Some initial thoughts on Collison and Cowen's progress studies concept

When I read through Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen’s article in The Atlantic calling for a new science of progress that studies “successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures,” my first reaction was, yes of course, that needs to be done. And then the negative responses came in, minimizing the push from Collison and Cowen because, as the critics had argued, management theory and entrepreneurial studies and even history is doing the job.

To explain why I think that perspective is wrong, I think it is helpful to understand a bit about the economics of rural broadband, a research area of mine.

The issue of broadband deployment has again risen in prominence since Senator Warren laid out a plan to spend $85 billion to expand broadband access across the country. In calling for this new spending, which will focus on rural regions, Warren explained, “One of the best tools for unlocking economic opportunity and advances in health care, like telemedicine, is access to reliable, high-speed Internet.”

The funny thing about that connection between broadband and economic growth? It doesn’t run both ways. While areas that are growing need broadband, it isn’t the case that broadband subsidies will yield growth in areas that don’t have it. I have written at length about the topic, explaining that “While there is a correlation between broadband expansion and employment growth, average wages and employment rates seem to be unaffected by broadband expansion.” People often mistake the causal relationship: “Broadband is an input to business development, so broadband deployment often signals stronger demand. Injecting broadband into a region won’t help much unless other key components exist, like education and capital.”

You don’t have to take my word for it, read this literature review from Koen Salemink, Dirk Strijker, and Gary Bosworth that bluntly admit, “In the case of entrepreneurial activity, the literature is inconclusive.” The authors offer a path out of this entanglement when they call for future research to “focus on specific places and communities – combining both connectivity and inclusion issues – in order to inform ‘customized policies’ for poorly connected and digitally excluded rural communities.”

Over and over again, I have seen this kind of call in broadband studies. More research is needed to understand how broadband works in specific spaces, in specific communities, and for specific industries. And almost nothing is known about broadband adoption for those currently without the technology. The FCC conducted a study a couple of years back, testing how different price subsidies might work in practice, and in the end counted 8634 new users. Yet, when the pilot was first announced, the agency estimated 74,000 people would opt in. One of the participating companies, XChange, expected 5,000 people to subscribe, but only found 214 takers. Frontier expected 1,500 people to sign up for the offer but got 118 instead. Money doesn’t seem to matter as much as you’d expect.

When I talk to reporters about rural broadband, I know I come off as squishy. There is a large gap in empirical work, and while there are a lot of good sociological studies on broadband adoption, the best approach would merge the two approaches together. Use official FCC data to find places that seem to have done well, then interview those people, and do follow ups a year later and two years later and five years later. It would require a dedication to groundwork that is hard to sustain. I know Nicol Turner Lee is taking on parts of this task, but more is needed. Personally, I think the entire policy space should probably know more about how adoption and use work before we spend $85 billion, but I seem to be a lone voice on the topic.

With that as a background, Collison and Cowen seem to be tackling two different kinds of projects. The first project is to reorient research “to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.” They are clear about what they mean:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.

The line of inquiry for research would need to change to focus on questions of economic development, income, and perhaps even Cowen’s Wealth+ concept. For the longest time, I thought I was going to be an academic, but I didn’t pursue a PhD in Communications and switched to economics instead because the discipline wasn’t interested in engaging with policy or understanding how people use tech at a practical level. Needless to say, the focus on economic outcomes will be a hard sell for many college departments because they tend towards an idealist bent.

But there may be a way out of this bind and I think that is the second part of the Progress Studies project. As Collison and Cowen explain,

In a world with Progress Studies, academic departments and degree programs would not necessarily have to be reorganized. That’s probably going to be costly and time-consuming. Instead, a new focus on progress would be more comparable to a school of thought that would prompt a decentralized shift in priorities among academics, philanthropists, and funding agencies. Over time, we’d like to see communities, journals, and conferences devoted to these questions.

You wouldn’t need to reorganize, but you would need to create new institutions with this specific goal. Indeed, when I read this part of the article, I immediately thought of the Project On Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) at the University of Iowa. It was this project, started in 1980, that helped to invigorate the field of rhetoric, which slowly spread into science and economics and medicine. My professor at the University of Illinois, Deirdre McCloskey, wrote her first treatise on the rhetoric of economics while a professor at Iowa.

So here’s my actionable item at this time: Something like POROI should be tested out for Progress Studies. Pick a state school and commit to ten or so years of programming. It will take dedication and vision, but I think a test project like this is very feasible. Of course, there’s a lot more to say about all of these topics, and when I have some time in the coming weeks, I will try to organize my thoughts more coherently.

First published Aug 30, 2019