A Progress Studies Manifesto

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison and Marginal Revolution author Tyler Cowen called for a new discipline of Progress Studies, whose success

will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions. In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.

The response of academia was less than constructive: claims that there was already a substantial body of work on this topic tended to be references to either commentaries on the evils of Big Tech, hand-waving allusions to “substantial literatures” (minus actual citations) or, worst of all, lazy accusations that “two tech bros” thought that they had had re-invented Science and Technology Studies, or even just history.

Writing my PhD dissertation on Silicon Valley and the emergence of “scientific entrepreneurship,” I’ve looked at most of the social science writing on startups and technological innovation. The truth is, here’s remarkably little: a handful of books on Silicon Valley, none of which focus directly on entrepreneurship, some studies of startups in other regions, and almost nothing on the financing of innovation.

In the process, though, I’ve identified both the deeper theoretical and philosophical roots of how Silicon Valley thinks about innovation and entrepreneurship, and some state-of-the-science methods and theories which, I think, do a better job of explaining innovation processes than any of the current accounts.

Collison and Cowen are closer to the mark than the academics who claimed that the work of Progress Studies is already being done. Here, I’m going to outline a program for the development of Progress Studies as a discipline which draws on economics, architecture and archeology (among other fields) to outline a discipline which is a reflective theory of innovation. That is to say, rather than a new, more unified and normative way of studying innovation, a discipline which provides both a multi-disciplinary theoretical account and a practical training for innovators.

The Need for Progress Studies

The Progress Studies Collison and Cowen envision

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.

As they point out,

Plenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion and fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions.

The discipline they call for is a broad one, with aspects of the Effective Altruism movement’s ethics, a nod to conservative historian Niall Ferguson and national security commentator and former U.S. assistant secretary of defense Graham Allison’s notion of an

applied history [which would] attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues

as well as implications for science and research policy and funding. Given Ferguson’s devotion to Henry Kissinger, however, those with an interest in progress towards realistic AI futures might want to be cautious with his advice.

At the highest level, the goal of Progress Studies is the betterment of the human condition, rather than the advancement of “pure” knowledge: whether biomedical, energy, industrial production or infrastructure, the areas of development Collison and Cowen allude to all involve the introduction of new technical objects and technological systems into human life.

It is for that reason that I believe the initial goal of Progress Studies should be to develop a broad-based theory of technological change and innovation–one which encompasses the work of scientific discovery as the source of new modes of production, but is oriented toward the development of innovative solutions, rather than “pure” science.

In the interests of, well, progress, I believe it’s more important to address the need Patrick and Tyler bring up in their editorial than to argue over which disciplines in particular they might have “re-invented.” First, let’s look at the fields of research which would say that they already speak to these questions.

Forgetting Business Studies

The antipathy, if not outright contempt of many (if not most) Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs for MBA graduates is well known. It bears repeating, however, given that in discussions of Collison and Cowen’s article, some Twitter “reply guys” felt the need to claim that the work done in business schools was social science: the way that management, organizational or industrial policy studies looks at the social context of innovation is not the same as the lens of sociology or anthropology.

Likewise, strictly social science studies of organizations shouldn’t necessarily be expected to provide prescriptions for improvement (although it’s quite wrong to see anthropologists, for example, as detached, neutral observers: the activist fieldworker is a well-established archetype). As we’ll see, the nature of doing ethnographic research with techno-scientific elites is, in fact, increasingly collaborative and it’s entirely within the bounds of anthropology today for there to be an exchange of methods with professionals who are, after all, similarly experts on a particular social world–in the case of successful entrepreneurs, that of their customers!

I take Collison and Cowen’s complaint that “we still need a lot of progress…[towards] enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today” as a guide to the social ethics of Progress Studies. At a deeper level, the problem with relying on business schools to address the problems of Progress Studies is that, aside from occasional “business ethics” classes, there just isn’t much attention paid there to the broader consequences of business “success.”

To make genuine progress towards raising living standards–and reducing material inequality–we can surely learn more from the closely engaged work of ethnographers in economically excluded communities than business schools; indeed, perhaps libertarian readers’ favorite anthropologist, James C. Scott’s famous Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed ought to be compulsory reading for all students of Progress Studies.

At a more practical level, while Steve Blank’s entrepreneurship course, first taught by him at Berkeley and now forming much of the backbone of the Lean Startup methodology, has spread to many business schools today, and, critically for the mission of Progress Studies, has been adopted by the National Science Foundation’s iCorps program for the commercialization of research, it too only offers a narrow view of the innovation process, and one which lacks the rigor of an established discipline of new product development. What’s more, the application of more critically (or, for that matter, statistically) grounded methods from the social sciences would likely reduce the rate of failure of new startups quite substantially–a boon for both entrepreneurs and investors.

After Futurology

The speculative fiction genre known as futurology does, in its best examples, draw extensively from history and a keen sense of cultural forces. It is not, of course, the kind of disciplined program of research which Progress Studies should be, and it’s worth reflecting on why.

While the predictions of futurologists are eminently falsifiable (and given sufficient time, the overwhelming majority of them will prove incorrect), this is somewhat to miss the point of the genre. There is, though, a critical difference between the scenarios of the futurologists and the kinds of both prescriptive and critical insight which an effective Progress Studies would offer: it is, quite simply, not the responsibility of futurologists to guide the processes through which their imagined future will be built.

Now, let’s look at the disciplines which should form the pillars of the (inter)discipline of Progress Studies.

The problem with psychology

The search for a set of stable psychological traits which predispose individuals to “making a greater contribution to progress” is, overall, not an avenue which is likely to be productive, and all too often degenerates into the search for a genetic basis for individual or, worse, group success.

Like Stephen Jay Gould, I’m more interested in the lost Einsteins whose social and economic conditions prevent them from making the contribution to human progress which they might under better circumstances, than the weight of Einstein’s brain.

Conversely, research into the neuroscience of creative thinking and, perhaps most pressingly, the psychological consequences of innovation and strategies to best support innovators seems a far more worthy area for Progress Studies to address.

Evolving Economics

Mainstream economics is one of the existing disciplines which it is fair to say, as Collison and Cowen put it, “fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions.” I won’t get into the details of what’s missing from Keynesian or Austrian theory’s analysis of innovation here; in general, there’s more value in finding the corners of existing disciplines which can make a positive contribution to Progress Studies.
Perhaps the most productive line of research on innovation is in (neo-)Schumpeterian economics; as my own research has shown, Silicon Valley today is structured by a blend of Schumpeter’s ideas with the “complexity” approaches to economics made popular by W. Brian Arthur.

These two lines of thought are somewhat marginal to mainstream economics–indeed, the so-called “Other Canon,” or Renaissance Economics, is a “heterodox” tradition by the standards of (neo)classical economic theory. It focuses on the critical role of innovation and entrepreneurial agency on economic development, rather than the static equilibria of classical economics: on Man the Producer, not Economic Man, the creature of markets.

Indeed, as early as 1610, the first scientifically-minded “economist” Antonio Serra was turning his attention to questions that still concern us, like how to reproduce successful “innovation clusters” like Silicon Valley. Serra’s Short Treatise described the wealth of Venice, and aimed to describe ways to emulate it in Naples, and it inaugurated the discipline of political economy–the flavor of economic research that can add most to Progress studies, and which has traditionally been the one which paid attention to innovation and entrepreneurs.

My own research has shown how the “native” theory of progress which has emerged in Silicon Valley puts the Schumpeterian figure of the heroic entrepreneur at the helm of a “complex evolving system,” in Arthur’s terms, which exhibits emergent network effects and other non-linear phenomena. You can see this in practically every VC’s blog post in what they look for in investments, but few are consciously aware of the influence of these theories in their portfolio choices. It should be, partly, the task of Progress Studies to explore the intellectual roots of successful systems of innovation and, equally importantly, to promote a conscious reflection on the path dependent structures of entrepreneurial and venture capital practice.

Another subfield of economics which has recently come to prominence is based on “behavioral” approaches. Using a mix of experimental studies on human subjects (often playing for real money) and agent-based simulation modeling techniques, behavioral economists try to identify the micro-scale foundations for macroeconomic phenomena. Closely allied to this are the game theory approaches which are particularly significant in cryptoeconomics and token engineering. This rapidly-growing area of work seems the most promising contributor of a quantitative approach to the economic aspects of Progress Studies.

A neo-Schumpeterian approach to macroeconomics, exemplified by the work of Carlota Perez (which has strongly influenced the thinking of, amongst many others, Marc Andreessen) and colored by complexity approaches to growth, and what I have termed a “heterodox economic sociology of innovation” combine to give Progress Studies a firm foundation for studying both the economic processes and the entrepreneurial cultures and individuals which drive innovation, and its material consequences.

Architecture and Algorithm: The Autopoesis of Product

While Collison and Cowen discuss scientific research policy at some length, my focus here is on the technologies which are their world-changing outcome. I see in their call for Progress Studies the need for a discipline which elevates the practice of product creation to the level of critical practice of architecture.

Yes, architecture.

It’s surprising that we hardly ever see direct comparisons between startup product development and architecture, but I believe that’s the discipline which offers the best model for the development of the field of Progress Studies.

Maybe the biggest challenge in defining how this new discipline could work is positioning its work relative to that of other, more established fields–and to do that, we need to look at the leading edge of various disciplines, not a simplistic (and possibly outdated) outline.

For instance, it’s no more useful to say that studying architecture means “learning to design buildings” than to describe anthropology as “the study of culture.” Both are true, in a sense, but there’s far more to say.

Patrik Schumacher defines the “lead distinction” of architecture as “to give form to function.” This function is, he goes on to note, “always defined relative to an encompassing functioning unit to which it is considered to contribute.”

In a broad sense, I think the task of Progress Studies overlaps considerably with the domain of architecture when it’s defined in this way: the idea of a society, or at least business or scientific culture, which is to some degree optimized toward points directly to the need to understand the “functioning units” in which technological innovation takes place.

Beyond “how to make functional and attractive new buildings,” the discipline of architecture theorizes the task it has at hand. Schumacher again:

The functions of architecture are those communications, communicative interactions and communicative event scenarios that are framed by architecture’s forms. All design is ultimately communication design.

Rethought through this theory, the development of innovative products can also be seen as “communication design:” the functions of, for instance, a social network are the communicative events that are “framed” by the forms of the software (and infrastructure) on which the platform runs.

The overlap between Schumacher’s work and that of technologists, particularly in AI and related fields, becomes even clearer when we consider that he claims to inaugurate “parametricism,” the architectural style characterized by designs shaped by algorithmic models of human interaction with their environment.

My interest here is not so much in design as conventionally understood, but rather in activities which contribute new objects to the realm of human tools, at the broadest level, and to call for a Progress Studies which adequately conceptualizes that task.

Schumacher’s approach to the relationship between practice and theory is equally important to understanding the task of Progress Studies. He explicitly presents his theory of the “autopoiesis of architecture” as a “self-description formulated from within architecture.” This “reflection theory,” in German systems sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s terms, “oscillates between descriptive and normative modes of theorizing.”

Collison and Cowen claim that

An important distinction between our proposed Progress Studies and a lot of existing scholarship is that mere comprehension is not the goal.

On one hand, they suggest, we find the descriptive social sciences, and on the other, the purely practical, normative world of the business school. In the case of architecture, though, the discipline’s theorizing of itself “oscillates” between these two poles, and rather than being the object of study of sociologists, historians and so on, and then learning from their insights, theory is generated from within the system of architectural discourse. Broadly, I’m proposing that what the technology industry needs to do is apply the same level of reflection to the production of technological artifacts–products–as architecture applies to its communications through the built environment.

The goal of Progress Studies should, at this level, be to stimulate the emergence of a reflection theory of innovation, which encompasses a philosophy of product design as well as a holistic view of the systems in which a new product is enmeshed. Critically, this theory must be generated by, to paraphrase Schumacher,

describing, conceptually systematizing and reconstructing the rationality of [innovation’s] history and current state.

Let’s combine that with what we just saw about how political economy’s insights into innovation, combined with complexity economics: the preliminary task of Progress Studies is to conceptually systematize the rationality of innovation, a process which takes place in a political–economic frame and is shaped by complex dynamic processes which can be rigorously modeled. Most importantly, though, this theory needs to be a “reflection theory” which oscillates between describing the processes of innovation and progress, and actively contributing to the design of new technological forms.

Collaborative anthropology

Collision and Cowen are, with respect, a little off the mark when it comes to framing anthropology’s encounter with science:

When anthropologists look at scientists, they’re trying to understand the species. But when viewed through the lens of Progress Studies, the implicit question is how scientists (or funders or evaluators of scientists) should be acting.

There are two problems with this: first, the anthropology of scientific practice (or Science & Technology Studies) has, over the past two decades, moved away from treating the human scientist as its primary object of interest, and towards “Actor-Networks” including both human and non-human “agencies.”

Second, the picture of anthropologists “looking at” scientists is a little outdated. Today,

as the subjects of anthropological investigation become ever more attenuated from the classical ‘native on the beach’, ethnographers increasingly find themselves confronted with people whose everyday theories and practices appear strikingly familiar to their own. (Justin Richland)

Looking at scientists (and perhaps even acutely, entrepreneurs, as I found in my PhD research on Silicon Valley), anthropologists find themselves not so much articulating a description of the “scientific species” from an external perspective, as becoming embroiled in the negotiation of research activity itself.

Confronting scientific expertise, anthropologists

must relearn our method from our subjects as epistemic partners, from a careful assessment of how they engage our world and our time intellectually. This presumes motivation, intent, purpose, curiosity as well as intellectual appropriation on the part of subjects who agree to become part of, or cooperate with, ethnographic inquiry.

That’s quite a leap from “understanding the [other] species!”
On the other side, the methods of Lean Startup already closely resemble those of social science: for instance, Alex Osterwalder directly suggests that users of his Business Model Canvas take on the perspective of an anthropologist when doing customer development research. The VCs I talked to for my research recognized themselves in my description of the successful investor as part anthropologist–in particular those with an orientation to far-future technologies.

The other dimension to this methodological cross-pollination should be the adoption of a more collaborative relationship between innovators and the users of their products–and, perhaps even more importantly, an expanded understanding of the web into which these new products are woven. Contemporary anthropology’s turn from a human-centric view of culture to the study of complex webs of relations between humans and non-humans offers Progress Studies a wealth of approaches to AI, ecological crisis, sustainability and the measurement of value in ways that go beyond economics.

Digging into Product: Material Culture Studies

One discipline which spends most of its time thinking about technological progress, and yet which seems to be almost completely neglected in the search for deeper approaches to the problems of innovation, is archeology. Along with Science and Technology Studies, archeology’s approaches to human progress form a more directly useful basis for considering the past than most mainstream academic historical studies.

The most prominent facets of archeology are “spectacular” sites, like the Pyramids or Machu Picchu, huge hoards of gold and silver artifacts, statues, and the like. Next to these, the insights that highly scientific methods, like DNA analysis, cosmic ray spallation dating or even “archeology from space” can give us into the deep past are also widely reported. It’s important to bear in mind, though, that the most eye-catching finds from the best-known sites are seldom game-changing in terms of our understanding of history, and just knowing how old an object is tells us nothing about its context of use–just as DNA evidence for prehistoric migrations tells us nothing about their culture.

Outside the spotlight, though, the work of many archeologists focusses on tool-use and technological change–usually the use of mundane, everyday objects. They’re as interested in the people and cultural systems behind the artifact as the object itself. That can tell us far more about human progress than unveiling yet another sarcophagus. Just like in anthropology, at the theoretical forefront of archeology, we find a set of theoretical and practical tools to approach the problems of Progress Studies.

Everyone knows about behavioral psychology. A few people know about behavioral economics. Almost no-one has even heard of behavioral archeology.

Behavioral archeology seeks to produce a unified model of technological and cultural change, by tracing not just the development of material objects through time, but the evolution of the complex networks of dependence between humans and things. Closely intertwined with the development of “material culture studies” in the past two decades or so (closely allied to the Actor-Network Theory we met in the previous section), archeological approaches like the “tanglegram” are–as I’ve found in my own work–ideally suited to the study of new high-technology products and the markets for them.

Inaugurating Progress Studies

I am less optimistic than Collison and Cowen when it comes to the prospects for the development of Progress Studies, or anything like it, within academia today. Most academics seem to have been too busy insisting that they were working on these problems already to point out that research funding allocation is already acknowledged to be hugely dysfunctional. Indeed, I would suggest that prescribing how scientists, or even science funders, ought to act is inherently problematic: rather, Progress Studies should (at its outset at least) have as its goal the development of a critical, reflective discipline of technological development.

There are, of course, many opportunities for Progress Studies–once it has a rigorously tested base of methods for the optimization of innovation processes in general–to contribute to the development of scientific research. But there is, I think, a greater deficit in the business world.

How, then, should we start the motor of Progress Studies?

In the spirit of the collaborative methods of the new anthropology, I believe that the creation of this discipline and its theory must take place through a dialogue between academics and innovators–with the aim of Progress Studies becoming a self-defining, and self-sustaining system of thought which organically formalizes the already high degree of self-reflection found in the startup and venture capital communities, as well as more broadly.

It’s worth bearing in mind at this point that Google is the largest hirer of new social science PhDs.


The combination of a large pool of PhD researchers who simply can’t find an academic job (or don’t want one) in Progress Studies’ various subfields, plus the extortionate costs imposed by university administrations on grant-funded work, make today’s university a poor choice of nursery for this new discipline.

Rather, I’d propose a combination of think tank and professional education platform. By bringing together the most reflective thinkers from the technology industry and, in due course, “hard” sciences, with researchers from architecture, engineering and design, economics, anthropology and science and technology studies, archeology and history, psychology and even neuroscience, in an environment that’s free from the frictions of conventional academia, we have a much better chance of establishing a genuinely new discipline.

Indeed, it seems appropriate, given the state of the university system and rapid progress being made in new models of education, that Progress Studies should be the first discipline native to a world of alt-schools, bootcamps and edtech for lifelong learning.

Compared to the donations established universities receive every year, or many less focussed think-tanks, it would be highly cost effective–and it’s easy to see how a curriculum for a radically effective entrepreneurship qualification would emerge, and how that could be offered through the kinds of teaching (and financial) innovations already being pioneered in Silicon Valley.

Moreover, the success of “bootcamp” format professional education in the software industry creates both the risk of a loss of deeper learning (compared to traditional college degrees) and an opportunity for the technology community to build its own networks for intellectual collaboration, self-reflection and engagement with broader social questions–networks that are not always already entangled in the pre-existing disciplinary boundary wars and bureaucratic machinations of the university system.

It’s easy to see how an institution devoted to this could become self-sustaining by offering continuing education for founders, designers and investors, long-term bootcamps that serve as a real alternative to college for aspiring innovators, and even to research-based “advanced degrees.”

In conclusion

  • Silicon Valley’s concept of value depends on complexity thinking, and its idea of innovation on Renaissance Economics.

  • Product development already depends on (more or less dysfunctional) ethnography and material culture studies.

  • The creation of new additions to our technological world should be approached with the same care as those in the built environment.

  • There is more to gain from learning to support the psychological wellbeing of innovators, and to create the personal and social conditions for creative thinking, than trying to predict who might be a successful innovator.

  • Progress Studies must be the organic self-reflective theory of innovation practitioners.

On these principles, I have proposed both the outline of the first subfields of Progress Studies–economic, psychological, cultural and practical–and the structure of its relationship to practice. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but I believe these pillars can support the development of a new theory of human technological progress that is both descriptive and normative.