Progress Studies and other Merry-Go-Rounds

Progress Studies and other Merry-Go-Rounds

I received extra practice for my vacant long-distance stare last week when The Atlantic printed a piece—manifesto? outline? dream journal?—by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen calling for the need to develop Progress Studies. Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, and Collison, a co-founder of Stripe, spent several thousand words insisting that if society only committed itself to studying progress then, indeed, the world would have more progress. This is, I’m afraid, as straightforward as their claims get. The pair spend umpteen column inches writing in circles, making such mind-numbing declarations as: 

Progress itself is understudied.

Before digging into what Progress Studies would entail, it’s worth noting that we still need a lot of progress.

Whether viewed in terms of large or small improvements, progress matters a lot.

All of this talk about Progress and Why It Should Be Studied raises two important questions: what on earth do Cowen and Collison mean by “progress,” and what would its study entail? Fortunately, the duo are a step ahead on this one:

By ‘progress,’ we mean 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. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up.

Even after a couple passes, it’s hard to discern what these two prescribe. Their pitch relies on the type of doe-eyed head nodding typically seen in overnight infomercials for kitchen gadgets: Do you like things getting better? Wouldn’t it be really cool if we could figure out how and why things get better when they do? And then wouldn’t it be really wonderful if we could learn how to progressively keep progressing for more progress?

 What eventually becomes clear is that Cowen and Collison have committed two faults at the same time, and that complicates how their nonsense should be handled. 

First, the pair have decided to take credit for inventing interdisciplinary studies—or, worse yet, for inventing any one of two dozen or so preexisting fields of study. One wonders how Cowen and Collison imagine anyone up to this point has made meaning of the past. Perhaps they assume historians spend their days memorizing the most arcane details tucked in wayward footnotes somewhere in the dustiest corner of the archives, eagerly ambling back to the lecture hall to prattle about god-knows-what anecdote for seven or eight hours. Maybe they think sociologists are imaginary. Whatever the case, it’s a rather bold move to pretend universities haven’t done Progress Studies already.

Second, and more troubling, Cowen and Collison blissfully ignore that American business has been obsessed with interdisciplinary approaches to harnessing progress for decades. They are the new kids on a very, very long block. The Cold War was, among other things, a battle over which vision of progress was more valid—a prolonged fight involving collaboration between the American state, corporations, and research institutions to produce More Progress than their Soviet counterparts. Countless midcentury corporate annual reports detail organizations’ commitment to progress, an idea often expressed in terms of brainpower. What’s absurd about the idea of Progress Studies isn’t the mission—“Progress: How?”—so much as the blissful, maybe willful, ignorance that American society isn’t thoroughly up its own ass about the concept of progress.

“When progress becomes an unquestionable political pursuit, a quality by which a people define and distinguish themselves—that is, the American liberal sense of self—then critical history becomes both subservient to science and politically needless.”

It’s this longstanding American obsession with progress that has led to the existing political quandary between science, politics, and the humanities. When progress becomes an unquestionable political pursuit, a quality by which a people define and distinguish themselves—that is, the American liberal sense of self—then critical history becomes both subservient to science and politically needless. After all, the story is always already known: we made science, and then made better and better science, and that’s how we saved the world. Any horrors committed in the pursuit of science, from experimentations on enslaved women to predatory lab chiefs, are excused as regrettable events that ultimately created greater social good. In other words, there’s no need to have Progress Studies because we are all trapped in the constant pursuit of progress. Indeed, what makes academia such a politically dangerous place, one where your Maureen Dowds and Bret Stephenses and other similarly useless people concoct a netherworld of SJWs and PC culture run amok, is that universities are one of the few environments were people find the idea of progress questioned. 

 More than once, the Lady Science team has made fun of the tech bro penchant for taking an existing part of society—corner stores, apartments, taxes—and turning it into a needlessly complicated scheme that could never generate as much social benefit as existing designs. Beneath these jokes, however, is the realization that these products are never really meant for full social good. Rather, they are reflections of several ideologies crashing together at once: capitalism, American imperialism, and, yes, patriarchy. What connects the CEO of Stripe and the men at coffeehouses who never shut up are these interconnected forces that enable both to think their half-baked ideas about What It All Means hold water. 

 I don’t think the solution for this just comes from performative exasperation that typically displays itself on social media. It’s not enough to simply fact-check bad ideas—or, put more generously, not everyone has a massive enough Twitter platform in which fact-checking bad faith actors can be their own form of political engagement. The only vision the creators of Progress Studies may have is up their own asses, but these same bad ideas about progress have been circulating for so long and are so pervasive that they aren’t going to just die out. In ideological terms: feelings don’t care about your facts. 

Meaningful change can only come from creating more work that challenges the Progress Narrative itself. This is a shared responsibility, and rather than bark in circles over who has access to “the public” and what “the public” even means, I think we can agree that right now is a really good time to engage with whatever public you have access to. Journalists, scientists, and historians alike have a duty to quit relying on a politics of science that upholds the pursuit of knowledge as a detached, objective, context-free pursuit. Likewise, we must start picking at what, exactly, the idea of progress means: Progress for whom? Who profits—who suffers—when science is conducted with a fixation on constant numerical improvement? How is the idea of progress constantly entangled with the ideas of national power, and what could Big Science look like unmoored from imperialism and disastrous geopolitics? What would scientific innovation look like with an eye toward harm reduction, reparations, and restorative justice?  

There is a political urgency to this work. And I think there is a way to challenge progress narratives without giving into rightwing ideologues who are not and never will be interested in climate change or renewable energy because they, too, already profit off of a specific worldview that deliberately benefits the very few at the expense of the rest of the world’s future. Those who know better have to interrupt this cycle. Otherwise, this tech bro circle jerk merry-go-round is not going to stop.

Image credit: Second Industrial Revolution. BASF Werk Ludwigshafen 1881, Gemälde im BASF-Archiv. (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)

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