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Posts Tagged ‘progress

“Our situation is unique in the annals of life, yet inscribed for all time in the logic of history”*…




A scan of the history of gross world product (GWP) at multi-millennium time scale generates fundamental questions about the human past and prospect. What is the probability distribution for negative shocks ranging from mild recessions to the pandemics? Were the agricultural and industrial revolutions one-offs or did they manifest dynamics still ongoing? Is the pattern of growth best seen as exponential, if with occasional step changes in the rate, or as super exponential? If the latter, how do we interpret the typical corollary,that output will become infinite in finite time? In a modest step toward answering such ambitious questions, this paper introduces the first internally consistent statistical model of world economic history…

[Looking back to 10,000 BCE, the author concludes that] the world economic system over the long term tends not to the steady growth seen in industrial countries in the last century or so, but to instability. The credible range of future paths seems wide.

Oh, so very wide… David Roodman (@davidroodman) goes big: “Modeling the Human Trajectory” (pdf).

(Image above: source)

* François Meyer, 1974. La surchauffe de la croissance: Essai sur la dynamique de l’évolution


As we take the long view, we might recall that it is on this date each year that the roughly 300 residents of a small village participate in a drawing that determines who will be sacrificed to insure a good harvest… in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.”

Originally published in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, it evoked strong initial negative response; subscriptions were cancelled; much hate mail received throughout the summer; and the Union of South Africa banned the story.  It is now considered a classic of short fiction (and among the most famous American short stories); it spawned several radio, television, and film adaptations, and inspired voluminous analysis, both literary and sociological.

lottery source



“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…


Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall


How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey


As we deliberate on direction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913




Written by LW

December 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Progress is our most important product”*…


Steam Power

Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past. In antiquity, the ancient Greeks were discoverers of everything from the arch bridge to the spherical earth. By 1100, the successful pursuit of new knowledge was probably most concentrated in parts of China and the Middle East. 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. The late 18th and early 19th century saw a burst of progress in Northern England, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In each case, the discoveries that came to elevate standards of living for everyone arose in comparatively tiny geographic pockets of innovative effort. Present-day instances include places like Silicon Valley in software and Switzerland’s Basel region in life sciences.

These kinds of examples show that there can be ecosystems that are better at generating progress than others, perhaps by orders of magnitude. But what do they have in common? Just how productive can a cultural ecosystem be? Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong? Can we deliberately engineer the conditions most hospitable to this kind of advancement or effectively tweak the systems that surround us today?

This is exactly what Progress Studies would investigate…

Entrepreneur Patrick Collison and economist Tyler Cowen argue that humanity needs to get better at knowing how to get better: “We Need a New Science of Progress.”

* GE’s marketing slogan through most of the post-war boom


As we emphasize improvement, we might recall that it was on this date in 1997 that “Mo Money Mo Problems” by Notorious B.I.G. (with Puff Daddy with Ma$e) hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100.


“Although there is no progress without change, not all change is progress”*…


HG Wells

Schematic from Wells’ The Outline of History (1921), showing the rise of Europe, and the “mechanical revolution” leading to, writ in huge letters along the bottom, “The Great War” [source] (See bigger version here)


H. G. Wells worried constantly about the future of humanity. While he hoped for progress in human affairs, he was only too well aware that it was not inevitable and might not be sustained. Throughout his career he celebrated the technological developments that were revolutionizing life but feared they might lead to eventual degeneration or, as came to pass in 1914, a catastrophic war. He was also aware that there were disagreements over what would actually count as progress. Providing everyone with the benefits of modern industry might not be enough, especially as continued technological innovation would require the constant remodeling of society. Progressive steps introducing entirely new functions were episodic, open-ended and unpredictable, in both biological and social evolution. These uncertainties were compounded by a realization that, where technological innovation was concerned, it was virtually impossible to predict future inventions or what their long-term consequences might be. Even if progress continued, it would be much more open-ended than advocates of the traditional idea of progress had imagined…

In addition to the numerous pioneering works of science fiction by which he made his name, H. G. Wells also published a steady stream of non-fiction meditations, mainly focused on themes salient to his stories: the effects of technology, human folly, and the idea of progress. As Peter J. Bowler explains, for Wells the notion of a better future was riddled with complexities: “H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress.”

* John Wooden


As we ponder posterity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687 that (not yet Sir) Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (AKA “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, AKA the Principia).  In three volumes Newton laid out his laws of motion (the foundation of classical mechanics), his theory of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which Kepler had obtained empirically).

As G.E. Smith wrote in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Viewed retrospectively, no work was more seminal in the development of modern physics and astronomy than Newton’s Principia… no one could deny that [out of the Principia] a science had emerged that, at least in certain respects, so far exceeded anything that had ever gone before that it stood alone as the ultimate exemplar of science generally.

Title page of Principia, first edition



Written by LW

July 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Any solution is all too likely to become the next problem”*…




One of today’s defining paradoxes is the contrast between the massive abundance of everything digital and the relative stasis, or even decline, of so much else. Software hasn’t meaningfully improved the world’s physical infrastructure even as it builds increasingly refined interfaces, networks, and marketplaces on top of that infrastructure. I currently have a thousand lifetimes worth of (effectively free) entertainment at my fingertips, but getting to the airport still takes as long as it would have thirty years ago.

Information seems infinite relative to more tangible resources, but it’s not. Digital scarcity is less visible than the physical kind, but no less real. James Bridle observes in his book New Dark Age that while computation contributes to climate change, on one hand—data centers consume a growing percentage of the world’s energy—computation itself is also constrained by a warming planet: The strength of wireless transmission will actually decline as atmospheric temperatures rise, while much of the internet’s supporting hardware—subterranean fiberoptic tubes and undersea cable landing sites—is vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels. In a way, exponential information growth is threatening its own future.

A century ago, driving felt as boundless as computation does now. As a result, we built the whole world around cars, and have since struggled to unwind that effort now that we know better. It’s possible we’re making a similar mistake today, unable to imagine a less abundant future, with digital traffic jams just around the corner…

Drew Austin, editor of the urban transportation newsletter Kneeling Bus. in a edition of another wonderful newsletter, The Prepared.

[image above: source]

* your correspondent


As we rein in our enthusiasms, we might recall that it was on this date in 455 that the Vandals entered Rome, which they plundered for the next two weeks.  It was, as sackings went (this was Rome’s third, of four altogether), relatively “light”:  while the Vandals (who had destroyed all of Rome’s aqueducts on their approach) looted Roman treasure and sold many Romans into slavery, their leader Genseric acceded to Pope Leo’s plea that he refrain from the wholesale slaughter of Rome’s population and destruction of the Eternal City’s historic buildings.


Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov



Written by LW

June 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

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