The rate of human progress

The progress of humanity takes place in three steps. First, we acquire the existing base of knowledge in a specific subject area. We then think about our knowledge of the subject to come up with new ideas that have the potential to improve on our existing assumptions and our existing way of doing things in that area. Finally, we work together with other people to build experiments to put our new ideas into practice. The successful experiments represent progress.

We live in an unprecedented time where, because of the internet, each of these three steps is taking place at a much faster pace than before.

In the past, we acquired knowledge by visiting a library, finding the book that covers the subject area we’re interested in learning about, and reading its relevant parts. If we didn’t have a library nearby or there weren’t any books covering a particular subject at the nearby library, we were out of luck.

Now, acquiring knowledge is as easy as performing an online search at best, or reading a book that’s delivered to our home at worst.

In the past, due to the limitations of the physical world described in the first step, only a few people would be thinking about potential new ideas in a specific subject area.

Now, the funnel of people who have enough knowledge in a particular subject area to come up with new ideas in that area is much greater. With more people equipped with the foundation necessary to try, success is more likely to arrive and it’s more likely to arrive faster.

In the past, working with other people to experiment on an idea required meeting in person or, in more recent history, communicating over the phone while relying on the lengthy delivery times of postal mail to share documents about what you’re working on with your teammates.

Now, we can build teams and communicate with our teammates online. This lets us set up, run, and iterate on our experiments much faster.

The changes I’ve outlined above have only surfaced in the last 20 years during which the internet gained widespread adoption. As a result, we’re still in the early stages of seeing their impact. However, when we look back at the 21st century and compare it to earlier centuries including the 20th, I’m confident that we’re going to see that the rate of human progress in this century has increased by at least an order of magnitude relative to prior centuries. Thanks to the internet, what we used to do in 100 days, we can now do in 10.

In the future, artificial intelligence may let us do what we now do in 10 days in a single day. But for now, I’ll gladly take the step change in the rate of human progress made possible by the internet.

Also published on Medium.