‘Progress Ought to Feel Beautiful’

Readers respond to stories from our January/February 2023 issue.

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The Atlantic

The Eureka Theory of History Is Wrong

Invention alone can’t change the world, Derek Thompson wrote in the January/February 2023 issue. What matters most is what happens next.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion that societal progress depends on trust is profound and should be shouted from the rooftops. I am a rabbi, and I may make it the topic of my High Holiday sermon this coming year.

Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon
Palo Alto, Calif.

Derek Thompson makes a number of insightful arguments about the decline in American progress. But in citing 1980 as the end of “building,” he glosses over an important point: 1980 is not a random year in U.S. history—it is the dawn of the Reagan era. The shift that began then—declaring a quest for personal advantage to be a driving force of progress, or, to use Ayn Rand’s phrasing, declaring selfishness to be a virtue—is central to the decline Thompson describes. Corporate strategies and business-school curricula rarely encourage thoughtful investments that yield reasonable returns for an extended period. Instead they emphasize strategic behavior that at times amounts to gaming the system rather than doing something useful.

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Restoring public trust will require recognizing that selfishness is not a virtue, and that responsible business leadership requires more than maximizing shareholder value.

Regan Whitworth
Missoula, Mont.

Part of what stymies innovation in the U.S. is our culture’s focus on individualism. The collective good of the country has not been important to industrial and corporate leaders. If the U.S. as a nation is to progress, there has to be concern for society in its entirety; there needs to be an understanding that government is for all of us. During this period of divisiveness, we need to remind everyone that government policy and invention, like the internet, can benefit society as a whole.

Reginald I. Berry
Annandale, Va.

In light of Thompson’s discussion of the importance of leadership and culture for an invention’s implementation, I wanted to point out that one of the earliest supporters of smallpox inoculation in Europe was Catherine the Great, of Russia. Her bravery in receiving the inoculation in 1768, 28 years before Edward Jenner invented the first vaccine, narrowed the trust gap significantly in 18th-century Russia—no small feat, given the slow pace of communication. She used her status as empress to make the issue nonpartisan and nonclassist. She established inoculation clinics in several cities, and by 1800, 2 million Russians had been inoculated.

Robynn Jensen
Savage, Minn.

As an engineer, I agreed with much of Thompson’s article. But he errs in describing the pitfalls of nuclear power. I am an antinuclear activist, but I can assure you that the reason we don’t have more nuclear-power plants isn’t the success of the tiny antinuclear movement. It is because investors have been unwilling to finance an industry that for 50 years has overpromised and underdelivered. Every nuclear plant built in the past half century has suffered massive cost overruns and schedule delays. In 1985, Forbes famously called nuclear power “the largest managerial disaster in business history.” And nothing has changed since then, as the only two nuclear plants now under construction in the U.S., in Georgia, are projected to cost at least $30 billion—more than double the original estimate—and are more than six years behind schedule. Two reactors that had been under construction in South Carolina were canceled, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.

Jeff Alson
Ann Arbor, Mich.

I saw merit in Thompson’s argument until I reached the final section. The great problem of today’s world is not economic but ecological, and Thompson’s idea of “build, build, build” won’t solve it. We live on a planet with limited resources. Our economic system is dependent on our ecological system, not the other way around. We think our technology will protect us and therefore feel we can continue expanding our impact ad infinitum.

Jack M. Pedigo
Lopez Island, Wash.

Derek Thompson misunderstands the degrowth movement. Degrowth isn’t the reason for America’s housing shortage. First, the degrowth idea hasn’t caught on widely—the number of advocates in this country would fill only a modest auditorium. Second, the degrowth movement is about policy interventions to reduce inequality. It centers ideas such as replacing GDP with a metric that measures actual progress and advocates for trust-busting and more public investment in the commons. The real cause of unaffordable housing is inequality.

Robert Montroy
Rockford, Mich.

Though I enjoyed his article, I believe Thompson has overlooked the core paradox of human progress: that things generally get worse before they get better. Specifically, I feel Thompson misinterpreted our political discourse around climate change and the COVID‑19 vaccine as evidence of our failures, when they could in fact augur periods of substantial progress on the horizon. The United States has at times been even more polarized than it is today, yet our country still made significant progress. At the peak of our rancor, we fought a civil war—and it brought about the end of the archaic atrocity of slavery.

Nathaniel Barrett
Manchester, N.H.

What’s missing from Thompson’s otherwise compelling argument is consideration of whether any proposed material progress offers something sensationally desirable to citizens. If progress isn’t novel and pleasing to our senses, then arguments against implementation—however spurious, and from whichever band of the ideological spectrum—are far more likely to convince those on the fence.

My mother was born in 1929. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania without electricity. If electricity had brought only heat and light, it may have been easy to sway my poorly educated and conservative grandparents to oppose its broad implementation across rural America—after all, they already had fire and gas lamps. But electricity could also power radios, kitchen appliances, tools, and countless other useful and exciting gadgets. Life would change and improve at the sensory level with the flip of an actual switch.

Perhaps with the exception of high-speed rail, nothing in the current array of tech proposals has especially novel or aesthetic appeal. As Thompson notes, some technologies are repellent. Apartment buildings are old news. Solar panels can be eyesores that supplant natural landscapes. Nuclear reactors can be ugly and still have a bad reputation, however unwarranted. Where’s the novelty, the beauty? How excited can we become about what amounts to new batteries in the same old gadgets? To build a broad coalition of support, progress needs to look, smell, sound, and feel exciting—little else has so powerfully united the American people.

Allen Farmelo
Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

Derek Thompson replies:

I’m pleased that readers seem to have concluded that culture is paramount to progress. Especially trust. It simply doesn’t matter what we invent in our laboratories if scientists, companies, and governments are met with widespread distrust by the public, making it impossible to implement what we discover. And I deeply appreciate Allen Farmelo’s point—progress ought to feel beautiful. I tend to think about new ideas through a utilitarian filter: Will this new thing help more people? I’ll do my best to add Farmelo’s Corollary to my arsenal: Will this new thing make the world more beautiful?

Behind the Cover

In this month’s cover story, Adrienne LaFrance reports on political violence in the United States. We sought to convey the era’s “new anarchy” with a photo of an anonymous figure emerging from a cloud of smoke at a 2020 protest in Portland, Oregon. LaFrance argues that the Portland protests demonstrated how willing some radicals are to use violence—and that it may take a generation for their fervor to subside.

Luise Stauss, Director of Photography
Genevieve Fussell, Senior Photo Editor


“The Eureka Theory of History Is Wrong” (January/February 2023) stated that the United States advanced airplane technology during World War I. In fact, the U.S. advanced airplane technology after the war.

This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”