A proposal for Progress Studies

Having an aim is good, but to truly advance Progress Studies there needs to be some locus for its explorers to gravitate towards

Progress studies sits together today mostly as a combination of some vague goals (GDP, TFP, new technologies), some ideas on progress vectors (a bit more technocracy, more cost benefit analysis, better funding) and a grab bag of study topics (economics, economic history, technological progress).

Tyler and Patrick originally wrote in their manifesto:

This is exactly what Progress Studies would investigate. It would consider the problem as broadly as possible. It would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future. ... An important distinction between our proposed Progress Studies and a lot of existing scholarship is that mere comprehension is not the goal.

ADS asks in looking at the situation if we're falling into one of three traps

  1. We're aiming to replicate the institutional trappings without actually benefiting from the core precept, which is "do good science"

  2. We're creating a new form of scientific discourse where ad-hoc publishing and immediate feedback through other ad-hoc publishing is the primary mode of interaction

  3. We're meandering through the creation of some foundational assumptions or technical jargon, without clear guidelines or an idea of what "good" looks like

The first point is definitely true, but a Chesterton's Fence argument seems appropriate here. It feels easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater otherwise, and we need to understand why the institutions came about in the way it did in the first place - the Part I here.

The second point is also possible. While peer review is only a few decades old, the practice of science via serious research + experimentation + sharing of findings + rebuttal is a longer standing practice. While I remain optimistic on its upheaval, my Caplanian bet strategy here would be to bet on things staying the same!

There's a Collison question to this effect too asking what will replace the scientific paper. And the answer is likely to be another form of scientific paper, or a better simulated world which the scientific paper explores, or an easier to explore form of document that isn’t written to bore others, rather than something we're completely unfamiliar with today.

The third point remains true, and will continue to remain true until, well, someone actually does the work of establishing them. That requires a little more than armchair theorising to get to the bottom (and yes, I realise the irony here)!


So let’s try and answer the question that was posed above. What sort of institutional norms or structure would it take to achieve what we (however tenuously) think is needed?

Well, to achieve something meaningful we need an organisational principle. An aim at creating actionable ideas to help us progress is not sufficient, since those would be, at best, signposts of our progress. Otherwise we'll end up like the vast literature around tech product management - high in volume, supposedly deep in insights, and about as easy to nail down as water.

I think we all agree that's setting the bar too low, and you won't know if you're successful in any meaningful period of time. Tactics have low shelf lives, we need principles and a core foundation first.

And so, I recommend the Santa Fe institute as a worthy emulator. After all, they were built as an interdisciplinary hub to bring together interested parties from all walks of research life to work on complexity. They aim to be "exploring the frontiers of complex systems science". Which seems nicely amorphous as a goal. They attempt to use the complexity umbrella to study everything from economic systems to cities to earthquakes to biology to the universe. It's not what you'd call focused.

But then I think that's the strength too. Are economics departments today any more focused? With its seventeen regular flavours, with enough philosophy and politics all around to make it a true soup. They're joined by some methodological similarities, a common lexicon, and a sense of where everyone else is at, but that clarity of communication doesn't translate to either a clear aim or a clear KPI. Most economists don't work on tirelessly increasing the GDP.

So far there've been a lot of words written on what constitutes progress studies and what needs to be done. This is a good collection, and so is this. But if there's a culture at all to this, it's not one of rigorous analysis.

What this means, I suggest, are three things:

  1. We need to encourage more collaboration and interdisciplinary studies amongst interested researchers, and not just in academia

  2. We need some central core “thing/ place” to align around which serves either as a repository of knowledge, a source of truth, or a mood affiliated set of beliefs to work from

  3. We need a better sense of what is the ground truth, either through data or sets thereof, so that at the minimum there's a base of generally accepted knowledge

Does this sound like work that someone's done recently before? In an area that's nearly as diffuse and even more all encompassing in its ambition? Yes it does. It sounds quite a bit like the Santa Fe institute.

I'm not saying we should copy the model wholesale, but their ambition and track record are clearly worth learning from. We don't need to have a campus, or be constantly fundraising or dragging Nobel prize winners and Cormac McCarthy to wander our halls (though maybe we should?)

They have brought, or helped bring, complexity to the public eye and were pretty instrumental in popularising the concept. There were clear and intentional organisational changes, like having a mixture of resident and visiting faculty, and they focus on doing interdisciplinary work and high levels of engagement with the scientific, governmental and business communities.

For what it's worth they're also ranked amongst the top 5-10 thinktanks in the world, which is pretty impressive considering the breadth of what they're trying to do.

There was a great Wired article in 2000 showing off the Info Mesa, the complex of great startups that started coming out of SFI. But it wasn't to be, and didn’t fulfil all its dreams. There were some successes, just not enough to create a new Silicon Valley.

But even that should be considered a right success in the fact that the thinktank went from having intellectual debates to actually creating and selling commercial companies. They created a canon of work, with respected scientists of all stripes, and worked with both governments and private companies to help them find a new framework with which to think. We use that language every day, like calling the economy a complex adaptive system, or comparing scaling features of biology with those of cities.

The combination of approaches they took can be a helpful guide:

  1. Interdisciplinary research and publishing (what ADS calls "do good research")

  2. Substantial interaction with federal agencies, foundations and enterprises - to popularise ideas and help them seep into the zeitgeist

  3. Creation of summer schools and pedagogical projects - helpful both to get young researchers interested in the field and create a network

  4. Continuous efforts to simultaneously commercialise the outputs - either directly through corporates or secondarily through startups

As a coda, an analysis done by Fabrizio le Vigni called "The Failed Institutionalization of Complexity Science", after going through the difficulties of nailing down the beast that’s complexity, says this at the end.

Complexity sciences can be defined as an association of fledgling and/or marginalized specialties that ally under the same label – sharing the same tools and views – in order to reach common or similar scientific and institutional objectives. They can be described as a “conglomerate” more than a stable, unique, and coherent entity.

The lack of coherence isn’t however a death knell. Like most interdisciplinary pieces of work, guided exploration is sort of the whole point. But even so, the specifics here aren't even the most salient aspects to consider. It’s the fact that they started from putting on interdisciplinary lectures and conferences and built both a body of work and a clear impact on the world.

Ultimately for Progress Studies, unless there's something tangible people can be associated with, the movement is likely to remain what it is today - smart people writing well researched blogs peppered with high minded ideals and a wishlist, often stepping over the same stones repeatedly, sometimes wandering in circles, all with limited leverage in how it will actually impact the world.

At least making the first step would be a decent start. It sure would be good to have a "conglomerate" for Progress Studies too.