[Podcast] Progress Studies in 2020 with Jason Crawford — Venture Stories
[Podcast] Progress Studies in 2020 with Jason Crawford — Venture Stories

[Podcast] Progress Studies in 2020 with Jason Crawford — Venture Stories

My notes on a conversation between Jason Crawford and Erik Torenberg.

Jason's (@jasoncrawford) background: Jason is the author of The Roots of Progress, a website about the history of technology and industry, and the philosophy of progress.

He is also the creator of Progress Studies for Young Scholars, an online learning program about the history of technology for high schoolers, and a part-time technical consultant and adviser to Our World in Data.

Erik's (@eriktorenberg) background: Erik is a co-founder and partner at Village Global, a network-driven VC firm. Erik is also the co-founder of Be On Deck.


I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, longevity, better thinking, and the ideas that will shape the future.

1:00 The key aspects of human progress.

Jason got interested in progress as a personal project in early 2017.

He created The Roots of Progress

It started as personal reading project:

Jason started writing about the history of technology and the ideas behind what led to science and technology.

The level of wealth, comfort, and safety that we have right now is unprecedented in history, so it's important to understand how we got here.

At first, it was a just a side project for Jason, but this changed after Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison published their article in The Atlantic calling for a science of progress:

This article galvanized the small community that was interested in the concept of progress and its relevance to today.

Not long after that, Jason left his job in the tech industry.

The field of progress could be broken down in three:

  • Progress studies within academia
  • The focus on progress in a broader sense, outside academia, among curious people
  • People wanting to organize and take action

Until now, we had a lot of the second category.

Progress studies as it was proposed in Tyler and Patrick's article was proposed as an interdisciplinary idea. It was meant to be something interdisciplinary. They were calling for something more prescriptive.

Now what do we do? Like medicine is to biology.

Their idea was: we understand what progress is, now how do we make more of it?

The field of progress was already existent before the article of Tyler and Patrick, but they were calling for more of it.

Jason thinks there's already a lot of great work being done in academia. But there's a need for someone to tie it together, summarize it, popularize it, and make people more aware of it, and of the meaning of this work and its implications.

7:30 The three layers of progress

Jason thinks about this in three layers:

The first layer: Funding models

  • Fundings models:
    • There are a lot of different funding models (NIH grants, DARPA...)
    • How does research get funded?
    • A lot of research is done in universities, yet, it's a relatively new phenomenon.
    • The concept of research universities was invented in 19th century Germany and then exported elsewhere. It's a good reminder that it wasn't always that way.
    • Corporate research has changed: we had a golden era (Bell Labs, Zerox), but there was

How funding is allocated is an understudied field.

The Second layer: Legal structures

  • What are the legal structures that govern what kind of progress can be made.
    • Jason is worried that we accumulated a bureaucratic, regulatory state.
    • Any time there's a disaster, we start adding rules. From a certain sense it's admirable to prevent it from happening again (ex: health and safety practices at the beginning of the last century, or the regulations of big pharma)
    • We got the FDA because of problems like this. But fast forward 100 years, and now it costs well over $1 Billion to develop a successful drug.
    • We have the opposite of Moore's law in the drug development pipeline. The amount of money it takes to develop a drug doubles every 9 years: it's called the Eroom's Law (There's an article that explains that Eroom's law had been flattening out over the last years, but we have still to see if it's going to last)
I wonder if we have traded safety for progress. — Jason Crawford

Construction in America is dramatically slower and more expensive than it used to be. We really need to look into this and understand if it's because of the slow accumulation of bureaucratic rules (which is Jason's hypothesis.)

The third layer: Culture and philosophy

  • The deepest layer: the very idea of progress is a relatively new one in history (it started in the West in the 1500s and 1600s). Before then, most cultures had the opposite idea, the idea of ancestor worship: our ancestors were the greatest people who ever lived, that all the knowledge that matters was revealed to them, and all we can do is study the ancient texts. It gave birth to the scholastic schools, where people are studying the old texts.
  • It was understandable back in the Middle Ages to look at the pyramids, or the ruins left from the ancient Romans and think "Wow, our ancestors know how to do things we can't do, they were a race of giants."
  • That idea had to be challenged and overturned to have a scientific revolution and an industrial revolution.
  • Today, we know that there's more progress to be made, but people's attitude towards progress, their expectations of the future, do they have a fundamentally optimistic outlook on the future, does our science fiction show us utopias or dystopias or something in between, does our science fiction show us big engineering projects? Mark Lutter from the Charter City Institute likes to compare Chinese Sci-Fi and the US's Sci-FI. In China, they show enormous geo-engineering projects. It's an indication of the ambition to do enormous projects form the country.
  • There are these different views on science and technology, and those attitudes affect what field do young people want to go into what do they want to study in school, what career do they want to pursue. If people have money, what do they want to fund? What does the government want to fund? What kind of projects are popular.
  • These attitudes towards progress have a huge effect on what projects are being done.

19:00 How to improve the funding

The NIH today budget over $40 Billion per year on Life Science and more than half of their funding go to R01 grants.

Regardless of what you think of this process (short term, subject to groupthink), should so much of our funding go to one mechanism? A mechanism is always prone to blind spots.

Patrick Collison had suggested that we split the funding into 10 or 12 agencies, and incentivize them to pursue heterogeneous approaches. Just do something different.

One advantage of the for-profit world is that there are a lot of different VC firms, and you only need one of them to say yes.

In the for-profit, you get exponential returns for being right early, and you don't have the same in the non-profit world.

For example, in the development of Penicillin: the early trials of Penicillin, the lab was ridiculously underfunded. The people who funded Howard Florey should be known. It was a big breakthrough that helped saved a lot of lives. In the non-profit world, the incentives are set backward: the reward structure for people who invest in a non-profit project isn't as attractive as in the for-profit world. If you invest in a world-changing technology, you don't get a high return for being in early. On the other side, if you put money on something that doesn't work, it will harm your reputation (unfortunately, but this how it goes in the non-profit world).

For-profit models can't fund everything. Long term scientific research needs an indefinite time horizon, and it's unclear whether you can capture value.

I would love to find either a way to make for-profit investing in long term scientific research work and/or a way to realign incentives in non-profit research funding. — Jason Crawford

An example of VC fund doing that is Giga Fund:

A 20 years fund could be doable for Jason.

Could we create royalties for scientific discoveries?

  • It needs a foundation in the law: a blockchain can help you track, but it doesn't give you the legal right to charge royalties.
Scientific discoveries are not patentable in my view. You discover a law of nature, you can't exclude people from realizing a basic aspect of reality. — Jason Crawford
  • You only need to capture enough value to make the investment worth it.

31:24 How does innovation happen?

What the relation between discovery and invention?

A lot of new inventions were created through tinkering on the frontier, and science came later to explain why it works. You see this a lot in the industrial revolution.

You also see this in the modern era, with transistors for example:

A lot of semiconductor physics that was necessary to invent the transistor was figured out at Bell Labs in the course of inventing the transistor. They shuttled back and forth between science and invention.

If this type of invention, with frequent “dips” into science, is important—and the transistor was extremely important—then it’s worth considering whether it is supported well by our current models of funding and managing research. — Jason Crawford

Things don't happen in stages, and can't happen that way. It's not as clean and as simple as that.

I'm starting to develop a hypothesis: there's a lot of iterative invention that happens at the frontier, tinkering that happens on the basis of previously established science, and pushes the frontier of the science and explores phenomena that the science can't fully explain yet. — Jason Crawford

36:23 The culture layer: Universities

Jonathan Haidt has done a great job to describe the problems of Critical Theory when it comes to progress.

Is the trend of Social Justice going to dominate universities? Some of these ideas are going mainstream. People should be concerned about this.

38:30 Culture more broadly

If we had a lot of money to advocate for progress, how could we do it?

The place to start is to tell the actual history. The history of progress has been lost. People take progress for granted, most people don't know, or they know in a weak sense how much life is better now than it was 200 or 100 years ago. They wake up in the morning on their mattress and they take a warm shower, make coffee, sit down on their laptop, in an office with AC. None of this existed 200 years ago. — Jason Crawford

These contrasts are not vivid for people. The history of living standards should be something that everybody gets as part of their basic history education.

The way we live today is a gift handed down by our ancestors, a gift that we should be grateful for. We should approach the world with more of that sense of gratitude and awe. — Jason Crawford

These stories are not political, not ideological, they're basic facts of history. You need a very slight amount of philosophy to understand that these things matter.

These things should be part of education. Adults should be learning these things. Let's popularize it through books, Youtube, movies.

Hopefully, from that, people will get inspired to start looking into the stories of who were the people who made this happen.

I hope that it inspires artists to create more optimistic sci-fi. — Jason Crawford

Jason wrote a piece on descriptive vs. prescriptive optimism:

  • Descriptive: the future is going to be better
  • Prescriptive: we should work to make the world better
You can combine descriptive pessimism with prescriptive optimism: we are facing a huge challenge, but we can overcome it. — Jason Crawford

Some example of this:

44:10 The Stagnation thesis

There are some solid arguments to back this thesis, for example, the paper of Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood.

Jason is also reading The Rise and Fall of American Growth

How much of this slowing down is cultural, from the funding problem? It's hard to say.

We have to pay more attention to the stagnation argument.

31:19 The S-curves of Progress

Jason wrote about S-curves

The idea here is that people usually say: we've had a lot of progress in the world of bits, but not a lot in the world of atoms.

But people answer to that: if you carve out the areas where we have progressed, you're going to remain with areas with low progress.

Isn't it just naturally how progress goes? We don't make a lot of progress in every area at every time.

The way to get to clarity is by teasing apart the S-curves.


The way we get exponential growth over long periods of time is by piling S-curves on top of each other, by jumping to a new S-curve as soon as one starts to slow down.

By getting more clarity around how we find new S-curves, how many are going on at once, how big are they overall, is it taking us longer to jump to a new one.

50:49 What's the overlap between the progress movement and transhumanist movement?

Jason thinks transhumanism is a futuristic movement.

There's two main questions when it comes to progress:

  • How can we go from 0 to 1 in some areas
  • How can we distribute what already exists to more people

People generally aren't good at predicting what's going to be important in the future.

The way that we make progress is not by projecting a very specific thing super far in the future (there can some value to that, it's inspiring), the way that we make progress is focusing on the frontier. Rather than making the blueprint for 100 years, it's more like having a compass that points us in interesting directions and focusing at the frontier. — Jason Crawford

Futurist visions are important, but we should remember we're most likely going to get it wrong.

56:15 What to say to people who are afraid of progress?

Safety concerns are very real.

Technology is power, and it does not necessarily come with its own safety mechanisms built into it.

If you look at the history of technology, most technologies came with new risks; most of them needed new safety mechanisms to be invented with it.

When we invented the X-ray, we also realized it could be harmful for our health.

For every technology we invent, we need to think of the safety mechanism we need to build on top of it.

If you look at history we've been bad at this. We need to take the proactive approach.

Our technologies are getting exponentially more powerful, and their risk as well, we do not get the chance to learn from them.

We need to get a lot better at predicting the dangers and act on them.

1:00:40 China and Progress

Often we conflate economic growth and progress with liberalism, freedom of speech, civil liberties that China doesn't value as much, and yet it's also a story of huge economic growth.

Is China the exception to the rule, or does that complicate our understanding of progress? — Erik Torenberg

China complicates our understanding a little bit. Most of what happened in China over the last 40 years was catch-up growth: importing the best ideas from the best economies and building things that way.

But we should be wary of dismissing all of it as catch-up growth.

Jason doesn't fully understand the Chinese system yet, and how authoritarian it is.

1:02:40 How do we get out of the bureaucratic system

This topic doesn't get discussed enough.

The main problem is the safety issue. There's almost nothing that trumps a safety argument.

We need to think about some questions:

  • How do we think about safety?
  • How do safety fits into our lives?
  • How does safety rank against other values?
  • How do we make those tradeoffs?

Safety isn't the finale answer to everything.

We need to acknowledge that there is a tradeoff between safety and speed, efficiency, progress, and long term breakthroughs.

A good example is related to the FDA: to get a drug approved, phase 3 is extremely expensive. We could imagine releasing these drugs before phase 3 with a clear marketing explaining that it didn't go through phase 3. It could help create the economic incentive to go after certain drugs that don't make sense with the current 3 phases of approval.

1:06:20 Population growth

We're still growing but population growth is slowing.

What does it mean for the future?

First, overpopulation is not a concern anymore.

But there's a concern: we need more outliers. Fewer people, means fewer geniuses.

What's next to come for Jason?

Jason wants to get a better overview of the history of technology and how we got here, and he wants to put that together in a package that more people can understand.

He wants to understand better the history of the funding models, the decline of the corporate research labs...

He wants to understand the stagnation hypothesis better.

The goal is to tie everything together to give people a better understanding of progress and start to point to some prescriptive answers.

1:09:10 What did Jason change his mind on recently?

Jason didn't foresee how important the funding question is.

There's something very important to learn about corporate research a century ago.

We should look more into what incentive structures allow people to think more long term.

Teenagers can join Jason's course: Progress Studies for AspiringYoung Scholars

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I write a weekly newsletter, The Long Game, that covers health, longevity, better thinking, and the ideas that will shape the future.