1: What are our assumptions about progress?

Perhaps we assume progress over time looks like a nice smooth line upwards.  That the world is slightly better off today than yesterday.  And yesterday was slightly better off than the day before.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  For thousands of years.

We would be wrong.

This is how progress really happened.

“Nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing . . . (repeat for a few thousand years) . . . boom!” writes Steven Pinker in his brilliant book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Economists use Gross World Product as a proxy to measure prosperity and progress.  One thousand years after 1 C.E., the world was barely richer than it was at the time of Jesus.  It then took 500 years for income to double.  Some areas of the world enjoyed increases now and then, but they did not lead to sustained, cumulative growth.

Then, around 1800 things began to change.  


2: What happened?

The Industrial Revolution.  

What Steven refers to as “The Great Escape.”

“Between 1820 and 1900, the world’s income tripled.  It tripled again in a bit more than fifty years.  It took only twenty-five years for it to triple again, and another thirty-three years to triple yet another time,” writes Steven.

After thousands of years of little or no progress, in the last 200 years, the Gross World Product today is now 100x what it was in 1800′

3: In fact, the graph is a “gross underestimate of the expansion of prosperity,” writes Steven.  “The only way to compare a dollar in 1800 with a dollar in 2000 is to look up how many one would have to fork over to buy a standard market basket of goods: a fixed amount of food, clothing, health care, fuel, and so on. 

“The problem is that the advance of technology confounds the very idea of an unchanging market basket.  To start with, the quality of the goods in the basket improves over time.  An item of ‘clothing’ in 1800 might be a rain cape made of stiff, heavy, and leaky oilcloth; in 2000 it would be a zippered raincoat made of a light, breathable synthetic.  ‘Dental care’ in 1800 meant pliers and wooden dentures; in 2000 it meant Novocain and implants. 

“It’s misleading, then, to say that the $300 it would take to buy a certain amount of clothing and medical care in 2000 can be equated with the $10 it would take to buy ‘the same amount’ in 1800,” Steven observes.

And, technology doesn’t just make old things better, it creates brand new ones.

“How much did it cost in 1800 to purchase a refrigerator, a musical recording, a bicycle, a cell phone, Wikipedia, a photo of your child, a laptop and printer, a contraceptive pill, a dose of antibiotics?” Steven asks. 

The answer?

“No amount of money in the world.  The combination of better products and new products makes it almost impossible to track material well-being across the decades and centuries.  Economists are the first to point out that their measures,” states Steven “capture the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

We are alive at the greatest time in human history.  Yet, many people believe the opposite.  

The best way to counter this false perception?

This week we will explore some of the lessons from Steven’s book using a 21st-century tool.



Reflection:  What are my assumptions about human progress? Am I surprised by the graph?

Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.

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