Dec 31, 2023Liked by R.B. Griggs

Great post! Some immediate thoughts….

1. I agree that progress is much broader than measurements. I always find it useful to frame progress around problems and solutions (as you clearly do in the next section!). Progress is about humanity being able to solve more problems and create more improvements to our lives. Some of these are measurable, others aren’t, and we probably disagree on what is more important to measure. Another related problem with problem-solving is that solving them always creates or exposes new problems we didn’t have or notice before. It will always be steps forward and steps back, and we probably won’t agree on the lengths of the various steps. This makes it seem like progress is impossible, but I would suggest it says more about how we need to make progress.

2. I agree with your second point. Progress involves two points in time, with the recognition that it is possible for the later era to be better for humanity than the earlier. It isn’t guaranteed, it isn’t necessarily even likely, but it is possible and (imo) desirable.

3. I also agree with your third point that progress is about us, and our lives. I strongly agree that it is not just about science, technology or economic growth. Progress by definition is a collective affair, not about some of us benefiting at the expense of others. This requires coordination and cooperation. But how to coordinate and cooperate is itself one of nature's trickiest problems.

4. Where I (may?) begin to differ is on point four. I am not sure that progress really is "definable" going forward. It is about discovery, specifically collective discovery in a direction that really isn’t very clear until we get there. I guess we may just be fussing over how to define "define." Sure, in broad strokes we can lay out what types of features a better world would probably have, and that feeds right back into how we should probably try to move forward, and moves at this point which may should probably try to avoid.

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Hi Swami, thank you for this comment. So many great insights here.

I love the problem-solution frame. It forces us to evaluate progress through a different lens. If our problems are getting bigger and more interesting, is that progress? Conversely, if we're constantly solving the same problem, or if problems that we thought we solved are re-emerging, then that would feel like an indictment of progress to me.

I couldn't agree more about coordination. My fear is that it could be the ultimate limiting factor on progress, and we have very few ideas about how to solve that. I wrote a long post about that and feel like I just scratched the surface.

I share your skepticism in any ultimate definition of progress, so I'm categorizing this less as a disagreement and more of a symptom! I think progress (particularly around technology) is so under-explored that we're not sure what good definitions look like.

And as you suggest, maybe the best definition is around a process rather than a goal. A Popper-like commitment to falsification along these lines would still represent a major improvement (in my opinion). Have you written any more about this?

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I’ve written a lot, but published nothing. I started researching and reading everything I could find on every aspect of progress about 20 years ago. At the time, I couldn’t understand why nobody else seemed interested in what is to me obviously the most important question of them all. From this, I have framed out my general thoughts.

Starting about ten years ago, a few key intellectuals started to write on the topic (such as Ridley and Pinker). Then about three years ago, it exploded as a field of interest. I am not a writer (currently retired, before that I led innovation and product development at a large corporation), but I continue to follow the discussion and add my thoughts to sites such as this one and Magoon's.

As to your comments, I agree that cooperation and coordination have been the limiting factor on progress, pretty much forever. The hardest problem to solve is how to progress collectively. I will look up your post on the topic.

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Just read it. Phenomenal! Absolutely brilliant. The thing I love most is that you don’t box yourself in a framework of "cooperation" (or even worse, "altruism"), instead wisely staking out the much broader and more dynamic term of "coordination." I can’t comment there, but would love to share some deeper thoughts here on that amazing post!

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I would love to hear those thoughts! It's a vital conversation that needs to be deepened.

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Jan 6Liked by R.B. Griggs

I can’t emphasize enough how much I agree with your essay on coordination.

My short answer is that coordination is an essential component of progress. I frame progress as the interplay between innovation (the discovery or creation of knowledge), amplification (the spread and multiplication of knowledge once discovered), and coordination (the process of agents cooperating and integrating their problem solving efforts).

They are all essential, but the one which has always been a limiting factor since the advent of evolution has been the scale of coordination. Life can even be categorized by coordination breakthroughs as it evolved from chemicals to simple cells, simple cells to eukaryotic cells made up of communities of simpler cells, multicellularity made up of trillions of cells, and finally colonies such as bees and ants of millions of multicellular organisms coordinating together. Each transition led to amazing breakthroughs in function and problem solving, but it took evolution around a billion years between breakthroughs. Humans, following a different path partially involving cultural evolution, began to catch up and then exceed the coordination abilities of social insects over the past few hundred thousand years, with gradual, but more impressive expansions since the advent of agriculture.

Until we get a global level of coordination, the primary dynamic is for competition between individuals or groups to lead to a zero sum struggle for scarce resources. However, creating the higher level of coordination always runs into two general problems — that of 1)knowledge and 2)incentives. The knowledge problem is discovering how to coordinate, and remembering and preserving this once discovered — what are our goals and how do we go about trying to realize them. The incentive problem is that free riders, bullies and bogarts (those that contribute less than they benefit) are disproportionately rewarded, thus undermining cooperation in a vicious circle. Both the knowledge and the incentive problems are dynamic and constantly changing and they interact with each other.

I do want to emphasize though that we cannot underestimate the nastiness of the knowledge problem. The thing is, humans don’t know/agree what the problems are, what the goals should be, and how to go about solving them. If we knew, we could be more aligned. Should we be working toward equality or growth? Should we be converting everyone to Islam or liberal individualism? Should we be working toward some middle ground combination of all these, and if so, how do we know what this looks like? Even altruistic angels wouldn’t be able to coordinate if they all wanted different goals.

Coordination is really, really hard, and as bad as humans are at it, as you state in your essay, we are actually freakishly good at it compared to any other living thing. No other plant, animal or microorganisms has ever come close to global levels of coordination.

My response to your challenge for a disciplined study of coordination is "Hell yeah!" The closest thing we have to this now are the sub disciplinary studies of such things as economics, sociology, game theory, and evolutionary cooperation. I will add though that if coordination is an essential component of progress, then the discipline of progress studies should specifically include coordination studies. But when you see what people tend to jump into in progress studies, we see a pattern of jumping straight into technology — the printing press, the steam engine, computers and nuclear energy.

My suggestion is that the first step in progress studies is to frame out what is progress. This then leads to the recognition that coordination is not only an essential step, but historically (as in always) the toughest step.

Hope this overly long response proves to be of some value….

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Dec 21, 2023·edited Dec 21, 2023Liked by R.B. Griggs

Hello, RB

I just found your column and gave you a sub.

Welcome to the Progress Studies community!

I like your article. It makes some important points.

I too am frustrated by much of the cookie-cutter narrative around the study of progress. I believe that it is mainly due to lazy thinking. I also do not think that the Stagnation debate is particularly useful.

Before I go on, let me point you to my theory of progress:


I think that a few of your assumptions push you in the wrong direction. I am not criticizing you personally, because many others in the Progress community make the same mistake.

1) Progress is not about the future. It is about the past and the present, or more accurately a comparison between various years, one of which can be today. This is the critical assumption that steers you wrong. Progress Studies cannot investigate the future. We can only investigate the present and the past.

2) Progress does not have a goal. Progress is an evolutionary process. No one is in control. That is why your question “Progress towards what?” cannot be answered, nor does it need to be.

3) Progress can be defined. In fact, I believe that we cannot understand it unless we have a definition. I gave mine in the linked article.

4) Progress can be measured if we define it tightly, which I do. I give a number of metrics in the linked article above. By far the most useful is per capita GDP, which is closely correlated with all the others. You are correct that “progress is more than measurements”, but a measurement is like inches versus the concept of height. One is a concept, and the other is how we operationalize the concept (i.e. make it specific so we can potentially falsify it.

5) Progress cannot look forward, because it is a process.

6) Progress does not define a better future. Progress is the difference between two time points, and neither can be the future because it is unknown.

7) The reason why the notions that you mention at the end of your article are not because “we’re so used to excluding questions of value.” It is because progress is not about the future.

Anyway, I hope that you take my comments in the intended spirit. Overall, I enjoyed the essay and it is pretty impressive for only your third post!

Feel free to post comments on the linked article in my column.

Good luck!

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Hi Michael, thanks for the reply. I am very much feeling my way into this so I appreciate both the kind words and the criticism.

I think Progress Studies is valuable work. I understand why it needs a precise definition that can allow for statistical analysis over time. Material progress and per capita GDP are justifiable as foundational metrics, which you detail and defend very well. From that perspective, all of your points make total sense.

But from another perspective, I'm advocating for a broader sense of progress, one that can be applicable beyond the boundaries of Progress Studies. My fear is that such a precise definition of progress may preclude it from being relevant to many of the challenges I see technology confronting us with.

Can ideas about progress evolve while still incorporating material well-being as a vital component? My inclination is to say yes. Navigating these challenges wisely may depend on it.

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Sure. No problem.

The field is still being defined, so everything is up for grabs as long, as we use intellectual rigor.

Can you elaborate on the following?:

"My fear is that such a precise definition of progress may preclude it from being relevant to many of the challenges I see technology confronting us with."

I am not sure what you mean.

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That's fair. Part of my vision for this Substack is to explore exactly that!

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Great. Well, you can join the rest of us! The discipline is very new, so we are still trying to figure out the basics.

I am going to be putting out a large number of posts on Progress Studies in the coming weeks, so you might want to subscribe to my column.

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Not sure why I am replying here rather than in your substack, but this may be a good place to pick a few nits.

I have read both your books and all your stuff online, and the one place where I differ from you is in how we define progress. You focus more on material prosperity. I certainly agree that this is super important, but would add other values, such as freedom, knowledge, understanding, health, longevity, and even meaning.

The advantage of your narrower definition is that it is easier to measure. The disadvantage is that it may be too narrow and restricted and thus lead us astray at the margins.

I kind of agree that the future is not definable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t speak about it in general terms. Progress is not just about the present and the past, but also about the possibility of a better future as well.

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How about reposting this comment in the comments to the article below so we can discuss…


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I have a question for you. Can you honestly say YES to one of the following:

1) I consider myself a part of the Progress Studies community.

2) I plan to write a number of posts on the topic of progress.

If so, I am happy to add you to my list of progress-related substack columns:


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