June 20, 2024

The stagnation hypothesis is not universally accepted. Ideas can be combined and recombined, creating a combinatorial explosion of new innovations, an effect that counters the gobbling of low-hanging fruit. And some have pointed out that if you measure research productivity and benefits differently, the picture is much rosier.

Nonetheless, fear of stagnation is a central motivation for many people in the progress community. Unlike Gordon, however, they are optimistic about their capacity to change it – which leads us to the story of how the progress studies movement was founded.

The origin of progress studies

Around 2016, Cowen received an out-of-the-blue email from Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, who was interested in his book, The Great Stagnation. A few years earlier, Collison had cofounded the online payments company Stripe and now wanted to talk about bigger issues. The pair had a few dinners together in San Francisco and hit it off.

Both Cowen and Collison are infovores. Collison has posted his entire nearly 800-volume bookshelf to his personal site (though he admits he’s only read about half of them). Cowen’s practice of ruthlessly scouring books for the information value they contain and abandoning them – sometimes after five minutes – may make some completionists shudder.

Cowen’s information-production is nearly as prolific as his consumption. The 60-year-old economist has authored nearly 20 books, 40 papers, six years of Bloomberg columns, over 150 episodes of his podcast, and nearly 20 years of blog posts on his popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. During our conversation, Cowen’s voice was hoarse from the marathon of interviews he conducted to promote his most recent book. In 2020, Cowen ranked 17th on a list of the top 100 most influential economists.

Collison, nearly three decades younger and running the fourth-most valuable private startup in the world, has written less, but still found time to publish collections of links on topics like air pollution, culture, growth, Silicon Valley history, and, of course, progress. Stripe’s nearly $100bn (£83bn/€95bn) valuation puts Collison’s net worth north of $11bn (£9bn/€10.5bn). The online payments company combines the lofty “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups with the mundane, competent pipes-building of an infrastructure company.

During the pair’s meetings, Cowen tells me, “we were both talking about the ideas, finding we had common ideas, and somehow hit upon the notion of an article”. So, in 2019, they co-authored an essay in The Atlantic, which argued for “a new science of progress”.

“There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study,” they wrote. “We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘progress studies.'”

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