Imagine human capability as a high dimensional blob.^1 There are some people who live on the surface of the blob (let’s call it the Knowledge frontier ) - they have access to the best of the knowledge and resources humanity has to offer. Pushing this frontier and expanding maximum possible capabilities is Type I Progress.
There are many people who don’t live on the surface of the capability blob - most people who live in ‘developing’ nations, for example. Actions that expand these people’s capabilities towards the frontier are Type II Progress
As William Gibson said “The future is here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” You could think of Type I progress as expanding what the future is, and Type II progress as distributing that future.
There are even some people who might live a little beyond the surface in some dimensions. These are the innovators, the creators of new knowledge.
People often confuse rapid Type II progress for Type I progress. This is in part because Progress frontiers are geographically fractal (more on this later) and as a consequence 1 with developed and developing nations . However, You can only push the frontier on dimensions where you are at the frontier and as a consequence, Frontier-dwellers tend to live in developed places
It’s important to note that Wealth redistribution is not type II progress
To frame the difference between the two sorts of progress: In Lever of Riches Mokyr writes:
“At any moment there is a large gap between average and best practice technology; reducing this gap by disseminating the techniques used by producers at the cutting edge of knowledge is technological progress without invention.” This process of gap reduction is Type II progress.
And to put it graphically, here’s a plot of how agricultural output per hectare has changed over time.
Why does this distinction matter? Many discussions about “progress” conflate the two or devolve to debates about which type of progress is more important: “How can we be building rockets when there are starving children in Africa?” But “Should we focus on Type I or Type II progress?” is the wrong question. Debating the abstract relative merits of Type I and Type II progress is a waste of time, and I suspect that disentangling them will lead to much more productive investigations about progress.
There are parts of China (Shanghai, Beijing) that are expanding human knowledge and capability - building new augmented reality technology, CRISPRing babies, etc. But then there are also parts of China that don’t have indoor plumbing. So clearly 1 with developed and developing nations.
In the United States you would expect California to be right on the knowledge frontier - it’s the wealthiest state with the most progressive policies. Yet there are still tons of farm workers who live lives comparable to residents of developing nations - they clearly are not at the frontier and would benefit more from Type II progress than Type I progress.
Zoom in farther to the San Francisco Bay Area. In only a few square miles there are people pushing the limits of quantum technology and infrastructure and policies that look like something out of a developing nation.^2
You can’t even say that individuals are the quanta of where type I vs. type II progress happens. Many researchers on the cutting edge of science follow dietary guidelines from the 1970’s.
Fractals are multi-scale patterns. Every time you zoom in on a fractal, it has the same pattern but on a different scale. This inability to cleanly separate the two types of progress geographically adds evidence to the fact that “Should we focus on Type I or Type II progress?” is the wrong question.
This fractal nature should make it pretty clear that
But if you’re not convinced, let’s look at the counterfactual statement: “Type I and Type II progress correspond 1:1 to developed and developing nations.”
There are parts of China (Shanghai, Beijing) that are expanding human knowledge and capability - building new augmented reality technology, CRISPRing Babies, etc. But then there are also parts of China that don’t have indoor plumbing.
There are even parts of the United States that do not have indoor plumbing or ride-sharing, etc.
However, the inability to say “developed nation, therefore Type I progress” and vice versa isn’t to say they’re uncorrelated. Type I progress is easier to do in developed nations. It is just harder to spend time advancing the future when there are fewer people with all the knowledge and abilities that are at the frontier. Additionally, new tools, processes, and devices often require previous infrastructure which is rarer in developing nations. This suggests that developed nations should prioritize Type II progress.
To put it differently
Many people cite countries in Africa and China “technologically leapfrogging” the United States. Two big examples are Chinese mobile payments and cell phone propagation in Africa. These places can push the frontier on those dimensions - mobile phones as the computing center and mobile payments. However, this is not to be taken (as many people do) as a sign that they will soon blast past in other dimensions regions that lag on those along those dimensions unless there is a precise reason that for example mobile payments will enable better material science.
If you accept that you can only push the frontier on dimensions where you are on the frontier, it leads to another possible line of inquiry: asking the question, ‘which place or group is best set up to make progress in this specific dimension?’
Because Progress frontiers are geographically fractal you need to specify the scale and location you’re talking about. Once you have done that you can ask “at this scale and location what would be the result of a focus on Type I vs Type II progress?” For example Type I progress is easier to do in developed nations.
Organizations and institutions can then decide where they should focus based on their specific scale, location, and mandate. For example this line of reason would suggest that a sub-saharan African nation should not be spending money on a particle accelerator.
Individuals should decide whether to focus on the type of progress that fascinates them the most because Debating the abstract relative merits of Type I and Type II progress is a waste of time.
“Ok, but really if you had $1B and you could only spend it on one, which should you do?”
We actually don’t know, and the fractal nature of Type I and Type II progress suggests that there might not be a “right” answer.
You can make arguments both ways:
Over a long enough timescale if you focus on Type II progress, you will have more Frontier-dwellers. BecauseFrontier-dwellers tend to live in developed places and You can only push the frontier on dimensions where you are at the frontier, more people pushing the frontier will lead to more frontier expansion.
However, the rate of Type II progress may be proportional to the distance to the frontier, and at the very least In the long run Type II progress cannot exist without Type I progress.
If you buy these arguments, here are the actionable takeaways: