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What progress means

February 24, 2021
Ian Allen

"Progress.” We take for granted that it’s a good thing. We constantly invoke it to justify change. But all the ways in which society is measured—from economic indicators to health and education metrics to markers of political development and technological sophistication—rely on long-held assumptions about what progress is. As the economic and political shocks of this still newish century have shown, growing numbers of people are, or feel, excluded by the progress they were told would benefit everyone. And many of the countries that score best on traditional measures of progress have done worst in coping with the covid-19 pandemic, the clearest sign possible that these measures are missing something.

This issue contains MIT Technology Review’s annual list of 10 technological breakthroughs we think will change the world—in other words, leading examples of progress that we predict will lead to … even more progress! So I thought it behooved us, on the 20th anniversary of starting that list, to take a harder look at what progress means.

David Rotman sets the stage with a review of the technological changes we’ve seen since 2001, and a survey of some economists’ attempts to come up with measures of progress that better capture what matters to people. He draws a surprising conclusion: if there’s a reason to be optimistic about the next decade, it’s less because of new technologies than because of more equitable ideas about how to measure progress that will better guide us in using these advances. 

For many, these changes may come too late. Susie Cagle reflects on how American capitalism’s promise of progress “stopped with our [millennial] generation,” why things look set to worsen still further, and what that will mean for her newborn child. Brian Alexander writes about the pockets of America that the progress of the past few decades has simply left behind. Chelsea Sheasley looks at how the digital divide, coupled with the pandemic, could further widen the economic gap between white and non-white Americans in the years to come.

Elsewhere, Amy Nordrum asks people from various fields what progress means to them, while James Temple asks other experts what would be the single best way to help the world make progress on climate change. David Vintiner, with his sometimes unsettling photographs of biohackers and body-­augmentation researchers, raises the question of whether cyborg humans are a form of progress or a deviation from it.

We also pick apart some myths about how progress is made. Carl Benedikt Frey examines how tech giants that began life as the vanguards of progress have become obstacles to it. John Markoff argues that the rise of tech hubs like Silicon Valley owes much more to serendipity than their boosters like to admit. Adam Piore examines why brilliant ideas that should succeed sometimes get stuck, and how a crisis like covid-19 may help break the logjam. J. Benjamin Hurlbut debunks the view that He Jiankui, the creator of the “CRISPR babies,” was a scientist gone rogue, arguing instead that his ambition represents a form of progress within science that the establishment prefers to underplay. And Leah Stokes questions the idea that we need more technology to fight climate change

And finally, we have the 10 breakthrough technologies themselves. As always, three things are true of our list. It is eclectic; some of the innovations on it are clearly making an impact now, while some have yet to do so; and many of them have the potential to do harm as well as good. Whether or not they come to represent progress 20 years from now depends on how they’re used—and, of course, on how we’re defining progress by then. 

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