What do we mean when we talk about progress? In general terms, to make progress means to move toward something and away from something else. But where we’re headed and what we’re leaving behind are key questions that drive political movements, shape international treaties, and define our own sense of personal growth.
Our notions of individual or collective progress reflect our values and our hopes for the future. Knowing what we’re trying to achieve can also help us see what role technology could or should play. To help us explore those possibilities, the following experts responded to a deceptively simple prompt: What does progress mean to you?
Founder and CEO, Tala (United States)
I grew up between India and the United States, and so for a long time my idea of progress was shaped by the difference between these two places—the developing and the developed, the emerging and the established. Progress was about closing the gap, catching one place up to the systems and standards set by another.
But for the past decade, I’ve come to think about who has the power to name and measure progress, and how we can shift more of that power to people most in need of it.
There’s some arrogance in thinking we can define what progress looks like for someone else. That’s why I’m focused on creating the systems and tools that let people pursue whatever matters most to them. And it’s also why I’ve stopped looking to the existing systems for answers.
The bottom line: progress isn’t about closing a gap. It’s about opening a door.
Director for international freedom of expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation (Germany)
Progress, to me, is not found in the growth of companies or even the development of new technologies, but in justice and equality and human rights. Technological “progress” means nothing if it holds some of us back. And yet companies from Silicon Valley to Shenzhen continue to move forward with limited diversity, recognition of harm, and consideration for human rights.
Activist and cofounder, Minas Programam (Brazil)
For too long, progress in technology has meant advancement at any cost. Forward is good, staying still is bad, and looking backward is worse. But true progress can only happen when we reflect on the risks and consequences of the choices we make.
Meaningful progress is about using our abilities and resources to create a world where anyone can thrive. This involves questioning our own assumptions, acknowledging how different technologies may harm communities that have long faced oppression, and sometimes deciding to stop developing technologies that may cause harm.
Progress comes when we move toward a just and equitable future, and not when we just make shiny new things.
Cofounder, SpaceIL and Flytrex (Israel)
Progress means actively fostering innovation. Within the drone industry, progress has come in the form of regulatory evolution. US regulators didn’t just accept that drone delivery will become an industry standard but helped figure out the best way to ensure that it happens. Unlike conventional wisdom regarding regulation—which often sees it as a barrier to progress—the Federal Aviation Administration’s forward-thinking approach is accelerating safety and ushering in a new era of on-demand delivery. When regulation drives innovation, then true progress takes place, regardless of the industry.
Associate professor of history, University of Oregon (United States)
To me, behind progress lurks another word. Progress comes from a Latin word meaning “movement forward.” It suggests a collective march into the future. But often, when we hear of progress, what’s really discussed is a project.
“Project” comes from a word meaning “thrown forward.” Those hurtled into the future have little say in its design, and nobody can assume success. When we present risky projects as assured progress, we use what technology studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff identified as modern “technologies of hubris”—that is, ways of presenting expertise that conceal doubts.
We need to rediscover “technologies of humility.” At the end of my book, I included one such technology common in the 17th century: a list identifying everything I wish I knew about my subject. Transparency about our ignorance makes the knowledge we communicate more trustworthy and extends a hand to others.
Visiting assistant professor of political science, Denison University (United States)
Almost universally, people think that their societies and the world are in bad shape. But the widespread belief that we aren’t now making progress isn’t necessarily a rejection of the idea of progress itself: the idea that humanity can make lasting advances still holds currency, even in a dispirited age.
Is our expectation that the future will be better than the past a helpful one? The dogmatic insistence on a “better” future led prior regimes (such as the Nazis and the Soviets) to inflict tremendous pain on millions of people. But if the idea of progress loses its way, we might also lose the spirit of innovation that makes problem-solving possible.
Associate professor of geography, Syracuse University (United States)
Progress is often measured as economic growth only. But real progress would involve growth that doesn’t externalize social or environmental costs.
Progress is often measured in incremental gains such as the US Civil Rights Act. But limiting the idea of progress to only that act would miss the widespread structural racism that remains unaddressed. Similarly, climate agreements are indeed progress, but there aren’t enough concrete actions to halt the climate crisis, while marginalized groups pay the biggest price.
Progress must be measured by how well those at the bottom are doing, not only those at the top.
Quality of life
Professor of geography, University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
Progress for me is about what actually matters most in life: health, job satisfaction, housing quality, living standards, and real education. Finland, for example, has one of the lowest rates of infant mortality in the world and the highest proportions of workers satisfied with their lives and the flexibility of their jobs. More workers can choose which hours they work in Finland than in any other country. Finland also has the world’s lowest homelessness rate (the US has one of the highest) and is renowned for its education system. And Finland has greater income equality than the US, and a much lower carbon footprint. Not surprisingly, its people are happier.