Narrative decentralization and the future of progress – with Jason Crawford



Narrative decentralization and the future of progress – with Jason Crawford

Jason Crawford joins us to explore how information technology has helped to decentralize and create a plurality of narratives around progress and why he thinks progress has somewhat slowed in the second part of the last century.

Podcast Notes

Jason Crawford is the founder of The Roots of Progress, where he writes and speaks about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress. He is also the creator of Progress Studies for Young Scholars, an online learning program for high schoolers; and a part-time adviser and technical consultant to Our World in Data, an Oxford-based non-profit for research and data on global development. Previously, he spent 18 years as a software engineer, engineering manager, and startup founder.


Key highlights from the conversation

We discussed:

  • The impact of information technology on centralization and decentralization
  • The emergence of a plurality of meanings of progress
  • Removing excess capacity and what it means for supply chain disruptions
  • The potential for cryptocurrencies to automate legal and financial actions
  • Why the pace of progress is slowing down — and how to speed it up


To find out more about Jason’s work:


Other references and mentions:


Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at

Thanks for the ad-hoc music to Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here:

Recorded on 23 November 2021.



🌐 Boundaryless Conversations Podcast is about exploring the future of organizing at scale by leveraging on technology, network effects, and shaping narratives. We explore how platforms can help us play with a world in turmoil, change, and transformation: a world that is at the same time more interconnected and interdependent than ever but also more conflictual and rivalrous.


Simone Cicero:
Hello, everyone. We’re back at the Boundaryless Conversations Podcast with you today. It’s me, Simone like always. With me, there is my usual co-host, Stina.

Stina Heikkila:
Hello, everybody.

Simone Cicero:
And we have today with us, we have Jason Crawford. Hello, Jason.

Jason Crawford:
Hello. Thanks for having me.

Simone Cicero:
That’s great. Jason is one of the world renowned experts in the topic of progress. And we wanted really to have him on board to discuss, let’s say, something that too often we give a little bit like, for granted, and we don’t really discuss about and we don’t seem to understand when we should. So, that’s the topic of today. And of course, we’re going to look into this topic from an organizational perspective, that is our — your core aspect of conversation often in our podcast. So, Jason, maybe just before starting, I think we’re not going to ask you to make a long intro. But I think it’s a good idea to just give our listeners a couple of bits about what does it mean to study progress? So, what is the work of your life, essentially, what your research topic, you know, if you can just give a quick introduction to the topic for our listeners?

Jason Crawford:
Yeah, sure. Well, I’ll just explain what got me fascinated by the question and why I decided to study it. If you just look back over the grand sweep of human history, one of the big facts that just jumps out at you is that, really, for almost all of human history, just wealth and quality of living was growing very slowly, if at all, until about 200 to 300 years ago, at which point, things really started taking off. In fact, if you look more broadly, say the last 500 years or something, we’ve actually had enormous amounts of progress in technology, industry and living standards, in science, and just the growth of our knowledge. And even you know, I would argue, to some extent, in our moral and social systems.

And this was after, again many thousands, tens of thousands of years, depending on how you count, very little progress along those lines. This is, in my opinion, the greatest thing ever to happen to humanity. Quality of life was actually quite terrible for almost everyone just a few 100 years ago. And comparatively, we live in an amazing world and we live very cushy lives. So, if you look at that great fact of history and you care about human well being, I think you have to ask a few key questions. One, how did it happen? Two, why did it take so long? And three, how can we keep it going? That’s what motivates me.

Simone Cicero:
That’s great. And also helps me to connect with the first, let’s say, area of conversation that we would like to have with you today that is around the industrial age that I understand from listening to some of your prior podcasts and in general, reading some of your stuff, that some somehow you identify as the real accelerator of progress, this idea of industrial age, as you know, the moment where things really started to accelerate faster and innovation started to come up on a regular basis, not just once in a lifetime, let’s say.

So, the question that I would like to explore with you, it’s really about what’s happening to progress, as we step into what we call a post-industrial society and what does it mean, for example, to innovate in a world that is probably, first of all, a bit more decentralized in terms of the way that we recognize innovation today, and often when we speak about ecosystems, innovations are much less about a clear, great idea coming from the center, coming from the genius, coming from, I don’t know, whatever we want to call it. But it’s sometimes much more about personalization, it’s much more about local, optimal solutions that can be developed at the edge of the system. So, first of all, the topic of decentralization, how do you see that happening? What are your feelings around this idea of moving past the industrial age in a more decentralized, more post-industrial age?

Jason Crawford:
Yeah, it’s funny. I have always found the term post-industrial to be a little odd. Because of course, we are still well within the industrial age. Industry has not gone away and it’s not shrinking. But if you — I guess, if you approach it from the perspective of centralization and decentralization, then yes, there are some ways in which there’s definitely been decentralization in recent years and decades. And I, without having thought about it too deeply, off the top of my head, it seems to me that it’s primarily from information technology. Okay. So, if we rewind the clock a little bit and go back to before the Industrial Revolution, there were few, if any, maybe really no very large business organizations. And there was actually no real science or profession of management. The only thing that we had in terms of coordinating very large numbers of people to do some — to accomplish some goal together really was military.

A breakthrough in this came with the railroads. So, in the 1830s, began a railway mania, there was a whole lot of railway building in the US and the UK, particularly then it spread to Europe and the rest of the world. And the railroads were very large endeavors, which raised very large amounts of capital. They actually really kind of pushed on the law on the corporate form, they pushed for limited liability corporations, and so forth. So, they’re raising large amounts of money. They’re also spread out over large distances in a way that many businesses were not. Previously, you had farflung trading ventures, right. Like, you think of the Dutch East India Company, or the British East India Company or other trading corporations like that. I mean, those corporations were spread out throughout the world. But the way they operated was through managers and agents in different locations who operated fairly autonomously. They had to because there was no instant communications; the only way they communicated was through letters that went on the very ships that were trading, and took months and months to get from headquarters to some distant outpost.

So, now in the mid 1800s, you’ve got these railroads. So, not only do you have the railroads, which are these large organizations spread out over a large distance, but also around the same time you have the telegraph. So, the telegraph was invented, sort of soon after the railways were really getting off the ground, and railroads were one of the first customers. It was just so obviously useful to coordinate the operation of the railroad itself, right, to coordinate the trains. But then more broadly to coordinate the construction and management of the whole system. When the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the US across some 2,000 miles of undeveloped wilderness, as they were building the railroad out over those thousands of miles, they built the telegraph right along with it. And so the folks who were at the end of the line, constructing the line forward, could telegraph back to headquarters to order supplies or report on conditions or ask for more labor, or whatever it was. So, the railroads really evolved the first modern management.

And so I think starting in that kind of late 1800s and certainly into the 20th century, we did get the rise of sort of larger and maybe more centralized, more top-down management. And again, a lot of this is driven through information technology. Similarly, in politics, if you look at kind of what’s going on in terms of the building of nation states, and politics becoming much more national, like a significant amount of that was because of broadcast technologies, like radio and television. You know, FDR. I mean, everybody from FDR to Hitler in the 30s, was able to address the entire nation through the radio and give a speech to everybody at once, which simply hadn’t been possible before. And so if we are now seeing some decentralization, I think a large reason for it is because of changing information technology, and especially the internet, the internet is this massive decentralizing democratizing force.

Here’s kind of how I think about it. Prior to the internet, we had — the way to get the written word out was still essentially through the printing press, right. Through books and newspapers printed in ink on paper. That’s an expensive proposition, and requires a deep capital investment in the printing presses and the distribution networks and so forth. And so when you have a lot of investment into getting the written word out, you need editorial gatekeepers, who are going to make wise decisions about what to do with that limited resource, right, with that expensive resource, how to invest that. And so you have editors acting as gatekeepers deciding what gets published, and who’s good enough to publish and what writing is good enough to publish and so forth. And then the internet comes along, and essentially takes cost of publishing to zero, certainly the marginal cost, right, and makes the infrastructure available to just about everybody.

Well, now all of a sudden, no editor has to decide what gets published because everything can get published. But as soon as you do that, you’re now in a — you have a new scarce resource. It’s not paper and ink. It’s people’s attention, right. There quickly becomes too much stuff on the internet for anyone to pay attention to. So, now the question is, what are people going to read out of the infinite variety of words published online that people could read. And so for a while, I think the editor still had sort of power in directing people’s attention, right? Maybe people were going to instead of picking up the physical paper, but it’s still editors kind of directing their attention to what they ought to read.

Well, social media came along, and it disintermediated the media companies, and they essentially lost their direct relationship with their audience. Now they’re getting an enormous amount of their traffic through social media. And so now you’ve got this world where basically, anyone can become an influencer, right? Anyone can build an audience on social media. And so now you’ve got not only the sort of — the democratization of publishing, but also the democratization of audience building and attention directing. And what we are seeing just now in the last year or two, is that the editor still held sway, because if you wanted to be a full time writer, it was hard to make a living in any way other than going and joining a media company and getting paid a salary out of the budgets that the editors would direct.

Well, now we are starting to see writers go independent audiences are getting big enough. And the platforms and the tools are getting easy enough to use, especially through new tools called Substack, which makes it easy for people to create a paid newsletter. And so now lots of writers are just going independent, and finding that they can very easily make a living, some of them making more than a good living, right, making on the order of a million dollars a year through their audiences. So, the media companies first lost their monopoly in publishing, then they lost their direct relationship, their audience. Now, they’re even losing their writers. And so I think that’s just a really stark example of how the internet acts as a decentralizing force. But I think more broadly, this can also apply to businesses and organizations and management, and so forth. But I’ve talked for long enough so let me turn it back over to you.

Simone Cicero:
No, I mean, right, that’s great. I mean, we very quickly go to, I think, a very essential point, that is this inextricable relationship between the idea of progress and the narratives that we build around it. And also, you clearly identify communication as an essential point when you speak about the printing press and the internet and so on. So, I was talking with Stina in the background. And to some extent, maybe you start to say post-industrialization like it’s a bit of a naive idea because we’re still very much industrialized. But it may be that the internet has changed the nature of innovation, just because it has changed the nature of how we build narratives. And essentially what I’m talking about here is, of course, we see more voices, more ideas around progress and innovation coming up. And probably now it’s much more diverse and plural. And this is something that was identified by philosophers so long ago, if we talk about — if you look into the work, for example, of Deleuze and how we’re moving out of this idea of centralized societies.

But the idea that I think I want to bring back to you is more about capabilities. So, what am I talking about? You know, of course, we can decentralize narratives, we can create different ideas of progress. But in terms of capabilities, what are the organizational layers? What are the institutional layers you need to generate progress? And to what extent are they possible to decentralize them? So, what I mean here is really to try to understand if industrialization and progress are a bit like too tight to imagine a progress that is similar to the progress we have in mind now, in a really decentralized world, decentralized in terms of institutional building, not just narrative building. And so what are your thoughts around this? I know the question is a bit fuzzy, maybe, but I hope you got my points.

Jason Crawford:
Yeah, sure. Sure. So, let’s talk about how decentralization relates to progress. I do think that there are various ways in which technological and industrial progress itself is getting decentralized. So, for one thing, in various ways, it’s just much easier to find a market now for any new product. So, talking about the gatekeepers, the editorial, gatekeepers in publishing, well, there’s something similar for new products, right? It used to be that if you wanted to sell a consumer product, it was a big break to get shelf space in one of the major stores, right, like to get Walmart to pick up your product. Not only to pick it up, but to devote a significant amount of shelf space to it and display it nicely and display it at eye height so people would see it and so forth, right?

Now, just as on the internet, there’s unlimited room for publishing ideas. On an online store, there is unlimited shelf space. And so a store like Amazon is no longer limited by shelf space, they don’t have to make decisions about what gets sold. Anybody can sign up on Amazon and sell almost anything. Again the question is about attention. And so you can sell your stuff on Amazon, but maybe nobody will see it because it’s in there with an almost infinite number of products. But then again, this comes back to another way in which it is, innovation can be more decentralized, is it’s much easier for anyone now to build an audience. And having an audience online is just an extremely powerful thing if you want to promote any type of innovation, or build any type of business or venture, having an audience gives you a marketing channel, gives you a recruiting channel, it just gives you some credibility, it gives you a way to reach out and ask for resources. And again, with social media, and the ability to create a blog and so forth and to build an email list, you know, virtually anybody can do this.

Of course, another thing that makes it easier to build a market now is that pretty much all markets are global. And so if you have a niche product that only appeals to some tens of thousands of people in the world, and you want to get it out there, you can now find those people easier than ever before no matter where they may be all throughout the world, scattered across different countries and continents and time zones. And so the internet really is the last step in a long process of globalization, making all markets global, which means there’s more of a market for any niche product.

You were also talking about maybe you know, ideas and where do ideas come from. I definitely think that the open sort of nature of online communications makes it much easier for ideas to come from anywhere and to get attention. In the science world, for instance, maybe you have a scientific paper that gets rejected by some of the top journals, but you can always throw it up online. And if it’s good enough and remarkable enough, and you can get the right people to notice it and pay attention to it and mention it on their blogs or they’re on science Twitter or whatever, then maybe you can get attention for it, even if the top journals didn’t pick it up. I mean, so those are just some examples in which I think innovation and progress are becoming decentralized. And where again, the story of this is always sort of the fall of the gatekeepers, right. There used to be these people who could sort of block ideas. And the more that we get open communications, the harder it is for people to block ideas, and the more ideas can just get out there and kind of live or die on their own.

Simone Cicero:
Super. I mean, super interesting. I was talking with Stina, and then I’m going to hand over to her for some further questions. But I wanted to just double click on some ideas for our listeners. From what you say, sometimes I feel like progress is something that we identify maybe more with this big jump that we made in the last one to two years. And now when I talk to you, and we speak about decentralization, it seems like you’re speaking more about innovation. So, an idea that maybe is more around new products, new solutions, but in a more general context, that it doesn’t really change the frame, let’s say.

And then probably I can imagine that if we look into the future, we can think of some kind of critical or more like, kind of refusal of some aspects of too much technology, too much innovation, so too much progress, as a way to kind of bounce back into something more — I don’t know how to say, but in a more equilibrium, let’s say with how we we feel like we want to life through this building of this new narratives that are emerging that maybe are somehow also critical about some aspects of internet going everywhere in our lives. And kind of monopolizing our attention, or gentrifying our cities and so on. But maybe this is something we can also come back to. And Stina, I don’t know if you want to add some elements, as you were saying.

Stina Heikkila:
Well, I was curious to know more about your thoughts, maybe in your framing of progress. We’ve been talking about decentralization and how ideas and markets are more decentralized and democratized in a way because you can reach people through the internet and so on. So, I’m curious to see from the production perspective, how do you see that unfolding, like going from what is an industrial perspective — Well, the industrial age like we were saying. So, even if we don’t want to say post-industrial — but would you see that tie in to your kind of thinking around progress? Is it going to be more decentralized? Are people going to be able to produce things like energy locally or basic goods that we need to sustain our wealth and quality of living? Or would that be more like a regression in that sense?

Jason Crawford:
Yeah. I don’t obviously see reasons why physical manufacturing or energy production would necessarily decentralize. You know, it’s sort of just fundamental economic reasons and engineering reasons why a particular technology might be more or less decentralized. One of the trends of information technology has been decentralizing, but one of the trends of transportation technology has been globalizing. And actually, the Information Technology helps us globalize as well. Okay, look, today to transport any goods around the world is extremely cheap. Even for some of the cheapest goods, the transportation cost is only a small fraction, or a small percentage of the cost of the goods. And that is unique in history. So, for most of history, transportation was very expensive. You had, especially overland before the railroads, you had — it was by cart and wagon, essentially. And because of this, almost all markets were local, and foreign goods were very much a rare and expensive luxury.

Now between cargo ships and freight trains, and air shipping and everything, and trucking, it’s just so easy to move things around that literally from materials to intermediate parts to a final assembled good, to final markets, things might bounce around the world multiple times going from location to location. So, in that sense, we’ve actually had much more centralization, right. A lot of manufacturing has gotten centralized in China. A lot of other industries can sort of centralized in that way, and in places that make the most economic sense for them. So, as long as it is easy to move things around, whether that’s goods or energy or whatever, that will be a force moving against decentralization, right? Because that is a force saying, hey, this stuff doesn’t have to get made near where it’s used. It should just get made wherever it’s cheapest to make it and then we’ll just send it everywhere.

So, no, I don’t necessarily think that we’ll see local energy production or local food production. We might see those things but if so, it won’t be because of some inevitable decentralizing force, that’s part of progress.

Simone Cicero:
Right. Doesn’t this imply that really, energy becomes much cheaper than it is now? Because if I think about, let’s say, all this externalities that are connected through global transport, essentially and that’s probably the most challenging aspect of the picture that you seem to be blinking to. So, when you say I don’t see that decentralizing my question will be, and what’s your judgment, your comment around what is happening in terms of supply chain disruptions, or the obvious implications of fossil fuels and climate change?

And in general, if I look into the world now, and I see how much, to some extent, things are regionalizing, in terms of regional powers that are kind of regaining much more important position in a multipolar world. So, it seems like you’re pointing out that centralization and thus, I think, industrialization is going to play a role, an important role also in the coming future; how do you reconcile all these externalities, implications, supply chain rigidities and the things that we are — everybody’s talking about these days?

Jason Crawford:
So, regarding energy, I don’t know exactly what the future is going to be. But I am hopeful that we will have a future of energy that is cheap, abundant, reliable and clean. And that we won’t have to compromise on any of the above. I think if the way we deal with our energy challenges is by using less energy over time, that is going to be a great tragedy, because it means that we will be a poor world where we are accomplishing less overall. I think a world where we continue to make progress, continue to make people’s lives better, continue to pull the world out of poverty, continue to increase quality of living for everybody, rich and poor alike, and continue to make innovations and bring new technologies into the world, that is going to be a world in which we use a lot more energy. So, just bottom line, let’s hope that we solve those problems and let’s work hard to solve those problems.

As for the supply chain disruptions, I have not researched that deeply. And I don’t really know what’s going on there. But the best explanation I’ve heard, the one that makes the most sense to me is that over the last, I don’t know how many decades, a lot of companies have been shedding assets and stripping away excess capacity, getting leaner, essentially perhaps in an attempt to improve the return on equity. To improve return on equity you can either improve your return or you can either increase your return or you can decrease the equity. And decreasing the equity means decreasing your capital investment. And so that means getting rid of assets you don’t seem to need. The problem with that is that if you have a once in a generation shock to the system, like the demand swings that we’ve seen around COVID, then you can suddenly find that your excess capacity is used up, that you don’t have enough slack in the system, and it cannot absorb a demand shock or whatever.

And so now you have these very rigid system because you’ve taken all the slack out. And so now, the shocks are just reverberating throughout the entire system. The global supply chain is basically one enormous, very complex queueing theory problem. And I think that’s what’s going on here that shipping companies, for instance, were reducing the amount of extra containers that they had on hand, maybe the container yards were reducing the amount of extra capacity that they had, and getting rid of the extra capacity that you’re not using looks really good in the short term. But then again, when you have a once in a generation shock to the system, it’s really bad, because now you don’t have the buffer to absorb that shock, and so it does reverberate throughout the system. That’s the best explanation that I’ve heard for what’s going on here.

Simone Cicero:
So, a couple of reflections on this idea of measuring progress. And I want to connect these also to this topic of decentralization, and overcoming of maybe not of the industrial age, but of the bureaucracy. Because, for example, you often refer to this idea that there is some kind of safety theater happening where you have these regulators that sometimes just for bureaucratic reasons, impose some kind of regulations that don’t really generate any positive outcome for society, but they just stand there and kind of slow down innovations because somebody just put them there, and nobody questions them. So, that’s one thing for sure.

And I’m curious to know as the power in society goes more into the edges, and we’re probably going to see more institutional complexity coming from the edges, for example, as from the edges, we’re building financial instruments, and we are able to pull the resources around local problems, and we’re able to do much more decision making if I think about, for example, the blockchain in enabling this institutional abundance that we hopefully going to see at the edge of the system, and also how this connects with this idea of, I would say, outstanding economics. So, where entrepreneurs are much, and I know that you speak a lot about entrepreneurship as well. And in a world where essentially money, for example, with cryptocurrencies is decentralized, and it makes these new possibilities for a world where really, we can organize at the edges and create complex institutions at the edges; how is this also going to help us overcome this kind of slowing impact that bureaucracy has had on progress in the last probably 30-40 years? How do you see that working, you know, the role of the entrepreneurs, the new monetary systems that emerge with crypto? Is it possible that this really generates a new age of progress, just by making people more sovereign as well, in terms of what kind of progress and innovation they want to see.

Jason Crawford:
So, I’m very interested in the potential for cryptocurrencies to automate a lot of what is currently done in law and finance. The case that I would make for cryptocurrency being interesting and useful and deeply valuable over the long term, is I think I’m stealing this phrase from Naval Ravikant. But basically, it’s programmable money. And so you’ve got the ability to automate a lot of things that are sort of previously done through contracts, through legal documents, and through a financial system that has really built up an enormous amount of bureaucracy and is sort of way behind the times in many ways. It’s funny, you would think that finance companies would be on the cutting edge of information technology, because finance is such an information industry. It’s an industry that really is all about information in a certain sense.

And yet finance companies are often some of the most backwards companies. I mean, just look at security, for instance. I think the security that I have on my Facebook login is probably much better than the security that I have on my bank login online. I mean, in terms of security, the way we do payments today, it’s almost the equivalent of giving your password to any merchant every time, right? I mean, it is literally a password, but it’s your credit card number, right? You just give this number to everybody anytime they want to charge you money. That is an extremely insecure system. Again, it’s just the equivalent of sort of giving away your password or handing over your keys every single time. We have much better fundamental technology than that. And again better technology is used if I want to sign in using my Facebook login on some third party site, the technology to do that, and the way that my login is protected, is just way more sophisticated and advanced than the technology that’s used when I hand over my credit card to a merchant.

So, we’ve got all of this kind of outdated infrastructure that’s very slow to change, very resistant to change. On top of that, we’ve got an enormous amount of global legal bureaucracy, that makes it very difficult for payments to move around the world. One of the things that made me start to realize the potential for cryptocurrency to remake the financial system was when I started to realize how many walls and barriers are put up in between countries. So, I mean, I live in the USA. And it’s very easy for me to pay for whatever I want online. Usually, I’m ordering from a local American company. Even if I’m ordering overseas, usually they’ll take my American credit card. But that is a very lucky position to be in. And many folks in other countries if you live in, I forget what I — the first time I heard about this was Brazil or Venezuela or something like that. And it was kind of like if you have a credit card from that country, you just can’t almost buy anything anywhere outside your own country, because nobody will take your card, or there’s some kind of restrictions in place.

So, I do think there’s an enormous opportunity to remake the global financial system. And again, I think where cryptocurrency could get really interesting is if it starts to integrate with the legal code and with governments. So, this is maybe a sort of an unusual or contrarian position. I’m not sure. I think some people, the more techno libertarians, are hoping that cryptocurrency will be like an end run around the government. And, to some extent, that may be possible in that we just kind of open up a clean field where that is, in the beginning, unregulated. But I just think that anything gets important, governments are not going to ignore. They’re already looking very closely at cryptocurrencies. They know that they have to control money. And as long as we have physical bodies, and physical homes, and we eat physical food, we’re always going to exist in the world where governments can have control over us.

At the end of the day, even if your assets are in some digital form online, they can come to your house and they can throw you in jail, or they have — [crosstalk]. So, I think that rather than cryptocurrency being completely separate from governments, I think the really interesting thing will be when it integrates with government and law. To give a couple of examples that have happened already in the US in Delaware, the state of Delaware, which for those outside the US, it turns out, most US corporations are incorporated in the state of Delaware, no matter where their headquarters happened to be. So, Delaware’s corporate law is more or less the corporate law for the nation. And Delaware updated their corporate law a couple years ago to explicitly allow for shares, shareholder records, essentially the records of who has how much stock to be on a blockchain.

Another similar example, recently in Wyoming, Wyoming has a way now to integrate, LLC is with DAOs, Distributed Autonomous Organizations, and has said that essentially they will recognize DAOs as limited liability corporations. So, I think to the extent that we can do these things, we can start to automate the process of company formation, and perhaps the process, you know, take some of the process of company management and put it on the blockchain such that records of ownership and control can actually, literally the token that you own with your wallet, a crypto wallet is literally your legal ownership and control of some asset. Imagine if the deed to your house or the title to your car was an NFT. In other words, if the law recognized that whoever, whatever person controls the wallet that owns this NFT is the legal owner of this house or car, I think that would be super interesting. And it would just open up all sorts of ability to apply code and algorithms to create all sorts of new kinds of markets.

Stina Heikkila:
Yeah. No, it’s very interesting now that we started to talk about these kind of new shifting, somehow the narrative a bit or seeing a sort of new window of things happening. And I know that you have spoken a bit previously about what’s the sort of mindset that we need and why has progress slowed, and can it be saved? And so maybe you could also talk a little bit around those questions. Like in this picture that you painted now, how do we make sure that progress doesn’t stall, and how do you see that?

Jason Crawford:
Yeah, sure. Well, to back up a little bit and look at the historical picture that motivates this. I think if you look at the pace of progress over the last couple 100 years, the pace of technological progress at the frontier of new technologies being developed and deployed, has slowed down somewhat in the last 50 years or so. Certainly, it hasn’t gone to zero progress. We’ve had a lot of progress in the last 50 years, more so than at any time before the Industrial Revolution. But not as much in my opinion, as we saw around the late 19th and early 20th century. In the last 50 years, we’ve really mostly seen progress in a single area, which is mostly around information technology, computers, and the internet.

And we’ve seen relatively less progress in areas like transportation, manufacturing, construction, or energy. Whereas if you look at that period, around the late 19th to early 20th century, we’re really seeing rapid progress in pretty much all of those areas simultaneously. We had a breakthrough in communications technology with the telephone and the radio, that rivals, in my opinion, computers and the internet. And then on top of that we had the entire electrical industry, the internal combustion engine, the automobile, the airplane, the first synthetic fertilizers, the first plastics, the first vaccines, in about 100 years, etc. So, there was really kind of progress going on across the board.

Why is that not happening so much today? Why are we seeing a relatively slower pace? I have three main hypotheses. And these are not mutually exclusive, they work together. One is the just growing layers of bureaucracy and regulation that we have accumulated over the last several decades, largely, although not exclusively in government. Two, is the way that we have centralized and bureaucratized the funding mechanisms for science and research. And three is the fundamental philosophic and cultural attitudes towards progress itself. Do people generally believe that progress is possible and desirable? I think in the 20th century, we really saw a shift in people’s attitudes. In the mid to late 20th century, people got a lot more fearful and distrustful and skeptical of the very idea of progress. And I think in the long term, society gets what it values. And if we decide that progress is not such a great thing, we’re going to get a lot less of it.

Simone Cicero:
So, I was wondering in this process, as we spoke about, essentially, for example, potential to decentralize, finance and legal, you spoke about that. And you said for example, also energy is possibly going to be decentralized and ideally abundant. I was thinking that also, if we look through the lens of circular economy, resources can also be managed in a much more decentralized way and sustainable way. So, at the end of the day, it seems like kind of people are now kind of entitled, and have the responsibility to define what progress means for them and be much more active into making progress innovation happen.

So, I’m curious to know what are your thoughts in terms of how the future of progress as concepts and how people will recognize themselves into progress in terms of, for example, other different ways to look at growth or GDP? How do you feel this is going to unfold? You know, this idea of progress, how is it going to become plural? What are the new dimensions that you see emerging and that you are integrating also in your idea of progress as you’re writing your book and looking into the future? And probably that’s the last question that we wanted to ask you to explore.

Jason Crawford:
I don’t think anything is fundamentally changing about the nature of progress as such. Progress is still, in essence, what it always has been. It’s applying our intelligence to make our lives better, to allow us to live longer, happier, healthier lives, have more thriving and flourishing and more opportunities, more choices, to make our lives what we want. I do think that, you know, perhaps in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, a lot of progress was just about satisfying basic needs. Agriculture improved such that we didn’t need half the workforce to be farmers just to feed the population. Spinning and weaving improved, so that only just a small percentage of people could now make clothes for everyone, and so forth, right. So, now we’ve gotten a lot of our basic needs taken care of, I think there’s still a lot farther that we can go along the lines of material comforts.

But I also think that the more progress, you know, advances, the more we are able to satisfy more of our needs, including our intellectual and emotional and spiritual needs. And material progress does go hand in hand with satisfying those non-material needs as well. Especially again, I mean, we’re living in an information age. The internet has given us enormous opportunities, it’s given every individual enormous opportunities for learning and knowledge. Pretty much all the knowledge of the world almost is online is accessible, you can teach yourself pretty much any subject, and most of it is out there for free in some form. It also offers enormous opportunities for cultural enrichment, right? Pretty much all of the art and music and literature and philosophy of the world is out there for almost anyone to access. It used to be that you had to go to a museum or go to a concert, or go to a library, etc. And maybe you didn’t have one of those things nearby you, especially if you lived in a poorer region of the world.

But now so much of this stuff is just online and accessible. So, maybe a spiritual life to you, or an emotional life means keeping in touch with friends and family. Well, now you can keep in touch with friends and family anywhere in the world, and you can have live video conversations with them. And it’s easier than ever before to go travel and visit them as well. You know, modulo travel restrictions that have been placed. So, modern technology and the material progress that we’ve made, has really enabled us to live, I think, richer intellectual and emotional, and spiritual lives. And so I think as progress continues, we’ll be continuing along those lines as well.

Simone Cicero:
Yeah, I think we’re already seeing that, how we, after two years of pandemic, we’re really looking at things differently, and how we relate with each other differently online. I think that’s a great point. And I mean, I also just as a way to double click on some of these insights that we spoke about today, I think your points really helped us to not be naive in terms of kind of envisioning too much transformation, too much, I would say, going too much beyond the idea of progress and innovation that we have in a world that goes towards more decentralization, more participation, more entrepreneurship, less bureaucracy, probably — hopefully. And to some extent, I mean, this resonates with this idea that I’m quoting from a recent podcast I was listening somebody quoted Friedrich Hayek saying, I used to be concerned about the problems and now I’m concerned with the solutions. Which is a way to call the risk of centralized bureaucracies to impose solutions, impose visions on everybody.

And to some extent, it’s great that we can look into a future where we can be more — I mean, we can be at the same time, more — part of the idea of progress that we build, but we also have to take some responsibilities on building this complexity of institutions and processes and elements and layers that we need. You spoke about legal tech and finance, and we spoke about energy and much more, but we have to build them. Otherwise, we won’t have the possibility to collectively define in a plural way, what progress means for our communities, for our landscapes, for our states, for our context at the end of the day. So, Jason, it was a great conversation. Anything that you want to share with our readers about your upcoming ideas? What are you excited about? Or how to stay in touch with your research?

Jason Crawford:
Yeah, sure. You can find all of my writing and speaking online at And you can subscribe via email or follow us on social media. I am pretty active on Twitter as well and you can find me there. My handle is just my full name, Jason Crawford.

Simone Cicero:
Thank you so much. Stina, do you want to add something more?

Stina Heikkila:
No, I thank you. Thank you for the conversation. I think it gave us a lot to think about. And I think what I really appreciate is that your research is so thorough. You know you’ve gotten really looking at the evidence of how things have taken place. I think it’s really helpful to, like Simone was mentioning, not get carried away about something that might not be as sort of a significant trend as one might think in the first place.

Simone Cicero:
Thank you so much, both of you. And to our listeners, catch up soon.