Towards a Progress Studies political movement

An outline of a plan for how technologists should think about improving American institutions and governance

The progressive movement, in just 30 years, fundamentally reshaped government at every level. It was in part inspired by industrialization, applying corporate principles including accounting, effectiveness, and Taylorism to government. It was in part a reaction to industrialization, striking out at corporations that were perceived to have monopolistic power, and re-concentrating power in the state. The technology industry needs to have a comparable influence on government.

I was recently cited in a New Yorker article, "Does tech need a new narrative". Part of the citation included, “Why isn’t Marc Andreessen Secretary of Commerce or something?” In every administration New York bankers get 2-3 cabinet level positions. Silicon Valley is worth at least as much to the American economy as New York finance, therefore Silicon Valley should have a lower bound of 2-3 cabinet positions every administration.

This is part of a broader discussion about what it means to rebuild American institutions. Public health institutions failed early and often during Covid. The only bright spot was the biotech sector which, combined with a surprisingly nimble Operation Warp Speed, was able to produce vaccines in record time.

Unfortunately, the failure of public health institutions is symptomatic of a broader cultural and spiritual failure in American life. Legacy institutions are more interested in protecting their rents and status than innovating. I suspect any part of the American government, and much of the private and non-profit sectors would perform similarly to the public health establishment if faced with a comparable exogenous shock. As such, institutions need to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

In thinking about what it means to rebuild American institutions there are three important considerations; 1) We are approximately halfway through the internet boom 2) The internet has both a decentralizing and a centralizing tendency, and 3) American culture and economic institutions are fundamentally changed from the 1830's and 1950's and we need to plot a new course.

  1. The diffusion of new technology typically takes from 60-80 years. Electrification began in America in 1880's and wasn't 'completed' until the 1950's. Cars started being sold in the 1900's and it wasn't until the 1960's when 80% of American households had cars. If we start the internet era in the 1990's, we can expect it to continue to the 2050's. Admittedly, adoption could be faster than previous technology cycles. However, at a minimum we should expect several more decades of growth in the internet sector. Long term planning for political change in America needs to account for this dynamic.
  2. The internet has both centralizing and decentralizing components. The decentralizing tendency is well-known. Martin Gurri details one element in his fantastic book, Revolt of the Public. The other core element is the blockchain. The centralizing component has been less well understood. Samo Burja captures the idea well, arguing that new communication technologies are disruptive short term but centralizing long term. The nomination and election of Kamala Harris as VP, from the solid blue state of California, testifies to the growing importance of a national narrative over a regional one.
  3. There is a tendency of Americans to desire to return to a mythical past. Two times that stand out are the Tocquevillian 1830's when the democratic spirit animated problem solving and the 1950's when civic culture, at least for white Americans, was much stronger. What few commentators have fully internalized is that returning is impossible. America faces fundamentally different constraints than the past. Corporations and governments are necessarily going to be bigger, more bureaucratized, social trust is lower than it used to be, bowling leagues aren't coming back. A new American proposition needs to be defined, drawing from the past, but taking into account current realities.

Taking these three considerations seriously means 1) long term planning with the assumption that tech money and memes are going to become increasingly influential, 2) the need to cultivate a new, national elite with a ideological tendency towards technological progress, and 3) while we must understand and respect the past, we are building something fundamentally different.

The two closest analogues are the progressive movement and the environmental movement. The progressive movement was mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Other successful social movements are referenced here.

The environmental movement was comparably successful, though smaller in scope, as it focused only on the environment, and was not a broad governing philosophy. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962. Less than a decade later the EPA was created along with other important environmental legislation. Discussions about infrastructure, energy, transportation, etc, now all require explicit consideration of the environment.

The Progress Studies political movement needs to be similarly all encompassing. The entry point is progress, how to accelerate technological, artistic, and cultural innovation. However, it can't stop there. The dynamism, the vitality, the willingness to take risks and figure things out, should be entrenched in all aspects of our society.

This requires art, movies, novels, songs, extolling the virtues of progress. We need our academics, thought leaders, and universities, to reclaim the mantle of innovation. Our children should strive to be astronauts, inventors, and builders. The first step is consciously recognizing the importance of constructing a narrative and putting the building blocks in place for sustained impact. It's time to build!

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