What is Progress?
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Why do we assume that technology always improves? Could it regress? Could the progress that humanity has thus far achieved be but a fleeting efflorescence? After all, this has happened before, Europeans of the Middle Ages lived amongst the ruins of Roman cities and the architectural wonders of an ancient civilization more advanced than their own. Could our future generations end up living in the decaying and overgrown canyons of early 21st-century cities?
This may sound hyperbolic and perhaps it is, but the point that needs to be impressed is that progress is not guaranteed, it flourishes under specific conditions and absent those conditions, may stall or even reverse. Indeed, we are seeing worrying signs that progress may be stalling in the modern world.
As an amorphous concept, “progress” can be fairly difficult to define. The simplest definition, one employed in Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen’s seminal article in The Atlantic, We Need a New Science of Progress, defines progress as “the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.”
Progress, by this broad definition, is the sum total of all cumulative advances in knowledge that humans have acquired and retained over thousands of generations. These advances include such simple discoveries as which kinds of wild berries are safe to eat, to the knowledge required to fashion the unimaginably precise lenses and high-powered lasers of the lithography equipment used to make the latest microelectronics. It includes the invention of education systems, political systems, and everything in between.
We may think of progress as the expansion of human individual opportunity. Every person who does not die of preventable disease has a greater opportunity to live, experience, and…