Cogs in the machine

What has tech ever done for us? As researchers race to deliver a vaccine for Covid-19, we've been reflecting on the drivers of technological progress and the impact technology has had on our lives.

Technology is the ability to do more with less. Until the 1960s, for example, in order to remove blood clots, surgeons had to cut open arteries and use forceps to bluntly dislodge them – an invasive and time-consuming procedure that restricted blood flow, which frequently caused complications that included the loss of limbs or even death.

Then, a surgeon developed a device called a balloon catheter. This catheter could poke through a blood clot, inflate a balloon on the other side (to fit the size of the blood vessel), and then would be retracted, removing the clot along with it, altogether causing minimal harm to the patient. Such medical devices are widely-used today, but before them, the removal of a blood clot could quite literally cost an arm and a leg.

Apart from medical inventions, technology also developed to relieve physical labour, which was – and often still is – exhausting if not dangerous. And while the purposes of these tools can be obvious, the practices that preceded them are often forgotten.

The daily grind

For our lead piece this issue, Rachel Laudan, a historian of food and the author of the popular book Cuisine and Empire, explains how this burden fell on the shoulders of women working in the home. In order to prepare flour for bread, women around the world would have to carry out the grueling task of grinding grains for around five hours every single day, before millstones superseded them.

Laudan describes the arduous practice of manual grinding, how it was exploited as a tool to subjugate women and abuse children, and why it still remains a tradition in some parts of the world even today, in her incisive piece entitled The daily grind.

With that in mind, Magnús Ingvar Ágústsson illustrates the theme for this second issue of Works in Progress.

In this issue

To ignite new technology that propels social progress, just as the millstone did, we should take a step back to understand how innovation flourishes in the first place.

A common theory is that innovation flows directly from basic scientific research, in what is known as ‘the linear model of innovation.’ Jason Crawford, a prolific blogger and the creator of the educational programme called Progress studies for young people, delves into this hypothesis. Crawford argues against this model, detailing the instances in which tinkering with technology led to breakthroughs in scientific understanding in his fascinating piece Innovation is not linear.

The arc of technological progress is not just abstract, but one with humans at the helm, working together to push forward the frontier of possibility. So how exactly do we bring people together to stand up to the task? Caleb Watney, director of innovation policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, writes for us about the growth of tech clusters – geographical areas where productivity has boomed – and the lessons they provide about how to impel growth even further, in an illuminating article called Clusters rule everything around me.

And while we’ve already made quantum leaps in technology and our understanding of the world, what if we need to think even bigger? Eli Dourado, an economist at Utah State University, makes the case for setting our ambitions out of this world. Our knowledge of astronomy is limited by electrical interference from the atmosphere of the Earth and the Milky Way, and Dourado explains why building a giant telescope array on the moon may be the best route to expand our horizons in his gripping piece Seeing on the far side of the moon.

It goes without saying that grand projects carry considerable risk. Some have argued further that economic growth itself threatens our welfare, by fuelling climate catastrophe, by running artificial intelligence amok, by fostering the spread of infectious diseases, and more. Leopold Aschenbrenner, researcher at the Global Priorities Institute, dissects the relationship between growth and existential risk and elucidates how we can induce people to invest in the safety of their future in his thought-provoking piece Securing posterity.

Adjacent to these panoramic pieces on technology, we want to bring offbeat questions into focus:

How do architectural styles progress from one another? We had Samuel Hughes, researcher at Oxford University and Policy Exchange, write for us about traditionalist architecture built today, why critics dismiss it as pastiche and why this disdain is careless and ahistorical, in his astute piece In praise of pastiche.

Is there a contradiction between scientific reliability and innovation? Stuart Buck, vice president of research at Arnold Ventures, explores the challenges of the replication crisis and whether it compels researchers to choose between innovativeness and replicable research, and delineates why we should fund deliberately adversarial research to resolve this conflict in his thoughtful piece Escaping science’s paradox.

Why has public sentiment towards tech companies changed over time? Our editor Nick Whitaker sat down for an interview with Mike Solana of Founders Fund to discuss his views on historical pessimism towards tech, the phenomenon of techlash, and the depiction of tech by politicians and the media in Tech and its critics.

On the blog

Aside from the articles in this issue, we’ve also had several perceptive blog posts published in the last month. John Myers, co-founder of London YIMBY, wrote for us about the need to engineer long-lasting institutions that could engender progress in Progress studies: the hard question and Jason Crawford responded by deliberating on the scope of the progress studies movement in Progress studies: many hard questions.

Matt Clancy, researcher at Iowa State University, sifted through the research on cities and their link to economic productivity and made the case for remote work in Cities aren’t the innovation incubators they used to be. [Note that this takes a different perspective than Caleb Watney’s article on tech clusters.] And Joy Buchanan, researcher at Samford University, wrote about the psychological phenomenon of a ‘reference point’ and how it is employed when we step into each other’s shoes, in Can I borrow your reference point?

Last month’s book giveaway

Did you work out the answer to last month’s book giveaway? We asked readers to guess the purpose of the invention drawn below. It is a hydraulic machine invented by F. A. Wirtz from Zurich in 1746. Essentially a spiral waterwheel, it is able to raise water up to 6 feet high!

None of our readers sent us the correct answer, so the prize of Anton Howes’ book Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation went to a reader who provided the funniest answer – an ancient turntable for medieval DJs.

Even more

Outside Works in Progress, we’ve been reading from other talented thinkers. Here are just a few of them:

That’s all for now. Stay safe and have a good week!
– Saloni, Ben, Sam and Nick

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