How useful is “progress”?

Most of the things that are happening in the world seem valuable to me: we understand science and engineering better, we acquire more expertise, the productive workforce grows, we invest in infrastructure and capital faster than it degrades, and so on. If I make the world of today richer or more technologically sophisticated, it seems like those gains will persist and compound for quite a while. On the other hand, people who work at cross-purposes to progress seem to get little traction. So naturally, when I consider trying to make the world better, I’m inclined to try to accelerate progress. Unfortunately I think that our intuitions overstate the value of speeding up progress (of all kinds), and that in the aggregate I don’t much care whether human progress goes faster or slower.

The basic issue is that accelerating progress doesn’t change where we are going, it only changes how quickly we get there. So unless you are in a rush, speeding things up doesn’t make the world much better. Of course, there are some cases where speeding up society does change things—for example when society is racing against destructive natural processes—but I suspect those effects are small.

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