Transcript – Infinite Games – Progress Studies with Jason Crawford of Roots of Progress

Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Jason Crawford, Founder and CEO of The Roots of Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century.
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January 21, 2022
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Jason Crawford is currently writing his first book, The Story of Industrial Civilization.
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Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Jason Crawford, Founder and CEO of The Roots of Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here

“We can pay it forward to future generations by making sure that progress continues and by making sure that future generations are living as well off compared to us today, as we are compared to the past. So let's have that ambition for the future.” – Jason Crawford 


Jason Crawford (@jasoncrawford) is Founder and CEO of The Roots of Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. He created Progress Studies for Young Scholars and is a technical consultant and adviser to Our World in Data. He previously co-founded Fieldbook and Kima Labs, and was an engineering manager at Flexport, Amazon and Groupon.


IG – Progress Studies with Jason Crawford of Roots of Progress

Daniel Scrivner:

Jason. Thank you so much for making time. It's a massive thrill to have you on Infinite Games. Thank you so much.


Jason Crawford:

Absolutely. Thanks a lot for having me great to be here.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm just going to jump right in because I have an enormous amount of stuff that I want to try to cover with you. I've got easily a hundred pages of printed materials that I've got notes on, questions on, things that you've written. So there's a lot we're going to pull from.


Daniel Scrivner:

You do something with Roots of Progress called progress studies. I think everyone especially listening to this show is a fan of progress, believes in progress, invests in innovation and progress. What does progress studies mean? And maybe another way of asking this would be, how do you talk about what you do and why it's important to just an average everyday person?


Jason Crawford:

Yeah, sure. I have an essay I wrote a few years ago called Smart, Rich, and Free, which laid this out. I would say the technological and industrial material progress of humanity over the last couple of hundred years, and not just that, but the scientific progress that went along with that, and if you look at it closely, I think also the progress in society and government, there's been huge progress in all those areas in the last few hundred years and certainly huge progress in the last 50,000 years, the whole span of the history of our species. It is one of the greatest facts, perhaps the greatest fact in all of history, particularly if you care about human wellbeing, because the lives we live today are just truly amazing and magical compared to the way people had to live just a few hundred years ago. So if you care about human wellbeing, and if advancing that is something that you want to do, one way or another, or contribute to, then I think you have to be somewhat in awe of those facts.


Jason Crawford:

I think we, as a society, owe it to ourselves to ask a few basic questions. One, how did that happen? What were the steps? What were the great discoveries and inventions and advances, the things that we didn't have or didn't do and now have made the modern world? Two, why did it take so long? Why did so many people have to suffer and die for tens of thousands of years before growth really started taking off? And then finally, how do we keep it going? What are the root causes and how do we understand them so that we can protect them, enhance them? How do we prevent progress from slowing down, stopping, even reversing? How do we prevent progress from being lost? How do we keep it going and maybe even accelerate it? That search for the ultimate root causes, which is a long term search, I won't claim that I found them yet, but that is why I called my blog, when I started it off as just a blog, the Roots of Progress.


Daniel Scrivner:

You've talked about it as well, too, and I think this framing is apt, that studying progress and thinking deeply about how to nurture progress isn't just important, but it's a moral imperative, especially when you think that progress has contributed to everything from the vaccine we've all gotten for COVID, to the modern medical system. As broken as it is, it's still producing better outcomes. Talk a little bit more about why it's such a moral imperative, and maybe you can give a couple of examples in history that really illustrate that somewhat cleanly or starkly.


Jason Crawford:

Sure. It's a moral imperative by the standard of human wellbeing. Again, the improvements in the standard of living over the last couple of hundred years are just literally the best thing that has happened to humanity ever. A lot of that came from improvements in science and technology, the growth of industry, the growth of wealth and of infrastructure. Again, those are just things that deserve study. Some examples, you mentioned COVID vaccines, vaccines in general, which did not exist until the 1700s. In fact, until the late 1800s, we only had one vaccine for one disease. That was all it was for about 100 years. And there's a lot more that you could say in terms of fighting infectious disease in public health.


Jason Crawford:

But let's take another example, just at a broad level, the harnessing of energy. When the engine was invented, first the steam engine, and then later more advanced types of engines and fuels, we were able, for the first time, to generate essentially unlimited mechanical work from burning fuels, which is a thing we had never been able to do before. Previously, all mechanical work had to come from wind, water, and muscle, and there was a lot of muscle. So the fact that most of us don't have to do brute physical labor all day long every day, and even those who are doing very physical jobs are typically assisted by machines and are able to work in much more comfort but also be much more productive, that's just another great example. I could go on. I'd be describing literally all of the Industrial Revolution and everything that has happened since.


Daniel Scrivner:

I talked about it a second ago. One of the pieces that you've written that I thought was just incredible is a blog post titled Progress Studies as Moral Imperative, which I was just hinting at. But there's two paragraphs there I have to read. I won't do this very often in this interview, but I just thought this stood out in stark contrast and really helped highlight the difference.


Daniel Scrivner:

"50,000 years ago, our ancestors lived at the mercy of nature. They had stone tools and the use of fire and not much else. They had no agriculture. They survived by hunting and foraging. They had no medicine. They had small boats to travel short distances on water, but on land they had to walk and anything they took had to be carried. They had language, but no writing, and of course, they had no science. And they had only the tribe to protect them, no police, no courts, no law. In short, their lives were characterized by abject poverty, superstition born of ignorance, and constant tribal warfare.


Daniel Scrivner:

"We have come a very long way. We live in buildings, not caves. We are surrounded by mass manufactured products made of steel, glass, plastic. We extract vast sums of energy buried in the ground and make it do our bidding. We have all the food we want, so abundant and delicious that we have to restrain ourselves from eating too much. We have antibiotics and laser surgery. We zip around the world at hundreds, maybe soon, thousands of miles per hour with supersonic jets like Boom. We can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime, instantly, and all of this made possible by a vast and rapidly expanding scientific knowledge of the world. Further, we live in relative peace and freedom. In short, compared to our prehistoric ancestors, we are smart, rich, and free."


Daniel Scrivner:

I think in two paragraphs, the reason I had to read that is I feel like in the first paragraph, you do a great job of outlining where we came from and then jumping forward into how stark a reality we live in today. One of the things that came out of your work is that progress is really the result of obviously science on the one hand and technology or invention on the other, and that these are related almost like concentric circles that sit over one another, that feed into each other, and they both play a different role in accelerating that.


Daniel Scrivner:

I thought maybe to start, we could start with a favorite example of yours, which is Louis Pasteur, who invented the first vaccine. There's just some fascinating stories you go into of how he'd be working on something utilitarian, that's more an invention, then go back to science, then go to science back to the workbench. Talk a little about his life, some of the things that he did, and how science and technology played such an interesting role in his work.


Jason Crawford:

Yeah, sure. So first just a quick correction. He invented the second vaccine. The first vaccine was Edward Jenner for smallpox in the late 1700s. That was the one where I mentioned we had this vaccine for one disease for a while, but nobody really knew why it worked. They did not, at the time, have the germ theory of disease. It was understood that somehow smallpox was contagious, but nobody knew for sure that there was this tiny particle, nor that that particle had anything to do with life itself, as opposed to just being some kind of toxin or contaminant. So it was Pasteur who helped establish the germ theory in the late 1800s, and who created the first vaccines after Jenner and really helped kick off the sequence of vaccine development. Ever since then, we've had a vaccine or two every decade for more and more diseases, right up to the present day.


Jason Crawford:

Pasteur is a hero of mine. I read a good biography of him by Dubos, Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science. Recommend it. He was very impressive as a scientist. Again, he, along with Koch in Germany, really established the germ theory of disease. Along the way, as part of that, he also showed pretty conclusively that there is no spontaneous generation of life that happens on a regular basis anywhere in the world, that all life, including these microbes that he was finding in the air and in the water, that even all of those come from previous life. Ultimately, we realize cell division, every cell comes from another cell and that's pretty amazing to realize.


Jason Crawford:

But then, as I wrote, he also had this amazing ability to pivot into applications of science. I almost said applied science, but one of his most famous quotes actually is that there's no such thing as applied science. There's just science and the applications of science. But he was able to pivot between science and its applications quite deftly in both directions.


Jason Crawford:

So one amazing example from early in his career. He began his career in chemistry, really, because there was no such thing as microbiology at the time. And people did not recognize the links between microbiology and chemistry, the role of microorganisms in certain chemical processes. This is one of the things he figured out. So early in his career, he's called on to do what sounds like this very pedestrian job, this very utilitarian thing, which is he's called on to assist the fermenters of France, the wine, beer, and vinegar makers of France, with their work, because they are fermenting grapes and grains and so forth to make wine and beer, and then fermenting the alcohol to make vinegar, and it doesn't always come out very well. Sometimes the product spoils. So, Pasteur was this chemist, and they ask him to come in and take a look at this and help these folks out. So again, this very utilitarian project. Well, he dives into it with a scientist's mind. Ultimately, what he discovers is that microbes are playing a role in the fermentation process, and indeed that microbes are driving it.


Jason Crawford:

Now, the existence of microbes was known. In fact, it's been known ever since Leeuwenhoek, in the late 1600s, discovered them with his microscope. It was known that they were in the grape juice, let's say, to pick the wine example, it was known that they were in there during the fermentation. And the fermentation incidentally is a chemical process in which the sugar in the grape juice is getting turned into alcohol and, as I recall, carbon dioxide. This was understood at the chemical level because by that point in the mid 1800s, we had enough chemistry to know the chemical formulas for these things and understand how one molecule turns into a different set of molecules.


Jason Crawford:

But the role of the microbes in this process was not understood. It was thought that they were there incidentally, perhaps as a byproduct, maybe that they themselves were feeding on the output of the fermentation process, but it was not known or believed that they would actually be driving the process. Pasteur is the one who showed, through a definitive series of experiments, that indeed they did.


Jason Crawford:

Now, he wasn't the first one to have this idea. Some decades before him, other people had proposed this, but they had not shown it conclusively to the satisfaction of the scientific community. And so the idea was not broadly accepted. Pasteur, I can't remember whether he was familiar with that previous work or came to it on his own, but he was the one who, through a series of demonstrations, showed it so conclusively that it was accepted broadly and became part of the broader body of scientific knowledge.


Jason Crawford:

Part of what he was fighting against here and had to push back against was prior to the scientific era, there was this concept of vitalism. This was the idea that living beings and organic substances contained some vital essence, some life element that was specific to life and gave things living power. If you looked at how this happened in agriculture, for instance, people saw that, we grow the plants, animals eat the plants, then they dump out manure, and then we put the manure back in the fields and that helps plants grow. To them, that was just some vital life essence getting recirculated through the ecosystem.


Jason Crawford:

Around the mid-1800s, working out of Newton's clockwork universe of we're finding much more mechanical explanations for things that have much less mystery to them. And chemists were breaking everything down into these atoms and these elements, and they could show these chemical transactions. So they were starting to fight against this idea of vitalism everywhere. Well, when Pasteur comes along and says, "Hey, these microbes are actually driving the fermentation process," that just smacked of vitalism to a bunch of the other chemists of the era. And some of them never accepted it. Even on their deathbed, they would be basically saying, "I don't believe this stuff." So that was an example where Pasteur went in to do this very utilitarian thing, help with the manufacture of these food products, and he came out of it with this fundamental breakthrough in the science of microbiology that he wasn't expecting.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's a fascinating story. One, just that question that there's science, then there's the application of science, and how those two are inextricably linked. And so I wanted just for a second, just to pause, and maybe clarify a couple definitions for people. Something that I've thought about a lot is whenever someone thinks about what does a word mean, obviously we all think, "Okay, let me go to Wikipedia. Let me go to a dictionary and find the one-size-fits-all agreed upon academic definition of this word." What I think is much more interesting is personal, very colorful, contextual, subjective definitions. And so I wanted to ask, because you've obviously spent an enormous amount of time studying progress, what is your definition of progress? And then we'll talk about science and technology and why those are linked.


Jason Crawford:

To me, progress is any advancement in human knowledge or practice that helps us live better lives, longer, happier, healthier lives with more choice, freedom, and opportunity. It is a very broad phenomenon. It encompasses knowledge. It encompasses inventions. I would say it encompasses also the accumulation of wealth and the building out of infrastructure. So it is a little hard for me to know what genus to put that under, because we're subsuming all these very disparate types of things. But I think there is a clear and actually fairly objective definition in there of what does it consist of.


Daniel Scrivner:

Something in your work that was surprising at first, but the more I thought about it, it's not surprising at all, is you interchangeably use invention and technology. You'll use them differently, but those seem very linked-in in your mind and in your work. Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on those? Are they different? Are they the same?


Jason Crawford:

Technology is a broader term. It's a term for a general phenomenon that as we do gain knowledge, both scientific and practical, that knowledge can be applied to human purposes. An invention is more of a unit. An invention is a unit of technology. I wouldn't necessarily say it's the only unit. And I should say people use these terms in different ways. Sometimes people will make a distinction between invention and innovation. I don't think people use those terms consistently enough to make it worth pushing for a hard, clear distinction between them.


Jason Crawford:

One thing that's worth making distinctions between is there are breakthrough inventions, where you get something fundamentally new and different, like when we went from the steam engine to the internal combustion engine. Then there are also incremental improvements upon those inventions that make them more powerful, more efficient, more reliable, more compact or cheap, and so forth. Even within those incremental improvements, some of them are bigger than others. With the steam engine, maybe you iterate a little bit on its reliability and its fuel efficiency and so forth. Then James Watt comes along and invents the separate condenser. And that is not a fundamentally new type of engine, it's still a steam engine, but it is a huge leap forward in terms of efficiency. John Smeaton, a great engineer of the 1700s, was iterating on Newcomen's steam engine, which was the first steam engine invented in the early 1700s. He was, through experiments, making it more fuel efficient. And then James Watt comes along with a major, but still increment within the steam engine. So there's just a hierarchy of these different things.


Jason Crawford:

The big breakthroughs get a lot of the attention. And I think rightfully so, but we should also not forget or discount all of the decades and decades of iterative incremental progress that happens to just slowly and un-glamorously improve these things so that they do become more efficient, more effective, and so forth.


Daniel Scrivner:

It makes me think of something like Moore's Law as almost a way of visualizing compounded, incremental progress. Do you think that that is a good way of thinking about that?


Jason Crawford:

Sure, yeah. It's a great example. So the integrated circuit was a fundamental breakthrough. Previously, transistors were made as individual electronic switches. People had to wire them together pretty much by hand. And so obviously you're limiting the size and complexity of a circuit you can make that way. Then somebody comes along and you get the integrated circuit, which is where you have an entire circuit with many transistors built out of a single block of silicon. So that's your fundamental breakthrough, but then, yes, year by year, decade by decade, the engineers who work on that stuff are finding ways to shrink down the transistors and the circuits smaller and smaller so that we can fit more and more on a chip. That's Moore's Law, and it's been going on for decades. So I think it's a great example to keep in mind of the difference between breakthrough and incremental progress.


Daniel Scrivner:

I wanted to ask a question as well, too, of when you first knew that you were fascinated by progress. Part of why I was so excited about this interview is I've read your work, I've loved it because just the breadth of it. You go back and you cover deep into history, fascinating examples, and then you're also projecting forward and reflecting on what that looks like today and what that looks like moving forward. I spend all of my time in early-stage technology, and really why I feel drawn there is I feel like I get to work with people, hear from people, fund people undertaking innovation in human progress, in a bunch of different domains. That is fascinating and it's something I care deeply about. It's something that just gets me deeply excited. What is your connection? What was that spark for you? Was there a moment that you realized, "This is what I want to spend my career on"?


Jason Crawford:

So for context, my previous career was in the tech industry. My background's in computer science. Previously, I was a software engineer, engineering manager, and tech startup co-founder. Did that for almost 20 years, spent over a decade in Silicon Valley, and began looking into progress as an intellectual hobby. It started out literally as just, "What books am I going to read next?" And I thought it would be interesting to read on a theme, and specifically this theme of the Industrial Revolution or the Industrial Age. Then I quickly broadened it to all of human progress. So I knew at a certain level that I was fascinated with it, at least, to make it the focus of my reading in my off hours. And I knew when I began, I was like, "This could take me a decade to feel that I have fully understood this question." I might be reading books about the Industrial Revolution for the next decade.


Jason Crawford:

But then as time went on, it actually became just my hobby, as in it was just what I was doing with nights and weekends. It wasn't just, "What book am I reading?" but when people asked, "Do you have any hobbies?" I would say, "I don't know. Can economic history be a hobby? Because I think that's what I've converged on."


Jason Crawford:

So, two and a half years in, I would say... When the blog had actually started to take off, some of my posts had gone viral, I was starting to build an audience, and also there was really a community forming around this idea of progress and studying it and accelerating it, it was then that I decided to leave the tech job that I was at. And so when I was thinking about, "What do I want to do next?" I said, "If I could just write the blog full time, that's what I would want to do. I really wouldn't need to do anything else."


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm curious, because it's a topic that I think is a little obtuse, like even the word progress studies, you're like, "What is that?" for a second. You kind of grasp onto the words easily, but understanding what it means is a little bit different. Do you have any idea of what it was that was clicking for people and why this was taking off? Was it something you were writing, something specific? Do you feel like it was just timely?


Jason Crawford:

It's probably a couple of things. So one I think is that the way I framed those questions, as in human progress that we've made so far is just the greatest fact of history, the greatest thing that's happened to humanity, and it deserves to be studied for that reason, I think that basic reasoning resonated with a lot of people. I think also the way I approached it was something that clicked with people. I really started this whole thing very bottom up. So rather than go out and read grand theories of history or anything, I said, "Before I ask the question or attempt to answer the question of 'What caused the Industrial Revolution or where does progress come from?' I should first be able to answer the question of 'What was the Industrial Revolution? What progress actually has been made?'" And honestly, when I started this, I didn't really know.


Jason Crawford:

To me, and I think probably to a lot of people still today, and to me back four or five years ago, the Industrial Revolution was that time with steam engines and trains, and I think a lot of coal and stuff. Might have had a little bit more to it, but it was pretty fuzzy in my mind exactly what it consists of. I knew that to do this in a really sound way and to not be just bloviating and armchair theorizing, I was going to have to dive deep into the details and the particulars of the stories. So I said, "Let me just start with the history. Literally, what were the major inventions and discoveries and breakthroughs, and how did they happen, and when did they happen, and who made them, and what were they motivated by, and what made it possible, and who funded it?" Questions like this.


Jason Crawford:

That's where I began, and I began by simply telling those stories. So I think the stories that have caught people's imagination and attention have been things like... Okay, my first breakout post, the first post I wrote that went viral, was about the history of the bicycle, where I started just by posing this question of why wasn't the bicycle invented until the late 1800s? Why couldn't we have had bicycles in Roman Empire or something? It's just a mechanical device. It's not as if it depended on some science of chemistry or electromagnetism or anything. It seems like just a mechanic tinkering could come up with it. So why did it take so long? And that question really captured people's attention. Then a lot of people had theories. It's really funny. People would just jump into theorizing. And so people threw out all sorts of answers.


Jason Crawford:

I asked this on Twitter to start, and people were like, "Oh, maybe it was the roads. The roads were really bad. Or maybe it was because people already had horses." It was just all sorts of ideas that people threw out there. I said, "Well, okay. To answer this, let's just go look at the history. When and how and why was the bicycle invented?" As soon as you do that, it starts throwing some of those theories out the window.


Jason Crawford:

Bicycles actually came along before there were good roads. The roads were still quite badly paved. In fact, it was the cyclists who formed a good part of what got known as the Good Roads Movement and pressured for the roads to be improved. So it wasn't that better roads caused bicycles, it was actually more the other way around. So then when you look into it, you find that actually centuries before the bicycle, people were thinking about self-powered vehicles essentially, and were sketching pictures for them, but they were all trying to do them as four-wheeled carriages. That was just too big and heavy to really work.


Jason Crawford:

It wasn't until the early 1800s that somebody came up with a light two-wheeled thing that was small and light enough to actually work. But even his device didn't have pedals. You just kicked along like a scooter. I hear that for children these days, this is actually the preferred way to get kids to learn how to ride a bike. Instead of training wheels, they have a little thing like this. It hearkens back to the original proto bicycle from 1817.


Jason Crawford:

Then you just see the gradual evolution. Somebody puts pedals on the bike, but it still doesn't have gears. And then somebody puts gears on the bike, and then somebody puts a chain on the bike, and then somebody adds the rubber tires. So you just see it evolve through these stages, and it makes you realize how much the right design for the bicycle was actually non-obvious. It took a lot of design iteration to go through different ways that you could possibly construct a bicycle. So those kinds of stories capture people's imagination. It's a lot of what captures my imagination as well. It's just every one of these things is fascinating.


Daniel Scrivner:

As soon as you said that question, "Why was the bicycle not invented earlier?" it's a fascinating question and your mind just starts racing. So one, I'm going to go read that after we finish this interview and we'll link to it in the show notes as well, too.


Daniel Scrivner:

One thing I wanted to try to weave in is the origin of the word progress studies, which is actually very recent. I believe Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen coined that in an article that ran in The Atlantic and they conceived of it as an interdisciplinary field that would cut across economics, history, economic history, the history and philosophy of science, the psychology of the industrial organization, and so forth. And just the idea that all of this leads you fundamentally to the idea that we should study the cause of progress in order to preserve them, protect them, enhance them so we can make more progress for everybody. I just think it's fascinating that that is relatively new, where I feel like when you read that, I'm sure a lot of people, including myself, are like, "Why haven't we been doing this for decades?" Do you have any thoughts there? Why is this something that we're only thinking about deeply now?


Jason Crawford:

First off, you're right. So the term progress studies was coined by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison in that article which ran in The Atlantic about two years ago, mid-2019. Thanks for bringing this up because I meant to mention this in the previous answer. It was really that article that galvanized the progress community because so many people reacted to that article. It got a lot of attention. People wrote a lot of blog posts in response, including me. Then we all stopped and looked around at each other and said, "Oh, you're interested in this." "Yeah, you're interested in this." There were lots of people interested in the progress concept and having that be the core of a community or a movement, but we just didn't know about each other because there wasn't a word for it. So progress studies, that term got out there and was this nucleus that we could all come together around, and so a community very quickly formed around it. And Tyler and Patrick continued to be leaders of that community.


Jason Crawford:

Now, you asked why haven't we been doing this? Well, in a sense, of course, we have. There are plenty of academic disciplines that touch on aspects of this. Economic history is probably the closest one. Economics itself, of course. To some extent, history itself, the history and philosophy of science. It's not as if nobody ever thought to ask this question, nor did Tyler and Patrick mean to say that nobody has ever thought to ask this question, but what they were saying was, even though there are disciplines that touch on this question, it just deserves even more study than it's already getting. It just deserves a boost in the level of resources, not from zero to something, but from what we have now to even more.


Jason Crawford:

They were suggesting, too, that it be interdisciplinary. So each of these disciplines has their own set of methods and focus. Historians are very focused on going and reading old documents, and economists are very focused these days on what kind of data can we collect and how can we build a model around it and prove some quantitative hypothesis, and so forth. So all these different fields have their methods, but what could be really useful is something that, again, combines the best from all of those fields to try to put together a bigger picture, and then one that is a little more on the prescriptive side rather than purely descriptive. So rather than just saying what are the laws of economics or what are the patterns of history, saying how can we put these together and use them to make the future even better? I think that that is what is underrepresented and what we could use more of.


Jason Crawford:

There is an undercurrent to this, too, which I'll just put this in my own words. I don't want to put words in Tyler or Patrick's mouth, but I think a significant part of it is what I have stressed about the philosophy of progress, that in the middle of the 20th century, there was a shift in people's basic attitudes about progress and about whether it is possible and desirable and whether it's safe. We really shifted towards an air of distrust, fear, and skepticism, if not 100%, then at least that became a large component. I would say the world today is, at best, very mixed and conflicted about progress. That was not the case, I would say, or not nearly to the same extent in, for instance, the end of the 19th century.


Jason Crawford:

I think a good amount of academic attention has been put on the negative aspects of progress. Frankly, it's just imbalanced. The balance of attention on the negative aspects and playing that up, versus attention to the positive aspects and looking at how we can get more of the good and minimize the bad, there just has not been enough of that in academia. So I think a large part of what the progress studies movement is, is to just bring back... I'm really tempted to say optimism here, but I keep actually turning away from that term because it's not fundamentally about optimism, in my opinion, or rather that word can be interpreted in different ways. And so I want to use a word that is I think more clear and to the point, and that word is agency.


Jason Crawford:

I think a lot of what we've lost is a sense of our agency as individuals and as a civilization to make the future better and to improve our station and to tackle any problems that come up. So rather than be a complacent optimist and deny that any problems will come up or deny that any problems exist, I want to reassert our agency to solve those problems, both the problems that nature has imposed upon us and the problems that we create for ourselves. There are both types and progress needs to deal with both. So it's that sense of our agency is fundamentally what I want to bring back.


Daniel Scrivner:

Really well said. I just want to underline one thing that you highlighted there, which is what I think is really important, is just the idea that progress studies are about, yes, we need to look back historically, we need to study progress throughout time, but what's the point? And I think that the point that Tyler Cowen and yourself make is it's to take what we can, but then we want to apply that. We want to apply that moving forward so that we can, one, continue to use best practices and learn from history, but I think to continue to improve the human condition for decades and decades and decades to come.


Daniel Scrivner:

I want to talk a little bit about that, the way perception has changed, and some of the realities there, because some of it, I think, is ugly realities that we have not been able to solve yet. But the other thread I just want to try to tie in here is something that you grapple with that I think we should spend a bit of time on, is just this idea that if you were to look back in time, 1880 through 1970, there was this almost 100 year period where we had an enormous amount of innovation in a number of different areas. You've covered that in incredible detail, everything from radio to telephones, to tape recorders, to plastics, to railroads, combustion engine, all of those things.


Daniel Scrivner:

Tyler Cowen wrote a book called The Great Stagnation that basically tries to make the point that you can look back, you can see that we address all this low-hanging fruit. And I think there are a lot of people today that have nostalgia about the past. One of my favorite things, so I love design. I have a book, it's one of probably my favorite books that I have in this reference library at home, that has ads from the 1950s. And you look at ads from the 1950s and there is a palpable sense of optimism around technology and space and science and what we can do as humans and what we're doing as pioneers. That gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. And one, I don't see that today. Maybe it's a little overly broad, but just to start there, anything you would add to that as we explore that a little bit, just this idea that we had this period of intense progress. Now, what is your sense for where we're at?


Jason Crawford:

There's two things that you've gotten out there and they're related. One is has there been a slowdown in progress? And then two, again, like we were talking about, the shift in attitudes. Let me address the slowdown in progress. There's this idea that goes by the name of stagnation, the stagnation hypothesis, or technological stagnation, that the progress has slowed down. The term stagnation's a little unfortunate or can be misleading because it makes some people think that we're talking about zero progress. Let me just say right off, it is absolutely not the case that progress has slowed to zero. In fact, I would say that progress is still faster now than at any time before the Industrial Revolution. However, I do think that it has slowed down from its peak. I would say the peak seems to be around the late 19th to early 20th century.


Jason Crawford:

Think about the last 50 years or so, say, just to round it off, from 1970 to 2020. What are the big things that have happened there? Well, obviously the biggest is the revolution in computing and information technology. We got computers and the internet and cell phones, and that has been nothing short of amazing. I don't think anybody actually claims zero progress, but if you did, you just have to point at that and it instantly refutes that notion. There's been some other areas where there's been certainly incremental progress. The other thing that I would point to, is maybe half of a revolution, is genetic engineering. We did get some of the first genetically engineered proteins and stuff in the 1970s or starting thereabouts, but it really feels that we've barely scratched the surface of what's possible with that technology, and that's why I call it half so far. This is not to make any pessimistic prediction about the future. I'm optimistic for biotech in the coming decades, but just talking about what has been delivered and is widely deployed so far.


Jason Crawford:

One major revolution in computers and the internet, and maybe a half finished revolution in genetic engineering. That's roughly what I count up for the last 50 years. Now, let's look at the same period, but subtract a hundred years. So we're going to look at the period from 1870 to 1920, and depending on exactly how you count, you've got four or five revolutions in different areas of technology that, in my opinion, are of equivalent magnitude. So the comparison to computers and the internet, well, in that period, we got the telephone and the radio invented. Then on top of that, we also had the entire electrical industry, including the light bulb, the motor, and the generator. We had the internal combustion engine and the vehicles that were based on that, the automobile and the airplane, invented in that time, and really fantastic growth within the oil industry that was powering those.


Jason Crawford:

We got a lot of applications in applied chemistry, including the first synthetic fertilizer, through the Haber-Bosch process, and the first synthetic plastic, which was called Bakelite. And, to go back to an earlier part of the conversation, we got Louis Pasteur, Koch and the germ theory, and the implications of that in the first vaccines since Jenner, water sanitation, pasteurization, food handling, and lots of public health practices that started to really, for the first time ever, dramatically reduce the incidence of infectious disease. So across all of those areas, we've just got fundamental breakthroughs and revolutions going on, going across everywhere. Now, you could make the case, I think, that computers and the internet are as big of a breakthrough as any one of those, but to make the case that it's bigger than all five of those together, I just don't think you can plausibly make that case.


Daniel Scrivner:

I know one of the points of view there is just there was a lot of low-hanging fruit and we were finally at a time where we had just gestated our way to being able to have all these breakthroughs. Is that your opinion, is that your take as well, too? Or do you think there's something else driving that period?


Jason Crawford:

I think there was a lot of low-hanging fruit, but I don't think that explains it. First, yes, it's true that when some new field is opened up, it starts off with a lot of low-hanging fruit and then growth is very rapid. So individual technologies tend to go through these S-curves where they start off very slow and then there's some breakthrough or some exponential growth and you get very rapid progress, and then they approach maturity and they level off and plateau and mature.


Jason Crawford:

Any individual technology goes through that, certainly, but of course, we keep finding new technologies. We keep opening up entirely new fields. When you have a fundamental breakthrough, it can open up a whole lot of low-hanging fruit. When the internet was getting widely deployed, it opened up lots of new opportunities to take things that had already existed and put them on the internet. Or for that matter, when the internal combustion engine was invented, "Okay, now we have an opportunity to take things that were powered by steam engines and now make them powered by..." Right? So you have these moments where low-hanging fruit opens up. But I think one way to look at this is not why is it that the old technologies have all plateaued? That's fairly natural. The real question is why have we not continued to have these breakthroughs that opened up new fields at the same rate?


Jason Crawford:

While it's true that overall low-hanging fruit does get picked, the other thing that happens is that our ability to pick the fruit gets increased. So we have more researchers, more scientific labs, more venture capital for more startups. We have better information technology to share ideas and for anyone to learn. We just have more surplus wealth, overall. We have better transportation technology that opens up global markets. And so just pointing to the lowing-hanging fruit phenomenon doesn't answer, "Well, why isn't the remaining fruit getting higher and higher? Why isn't that balanced by our ability to pick it getting better and better?" Those things arguably they could balance out and we get constant consistent progress, or either one could overtake the other, but merely pointing to the low-hanging fruit doesn't point out which one of those it ought to be.


Daniel Scrivner:

One of the things I wanted to talk about that relates to this, and I think is what I took away from the idea, the Great Stagnation, the stagnation hypothesis, is maybe to borrow a phrase, the innovation is not evenly distributed and it's very focused in a few areas. One chart... And I'll include this and the show notes will link to this. Patrick Collison has some amazing things on his site. He has one page that's just all questions. I love it because it's throwing out something, getting a couple thoughts about where this might be headed, but no prescription, there's no conclusion.


Daniel Scrivner:

One of the first ones, which to me seems very related, is just why are certain things getting so much more expensive? It's a chart where you literally just basically see a massive divergence of software toys, cell phone service, TVs, new cars, clothing, household furnishings, all going down, getting more affordable over time. You would think, obviously, innovation and technology's helping drive that. But then on the flip side, food and beverage, housing, medical services, tuition, hospital services, childcare, all getting dramatically more expensive. So it starts to feel like we're making true progress in some areas and it's actually driving down cost and maybe improving or sustaining quality, and then in some areas we're not seeming to get any benefits from that scale and from that innovation. What are your thoughts there? Do you have any conclusions? Do you have any hypotheses? Do you have anything that stands out to you or anything you would call out?


Jason Crawford:

I think that it may not be exactly the same answer for every one of those things. One thing that stands out, of course, is that a lot of the areas that have gotten more expensive or have not gotten cheaper are the ones that remain very labor intensive. We don't have robot nannies, so childcare is still expensive. And as a new dad, by the way, I definitely feel that issue. Teaching is still done by teachers and we haven't changed the effective student to teacher ratios we can have, so that remains expensive. That doesn't answer the question of why haven't some things gotten better, especially now that, again, we have the greatest information technology that anyone's ever had. We're not even having better teaching outcomes, let alone being more efficient at teaching. So why is that?


Jason Crawford:

But I also think that when you dig into some of these things... Let's take an example. One of the most egregious is just construction. It's really difficult to build anything, especially in America and in some other countries too, it's very difficult to build, at least, infrastructure. It's very difficult to build transit, for example. It's difficult to build housing in major cities.


Daniel Scrivner:

Affordable housing, huge problem.


Jason Crawford:

Exactly. So when you dig into some of why this is, there are just layers and layers of bureaucracy and overhead and obstructions that we have added. These come in many different forms. They come in the form of regulation, they come in the form of large organizations, whether government or nonprofit or corporate, building up more and more layers of bureaucracy and processes within themselves. So when you look into construction in particular and building things, a significant part of it is the way that the law in America today allows naysayers and opponents of projects to interfere and object and hold things up in hearings and demand reports, and so on and so forth. So we've given essentially this veto power.


Jason Crawford:

I think one of the lessons of progress is that... I said the late 19th century was like, man, progress was the watchword of the day. People were really gung-ho about it, but even then any particular innovation or new invention or new business or whatever had some strong opponents. There was somebody opposed to pretty much everything. Every new advance has been ridiculed and has been fought and there's always somebody who stands to lose or thinks that they stand to lose by an upending of the old order. So I think one of the lessons of progress is if you give everybody a veto, you will get no progress because there's always somebody who will want to exercise that veto, whether out of plain old fear or whether they feel that their particular livelihood is threatened, or whatever it is. That one person with the veto will hold up progress for everyone else.


Jason Crawford:

In the early Industrial Revolution, when there were people who were really opposed to the mechanization of the textile industry, and they literally went out in violent mobs and were going to smash and burn machinery and attack and kill anybody who got in their way, this is literally what happened, the British government, they clamped down on it. They sent out the police or the army or whoever, but they put down these rebellions by force, essentially. Today, essentially again, we have the opposite. We have enshrined in law is that anybody who objects to a housing project or a construction project or whatever can hold it up in hearings or environmental review or whatever you want for a very long period of time.


Daniel Scrivner:

One of the things I wanted to switch and talk about is what are some attributes of invention and innovation. One that I don't know if you ever touch on explicitly, but one that came to mind for me is speed. I think one comment that's been made very well, again, I'll point to Patrick Collison, he's probably, I think, the best thinker in this area in terms of just he's done an enormous amount of research and he's compiled a fantastic list. So we'll link to this in the show notes, but if you go to patrickcollison.com/fast, it's just literally a list of all the things throughout history that were done, especially by today's standards, just in an unfathomably short amount of time.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's everything from the Eiffel tower being built in two years and two months. You could be like, "Well, that's interesting," but what puts a nail in that coffin is it was also the tallest building in the world and it held that record for 40 years. So literally two years, two months got us the tallest building that held the record for 40 years. And it's $40 million in 2019 dollars is what it cost.


Daniel Scrivner:

There's other examples. Disneyland was brought to life in 366 days. There's really serious things, from military planes, one of the Apollo missions. So one of the things that I wanted to ask there is just around speed, because I think something that definitely feels true to me, and this maybe is regulation that we go back to again that just slows everything down, but do you agree that in general today, things move much more slowly. Do you have any thoughts about why that is or suspicions about what's underlying that? Because I think you could clearly look at something like construction and point to real barriers, but I think a somewhat self-contained example of something being built internally in an amount of time, that seems different.


Jason Crawford:

I do think it goes back to what we were discussing earlier about just the layers of bureaucracy and overhead that we have built up, all the processes that you have to go through and the approvals that you have to get and so on and so forth. Somebody was just giving an example of this with doing a scientific study, all the paperwork that you have to file today to do a scientific study, and the review that it might have to go through, and then if you want to get the grant approved. Our funding agencies today are notoriously slow with grant approvals.


Jason Crawford:

You mentioned that Patrick Collison has really harped on this point. When the COVID pandemic hit, Patrick and Tyler Cowen and some other folks were among those who realized that this slow grant making for biological research was the worst thing that we could have at the beginning of a terrible pandemic. They actually set up a nonprofit and it was literally called Fast Grants, because that was their differentiating characteristic was they were going to give some grants for scientific research, but they were going to decide in like two weeks. I think actually the initial batch, they decided in some like 48 hours rather than take a year or 18 months or something to decide.


Jason Crawford:

So where does all of this come from? I think a lot of it comes from mismatched or lopsided incentives, in that there is a lot of risk aversion. Think about the incentives of a regulator or a grant-making body. If a regulator essentially allows something that then goes badly wrong, if the FDA allows a drug that ends up harming people, or if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives the okay to a power plant design and then it has a meltdown or something, they're going to get hugely negatively judged for that. But if they allow something and it goes right, they don't really get the credit. Conversely, if they don't allow something and then progress doesn't happen, it's very much invisible. And so they don't get blamed for that either.


Jason Crawford:

So what would you expect of people when you put them in a situation where all the incentives are on one side to slow things down and be more careful and not let anything screw up? Similarly, if you look at the incentives for grant makers, if they okay some wacky idea and then it flops like everybody said it was going to flop, then it looks really bad on them. "You approved this wacky idea. Why did you waste our money?" Whereas if they approved the wacky idea and then it works out, almost nobody remembers, "Hey, you were the one who believed in this idea back when nobody else did."


Jason Crawford:

Now, it's interesting to contrast this with the venture capital world. So we actually have a mechanism in venture capital to make sure that those who bet early on unproven, wacky ideas get rewarded very highly if they turn out well. That mechanism is valuations and returns. A VC who bets some money on an early stage startup, if it doesn't work out, they only lose 1X the money. They just lose all of the money is the worst you can do. Whereas if it does work out, they can make 100, 1,000 times the money. And every VC worth their salt understands this fundamental power-law dynamic and these lopsided returns. So you can't just willy-nilly make every investment, but you have to be thinking about the upside and what could go right.


Jason Crawford:

So then in nonprofit grant making, whether it's, frankly, private sector or government, we have the opposite incentives. We have that if it goes poorly, that could be really bad for your career, but if it goes well, you're not going to get a 1,000X the prestige because you backed this thing very early. So instead those incentives lead you to cluster around things that are already very consensus working. It leads you to just pile more money onto the status quo and the consensus successes. But the problem is that if you look at what are the actual payoffs for humanity, for the world, it's the other way around. Those more closely match the VC incentives, in that putting some money into a project that doesn't work well, all you really did was burn up that money, but putting some money into something that succeeds fantastically could have orders of magnitude return for humanity at large.


Jason Crawford:

So I think the VC incentives are much actually better aligned with the fundamental incentives for all of humanity in reality. Whereas when you disconnect things from that profit mechanism, again, whether it's private or public, you get these incentives that are actually flipped around. I think that's part of what's going on and leading to all of these levels of bureaucracy and overhead and processes, and "Let's be more careful," and "Let's do one more check," and "Let's have one more review," and "Let's have one more application," and "Let's make sure that everybody in the committee agrees about this," and et cetera.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's really well said. It almost feels like another way of saying it, if there's a light switch, it's like we're in the damage-control, risk-off mode by default. So we're just focused on downside mitigation, as opposed to the opposite, which is risk-on, we're comfortable taking healthy risks, risks we think are worth taking, and we're focused on the upside. I think that goes back as well to your point earlier of just in the mainstream news, the tech industry in particular I know feels this and is very vocal about it, that they feel like reporters in general just want to focus on the negative side of tech, that that is where they're spending all of their time.


Daniel Scrivner:

These were all terrible things, but the news cycles around WeWork and Adam Neumann, and the news cycle around Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes almost, to many people, starts to feel like, "Well, this is what the technology is like. It's a bunch of grifters and people that are not doing super positive things," as opposed to a more balanced take on here's the ecosystem of things. And yes, there's some things that are going poorly, but let's also make sure that we're calling out, focusing, appreciating, admiring all the stuff that's going well.


Jason Crawford:

I would like to say, or my gut feeling would be that there's more of that negativity in the media lately. I'm not even 100% sure that there is. There have always been muckrakers. I said that turn of the last century was this very fast-paced time for progress, but there were muckrakers back then as well. It may just be a perennial function of the media. You have to understand also that the media goes through cycles, so this certainly happens for any one company. Any one company when they're up and coming, they're like a media darling, everybody loves them. Then they get big and powerful, or maybe they have some scandal and everybody turns against them. Then sometimes the clock can even turn back to the beginning and there's a redemption, and now they can be a media darling again. And that happens over the course of months or years for any given company. But I think it happens over the years and decades for an entire sector.


Jason Crawford:

So what we call the tech industry, but is really the computer or information and internet technology industry, 10, 15 years ago maybe was the media darling. Now, it is the media villain. Maybe that'll swing around. And right now biotech seems to be something that the media's maybe more positive on because, hey, it just gave us this amazing new vaccine that helped and it's giving us new treatments for COVID and so forth. So I think we're in a time now where maybe everybody can see very positively that biotech is doing good things for us. That could easily change also in another decade or something, and maybe we'll see the media shift. But I think you need to understand that these media narratives go in cycles and don't always reflect a balanced picture of the underlying reality.


Daniel Scrivner:

I think that clock analogy, Aaron Zamost at Square has a blog post around that. We'll try to link to that in the show notes. But I thought that was fascinating, just this point that every company goes through multiple cycles around this clock, from being positively viewed, to being negatively viewed, and if you play your cards right, you can make your way back around that clock.


Daniel Scrivner:

This has just been a fascinating conversation, and I could talk for two more hours, three more hours, but I want to be respectful of your time. So I want to try to close this out. One thing that I wanted to do was just project forward a little bit and think about maybe 10 years forward in time, 20 years forward in time. If we were to look back on today, what would maybe be things at this gestational phase that are starting to be in S-curve that's interesting?


Daniel Scrivner:

The list that I put together, I think in compute, we're still doing fascinating things, whether that's from the device perspective... And I mean that in terms of compute today, literally lives on the iPhone, the phone you have with you, a tablet, a computer, literally, where you have a myriad of devices around us that do computing, data and network, blockchain, this notion that we now have cryptocurrencies and blockchains that are almost turning into complete programming languages. Biotechnology, which you hit on, I think is very interesting, whether you look at mRNA, protein folding, just the amount of technology that's starting to enter that space is really fascinating.


Daniel Scrivner:

Space is something I've been fascinated by that I think has honestly captivated America's attention in a lot of ways, thanks to SpaceX, but whether that's on the propulsion side with SpaceX, Astra, Rocket Labs... Just a fascinating group of people that are all trying different models there. You've got satellites, you've got manufacturing. A recent stat I found out was KEYTRUDA, the new drug by Merck, was actually one of the first things that was sequenced on the International Space Station. They spent $15 million per year to do treatments and that they had a breakthrough by doing that. It allowed them to deliver that to market and make it a one-dose treatment, as opposed to this 30-day intravenous. Communications, whether that's Quantum or Kymeta doing flat panels, but they can project the signal all sorts of crazy ways. When I think about those things, it gives me a lot of broad optimism that there is a lot of progress. What is interesting to you there, whether it's that stuff or totally different things?


Jason Crawford:

Broadly agree with the things that you mentioned. I think those are a lot of exciting areas, particularly hopeful for biotech. Genetic engineering has this new tool in its tool belt now, which is CRISPR, that has just come up in the last decade or so, and is already accelerating scientific progress. I think it's already also started to form the basis for applications, therapies, and so forth.


Jason Crawford:

There's a lot of exciting stuff going on in artificial intelligence right now. You didn't mention energy technologies. There is a potential now for a nuclear renaissance, with a number of interesting startups in that space. Also, some interesting efforts to do fusion as well as fission. One area of potential energy technology that I learned about recently and I think has a lot of promise, is geothermal. There's a new generation of geothermal based on deep drilling. So we can take some of the same drilling technology from the oil and gas industry and apply it to just drilling for heat, which is a really interesting idea. Recommend checking out Eli Dourado's blog for a primer on geothermal. Not to mention, of course, the prices of solar and batteries are very rapidly coming down the learning curve. So the cheaper that those things get and the more efficient they get, the more options we have.


Jason Crawford:

Transportation, you mentioned briefly earlier supersonic transportation and Boom Supersonic, which is hopefully bringing us a supersonic renaissance. And one that not a lot of people are working on, but that I would love to see more investment in, is nanotechnology. I got interested in nanotech and the dramatic potential for nanotech by reading this book by J Storrs Hall called Where Is My Flying Car?, which I reviewed on the Roots of Progress, and recommend you check that out. By the way, that book is coming out in a new edition from Stripe Press, November 30th. So I don't know when this episode will get published, but definitely check that out for order or pre-order. It's not just about flying cars. It's really about this whole concept of the Great Stagnation and both why did things slow down, but also what is the amazing future that we could have if progress keeps going? And talks about flying cars, it talks about nuclear, it talks about nanotech, and a lot of other interesting things.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's exciting. I want to just direct people for a little bit, talk a little bit about Roots of Progress. You initially started that as a blog. It now is a nonprofit. Talk a little bit about that transition.


Jason Crawford:

Yeah, sure. So, like I said, this began as a side project or a hobby. After a couple of years, I was obsessed with it that I went full time. This was about two years ago. I just quit the tech industry and became an independent researcher. I was supported by grants from various organizations and foundations. Starting this year, there was really enough general support for my work that it was clear that I could go beyond just supporting myself as an independent researcher, but I could actually create an organization for this, and that we could do more than write a blog or write a book, which is what I'm working on now, but that we could host events and conferences, do more to build the progress community, and so forth. So that's what we're working on. I've created it as a 501(c) nonprofit, and I've started to hire for it. I have research assistants, now. I have a chief of staff. We're really just at the beginning of this, but we are building that out and we're building the progress movement. That's really what we're dedicated to.


Daniel Scrivner:

People can find that at rootsofprogress.org, and also on Twitter @rootsofprogress, you can follow along. There is just an insane number of well written, super interesting posts on the site. I encourage everyone to go there.


Daniel Scrivner:

I typically don't ask this question, but I'm going to ask it just because in interviews like this, where we cover an enormous amount of ground, I always want to make sure that you get to have the last word. So just a closing question is, is there any closing message, closing idea, thought you would leave people with about the importance, maybe even the moral imperative, of human progress? Just to close this out for someone listening, what is the takeaway or what is something you would leave them thinking about?


Jason Crawford:

I would like to just encourage everyone to look around you and to just think about all of these things that we take for granted every single day, from the concrete foundations underneath your feet, to the steel girders holding up the wall, to the plate glass windows that you look out through, to the electric lighting overhead, the fresh food in the refrigerator, the comfortable mattress that you sleep on in a heated or air conditioned bedroom, the hot running water that you take a shower under, the paved roads and sidewalks that we travel on, and just remember that all of these things are gifts.


Jason Crawford:

Take a moment every once in a while to look around at the modern world with gratitude and with awe, and to just remember how amazing it is. Remember how lucky we are to live in this time and not just a few generations, let alone a few centuries ago, when people didn't have these gifts. Have some wonder and amazement for industrial civilization and gratitude to the innovators, especially the scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs of previous generations, who worked and struggled and even fought to bring these gifts to all of us. We can never pay them back, but we can pay it forward to future generations by making sure that progress continues and by making sure that future generations are living as well off compared to us today, as we are compared to the past. So let's have that ambition for the future.


Daniel Scrivner:

So well said. I think that could actually just be the interview right there. Thank you so much for the time. This has been so much fun, Jason.


Jason Crawford:

Absolutely. Really enjoyed the conversation.





On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

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Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.

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