Theories abound as to why modern human progress seems stagnant. Here’s a book by Tyler Cowen arguing that we should place a higher value on future generations than we currently do. Here’s a blog post by Scott Alexander arguing that human progress of all kinds is subject to diminishing returns. There are those who believe that America is less innovative today as a result of additional government regulations that discourage innovation. There are others who believe that America lacks progress specifically because the US government doesn’t invest heavily enough in new technologies. Some feel that our lack of progress is a result of insufficient virtue; others feel that our puritanical hang-ups are precisely what prevents us from flourishing as a cosmopolitan society. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in all of these explanations. Perhaps each theory is correct within a certain sphere or in a certain manner of speaking.
So, we’re in no short supply of two-penny theories about why there isn’t more human progress out there. Even so, I’d like to provide an explanation of my own.
Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” One way of thinking about progress involves noting that every invention is a divergence from a prior norm. For example, the advent of interchangeable parts was a divergence from the prior norm that all parts be tailor-made and hand-made for the specific product at the specific time. The advent of the internal combustion engine was a divergence from the prior norm that powerful engines must be steam-powered. The advent of air travel was a divergence from a prior norm of land and sea travel. Every new thing is new precisely because it hasn’t existed before. It’s a challenge to the existing way of doing things.
Not every innovation is a good one, of course. Trans fats are universally understood to be harmful to the human body, and confer no culinary benefits that we did not already gain from preexisting saturated and unsaturated fat food ingredients. The widespread adoption of the use of trans fats by the food industry was a mistake, a step in the wrong direction. We expect new food innovations to involve supply food of better quality, and/or in higher quantities, and/or at lower costs, with no significant nutritional downsides. Clearly, in the case of trans fats, that’s not what happened. The food industry adopted the wrong kind of innovation, making us all worse off.
This presents us with a relatively clear-cut model for progress. Progress must be the adoption of new ideas, inventions, and methods that tend to improve the quality of human life both in the long and short run. Regress, therefore, must be the adoption of new ideas, inventions, and methods that tend to reduce the quality of human life in the short and long run. It’s possible for something to improve life in the short run at the expense of our long-run quality of life, or for something to reduce our quality of life in the short run while making things much better in the long run. In those cases, we’d have to evaluate the relative benefits and determine whether what we’ve seen is progress or regress. Assuming we can make such an evaluation, though, we can say that the adoption of any new idea, invention, or method will tend to be an example of either progress or regress.
With that in mind, consider the issues being tackled by people like Cowen and Alexander. Their point is not that society is regressing, but simply that it is not progressing, or not progressing as fast as we would hope, considering the arc of human history. In other words, it’s not that society is adopting the wrong new ideas, it’s that they aren’t coming up with enough right new ideas. In truth, this suggests that there aren’t very many new ideas out there; we’re not being inundated by bad ideas, but we’re not progressing much, either.
Perhaps, therefore, there is a fundamental lack of novelty in the world? This would be a surprising outcome, considering first that the human population is larger and more interconnected than at any other time in history, and second that society is more individualistic than ever before. Wouldn’t we expect, in such a world, that society would be full of new ideas and people pursuing them?
Indeed, we most certainly do not come away with the impression that people aren’t innovating when we spend any time at, say GitHub, where programmers and students are cooperatively innovating new technical methods, insights, and software technologies almost constantly. It’s also not the impression we get when we dive deep into the world of YouTube videos, featuring people who make all kinds of gadgets out of common household objects, compose and perform all manner of new music, create visual arts in stunning time-lapse, capture heroic athletic feats with GoPro cameras strapped to their abdomens, and so on.
In light of all this, my conclusion is that people are innovating out there, but their innovations aren’t being widely adopted. People in general aren’t looking to change things in their own lives. We’re not looking for new kinds of music to listen to – by which I mean totally new sounds. We want the new songs to sound roughly like the old songs. We’re not looking for radically new forms of transportation, as past societies dreamed of air travel. We’re looking for our new travel innovations to be a lot like the old ones. We don’t want the technologies of the future to put employees out of work, we want the same employees to keep their same jobs, but just somehow making use of new technologies. We don’t want to create a new kind of football, we just want a better-quality version of the existing game of football. We don’t want to live in a new kind of house, we want to live in a house that fits in well with the other homes on our street, but maybe with nicer doorknobs.
This might even explain the rise of Silicon Valley and the various Internets-of-Smart-Things. A video doorknob doesn’t offer us anything that a good old-fashioned peephole doesn’t already give us. It enables us to have roughly the same experience we had before. The new song sounds roughly like the old song. I remember when tablets first hit the market. I remember laughing to myself, “So it’s a smart phone that cannot make a phone call.” The technologies we’re inventing today are not functionally different from the old technologies, in terms of a means-ends framework. They are, however, beautifully presented.
If society is to progress at rates similar to what we saw during the Industrial Revolutions or the first half of the 20th Century, we’ll have to become more comfortable with expressions of novelty. We’ll have to be more open to divergent musical sounds and artistic expression that bears no resemblance to the great works of the past. We’ll have to be more receptive to technologies that completely change our existing patterns of behavior by offering us something more than a coffee maker with internet connectivity, but an entirely new method of producing beverages from coffee beans. Better yet, we ought to be open to the possibility that other beans heretofore not roasted and brewed might also produce good breakfast beverages. We’ll have to open to the idea that, say, Christmas can still be Christmas without a tree or some house lights – not that those things are bad, but just that there might be a way of celebrating Christmas that we haven’t even thought of yet.
If we want to do better as a species, then we have to be open to what better might look like. As enamored with your own life as you might be, you might be better off by changing radically. If you’re not at least open to considering a radical change, then you’re in no position to lament a lack of human progress.