contingent optimism. There’s an optimism that says, “Hey, everything’s going to be great. Don’t worry, we’re on the right track. The future is bright,” et cetera and so forth. That says or implies that we don’t really have any major problems or the problems that we have will be easy to solve, or it’s smooth sailing from here on out.
The problem with that is that it’s simply not always true. Sometimes we actually are facing big problems. Sometimes the future doesn’t look bright. Sometimes we have huge challenges ahead, but the notion of agency says that whether or not we are facing a bright or a dark future, we can work to make it the best possible. If we are facing a bright future, great, let’s have expansive ambition. If we’re facing a dark future, let’s step up and fight. Let’s fight for a better one. Let’s tackle the challenges. Let’s snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.
That’s why I concentrate more on agency. The term solutionism that I used in that piece for MIT Tech Review was about the false dichotomy of either on the complacent optimism side, just ignoring the problems or downplaying it or glossing over and saying the problems don’t exist, or on the other hand, having a defeatist attitude which not only do the problems exist but also we will never solve them. That’s the ultimate pessimist argument. That’s the non-agency, the lack of agency argument. Solutionism is both acknowledging the reality of problems but then also believing that we can solve them.
SEAN SPEER: In that vein, is climate change, including calls for decarbonization and energy transition, a source of new progress or a threat to current progress?
JASON CRAWFORD: It is a challenge that we need to tackle and that I think we should tackle in a way that leaves us better off than we were before. The ultimate defeatist attitude to climate change is the doomer attitude, which is just there’s nothing we can do, we’re all going to die, or a little more realistically, we’re all in for some global disaster no matter what we do. There’s another very common attitude that I still consider to be somewhat defeatist or maybe you’d call it retreatist because I think it represents a retreat, which is to say that the answer to climate change is de-growth or is to slow down or stop or even reverse economic growth and to essentially just accept a lower standard of living or lower than we could otherwise achieve.
I think that, like I say, that is essentially accepting defeat or retreat because it’s saying, “We can’t actually have all of the great things that we wanted or that we wanted to create for ourselves. We can’t have a richer world, people in poor countries can’t have the standard of living that we have in wealthier countries. People in wealthier countries can’t get better off. Our children are not going to live better lives than we do today.” That ultimately, I think, represents a defeat.
I think a more solutionist type of attitude would be to say, “This is a problem to solve the science and technology. Let’s figure out how to have energy that is clean as well as abundant and reliable and cheap, and let’s have more energy in the future while still controlling our emissions. Let’s figure out ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere so that we can have some industrial processes that put carbon into the atmosphere and we have others that take it out.” I think the most techno-optimist long-term vision would be we should essentially be able to control the climate of the earth as well as we control the climate of the indoors.
We should have a thermostat but for the outside. We should be able to control the composition of the atmosphere to the same precision that we control the composition of metallic alloys in our forges. I think this is a very controversial attitude, and this gets you into things that are almost taboo, like geoengineering and so forth, but in my opinion, anything that’s important to humanity is something that ought to be under humanity’s control. We don’t yet today have the technology to in a fine grain way or in a very strong way control these things but we should and that’s the vision that we should work towards over the very long term.
SEAN SPEER: Towards that goal, should government policy prioritize incremental innovation or breakthrough innovation?
JASON CRAWFORD: I’m not sure that the government is in a good position to decide when we need how much of which, because we need both. In general, we need incremental innovation because breakthroughs always start out not the best possible version of themselves. The first telephones couldn’t go long distance longer than a hundred miles. The first engines of any new type, whether it’s steam engines or internal combustion are inefficient and not very high-powered, and so forth. Everything gets better through incremental innovation that just takes decades of very unglamorous grunt work.
At the same time, any such pattern of incremental innovation eventually plateaus. There’s only so far you can go in any one paradigm and you get this S-curve where things are slow for a while, while you’re figuring out the basics, then once you get some real breakthrough, there’s a very fast, steep part of the curve where things are growing. Then as you’ve figured out and matured the technology, things level off and are flat again. It’s S-shaped. The way that we get strong growth, exponential growth over long periods of time, is by stacking those S-curves. As soon as one starts to level off, we jump to the next paradigm, the next breakthrough, and or we’re on this steep part of a different curve.
You need both of them and you need them in an alternating sequence. To go back to the central planning, I don’t think that any central planner is best positioned to figure out which ones we should be putting effort into. Either dividing resources between breakthroughs and incremental, or for that matter, figuring out which incremental innovations or which breakthrough innovations are the most promising. I tend to think that to the extent that the government is going to be involved in driving progress at all, it generally does better through more demand pull rather than supply push methods. For instance, when there’s something like, say, a vaccine that we need to get developed very rapidly, one of the things that the government can do is to guarantee the purchase of a certain number of doses. If someone can deliver it up to a certain standard, that thing can be what is needed to then get private initiatives to go out and take the risks.
During COVID one of the ways that we got a vaccine extremely rapidly is that there were literally hundreds of independent vaccine projects going on in parallel. Then also, by the way, there were hundreds more therapeutics efforts trying to get a cure. We had something like 500 different projects all going on to try to find either a vaccine or a cure. That’s how a small number of them succeeded very quickly. It wasn’t because somebody up front picked the most promising approach and then just put all of our resources there that could very easily win, but hundreds of different teams and efforts trying in parallel gets us a solution very quickly.
SEAN SPEER: In an April 2022 post, you make a compelling case that one of pessimism’s strengths is that it sounds smart. Let me ask you a two-part question, Jason. First, can you outline your argument? Second, how can solutionists overcome this inherent advantage of pessimists?
JASON CRAWFORD: Yes, that’s funny. I didn’t call it a strength exactly, but yes, you could see it that way. It’s certainly an advantage. It is true that pessimism sounds smart. This has been noted by many people. What I realized when I wrote that post was one reason that it sounds smart is because—so we talked about those S-curves and how the current thing, whatever it is, always plateaus. No one technology or approach or framework or anything has infinite potential.
If you’re making a very sober, grounded forecast for the future, generally what you do is you don’t assume any unseen breakthroughs coming out of left field. What you do is you just assume the current thing and you follow it out. Whenever you do that, what you get is you say, “Well, it’s going to plateau at a certain point. It can’t get beyond this limit.” Any such wise, sober, grounded predictions are necessarily pessimistic because they show everything leveling off.
The only way to have an optimistic prediction is to say, “Well, look, at some point somebody’s going to come up with some breakthrough. I don’t know who, I don’t know what, I don’t know when, I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but something will come along that is going to just change everything and give us a bunch of new opportunities.” Now that sounds super. Where are you getting that from? How are you justifying that? It doesn’t sound like the wise, sober thing that you can just really strongly justify.
The only way that you can justify it is to zoom out to the 50,000-foot level and to look at a very broad swath of history and to say, “Well, this is what has actually happened, over and over and over again.” That’s why optimism sounds a little naive, a little wild-eyed, perhaps, but I think in the broad pattern of history is absolutely justified. It’s one of the reasons why these very longer timescales are crucial to look at and to understand.
SEAN SPEER: In a July 2021 post, you argued that Winston Churchill was a futurist who had something of a philosophy of progress. What’s your argument? Why does he belong to you and the progress crowd?
JASON CRAWFORD: Yes. I said that slightly tongue in cheek but it’s true that he wrote one article that really was a work of futurism. It was called “Fifty Years Hence,” and various versions of it ran in a few different magazines. I think it was in the ’30s, can’t remember exactly when. He was surprisingly prescient. He looked across all kinds of technologies. He was talking about the potential for fusion energy. It must not have been the ’30s, then. It must have been probably after the war.
He was talking about lab-grown meat and how he said, “We’ll look back and we’ll think it was sort of silly to grow an entire chicken just to eat the meat of it. We can just grow the meat.” I can’t remember—was he talking about artificial wombs, I think? There were all sorts of things that you wouldn’t think people then would necessarily be talking about. We’re still talking about those things, some of them as futuristic technologies. But again so he came from an era—in fact, anybody who was born in the 19th century and who grew up and formed their worldview before the onset of World War I had a kind of optimism and just positive outlook on the future and view of technology and economic growth that is hard for us to understand and imagine today.
SEAN SPEER: Just in parentheses, Jason, Canada’s second major prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who served from 1896 to 1911, famously said in 1905 that the 20th century would belong to Canada, which reflects, I think, that degree of ambition and audaciousness that marked—
JASON CRAWFORD: I love it.
SEAN SPEER: —the era. 100 years later, and we’re still waiting.
JASON CRAWFORD: Maybe you guys can grab the 21st century. It’s still up for grabs.
SEAN SPEER: Precisely. Let me ask you a penultimate question. Do you think your message of progress can be a successful political message? Are there any politicians in the United States or elsewhere, really, that you would lay claim to as a member of the progress crowd? If not, why not?
JASON CRAWFORD: I think it can be successful, but it might take some time. I think that—well, let me say this. I think that what is needed is not only a political campaign, it is a broader and deeper cultural campaign. The message of progress needs to get out through journalism, through education, in art and entertainment. We need Sci-Fi that is portraying the future that we actually want to live in rather than a series of dystopias. We need scientists and inventors to be held up as cultural heroes. There should be major Hollywood biopics that aren’t just about their love life, by the way, but that is about their actual process of discovery and invention, about the things that they did and how that impacted the world.
There are so many great stories to be told that Hollywood, in my opinion, is largely ignoring. This stuff ought to be taught in school. Steven Johnson, who’s one of the top writers on technology and the history of technology, pointed out that he was looking through I think a textbook on high school textbook on American history. He searched through the text and there were—the word “labour” appeared hundreds of times. I think the words “vaccines” and “antibiotics” appeared zero times.
Vaccines and antibiotics are one of the biggest stories of the 20th century, not just in the U.S. but in the world. That stuff just doesn’t appear in the textbooks. The history class tends to be about politics and war and empire and religion and so forth, but the story of science and technology and industry is a huge part of human history and it just isn’t taught in school and absolutely ought to be a required subject. These are the sorts of things we need. We need it in education, journalism, art, entertainment. It needs to be throughout the culture in order to give grassroots support and the tailwinds for political reform.
SEAN SPEER: In that vein, final question: What does success look like for you at Roots of Progress?
JASON CRAWFORD: First, I would say it looks like in ten or more years from now that progress studies is a real established genre, that we have shelves and shelves full of books on it. Just like if you walk into a bookstore today, you can find shelves full of books on environmental studies. We should have an equivalent section of progress studies. More broadly, it is just that cultural change that I talked about where the conversation in the world and in politics becomes less about identity and redistribution and more back focused on scientific, technological, and economic progress.
Ultimately, I want people to regain that bold, ambitious vision for the future. I want us to be dreaming of the moon bases and the flying cars and living until age 300 and curing all disease. Having fusion energy that lets us 10x energy per capita and all of those really ambitious, exciting things that could transform the world once again as it has already been transformed multiple times.
SEAN SPEER: Well, that strikes me as a compelling vision of the future, and this has been a compelling conversation. Jason Crawford, founder of the U.S.-based nonprofit Roots of Progress. Thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
JASON CRAWFORD: That was a great conversation. Thanks a lot.