01 / 05
Heroes of Progress, Pt. 14: Johannes Gutenberg

Blog Post | Education & Literacy

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 14: Johannes Gutenberg

Introducing the man who invented the first metal movable-type printing press, Johannes Gutenberg.

Today marks the 14th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 13th part of this series here.

Our 14th Hero of Progress is Johannes Gutenberg, a 15th century German goldsmith and inventor, who created the first metal movable-type printing press. Gutenberg’s inventions inlcuded a process for mass-producing movable type, the use of oil-based ink for printing books, adjustable molds, mechanical movable type and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the agricultural screw presses of that time.

Gutenberg’s ideas started a printing revolution, which greatly improved the spread of information. The printing press helped to fuel the later part of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, thus setting the stage for the start of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century.

Relatively little is known about Gutenberg’s early life. It is believed he was born sometime between 1394 and 1404 in the city of Mainz, the Holy Roman Empire (today’s Germany). We do know that Gutenberg was born into a wealthy patrician merchant family and he grew up learning the trade of goldsmithing.

In 1411, the Gutenbergs were exiled from Mainz following an uprising against the patrician class. We don’t know much about Gutenberg’s life over the following fifteen years, but a letter written by him in 1434 indicates he was living in Strasbourg (today’s France). Moreover, legal records from that same year indicate that he was a goldsmith and a member of the Strasbourg militia.

Whilst in Strasbourg, Gutenberg created metal hand mirrors that pilgrims bought and used when visiting holy sites (it was thought hand mirrors could capture the holy light from religious relics). Gutenberg’s metal working skills proved useful when he developed the metal movable-type used in the printing press.

In 1439, Gutenberg encountered financial problems. Unable to placate his investors, Gutenberg is said to have shared a “secret” with them. It is speculated that the secret was a much-improved process of printing. A year later, Gutenberg supposedly declared that he had perfected the art of printing. That said, a workable prototype of his printing press remained a long way off.

In 1448, Gutenberg moved back to Mainz. With the help of a loan from his brother-in-law, Arnold Gelthus, he was able to build an operating printing press in 1450. A working press enabled Gutenberg to convince Johann Fust, a wealthy moneylender, to lend him more capital to fund further refinement of the printing process. Peter Schöffer, Fust’s son-in-law, also joined the enterprise and it is likely that Schöffer designed some of the press’ first typefaces.

It is widely accepted that Gutenberg had two presses, one for lucrative commercial texts, and another reserved for printing the Bible. In 1455, the first 180 copies of The Gutenberg Bible were completed. However, in the same year, Fust sued Gutenberg and demanded his money back, accusing Gutenberg of the misallocation of funds. The court ruled in favor of Fust, which gave him possession of the printing workshop and half of all the printed Bibles.

The court’s ruling left Gutenberg effectively bankrupt. Undeterred, Guttenberg managed to open a small printing shop in Bamberg (Bavaria) in 1459, where he continued printing Bibles. In 1465, Prince Archbishop of Mainz recognized Gutenberg’s accomplishments by naming him a Hofmann or a gentleman of the court. That meant that until his death in 1468, Gutenberg could live comfortably on the court’s large annual stipend.

Gutenberg’s innovation quickly spread throughout Europe and beyond. That meant that books and pamphlets became much cheaper and more easily accessible. The deluge of printed texts helped to increase literacy rates throughout the continent. Medical, scientific and technical knowledge proliferated, improving the lives of millions. Philosophical, religious and political treatises abounded. The monopolistic controls that guilds and nobility held over Europe’s economic and social life for centuries were broken. It is for those reasons that Johannes Gutenberg is our 14th Hero of Progress.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

Blog Post | Literacy

When the Mac “Ruined” Writing

When the Macintosh was Blamed for Ruining Student Writing

This article was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

Quills were once the default writing tool, when pens rose to prominence their impact on writing would be a hot debate in the literary world, one that would repeat when typewriters started to replace pens, and once more when word processors displaced typewriters.

A Macintosh computer next to an old computer system.

Just as people were coming to terms with word processors in the late 1970s and early 1980s, another evolution in writing tools took place, Apple introduced Macintosh: the first commercially available computer with a Graphical User Interface (GUI.) This new paradigm of computing would garner intrigue.

Newspaper from the New York Times 
showing a cartoon with the text "Electronic notebook" and "Computer programs that mimic a desk, even a messy one"

As these new devices made there way onto college campuses, some academics wondered how they might impact student work. At the University of Delaware, one member of the English Department (Marcia Peoples Halio) would conduct a study on the matter culminating in a 1990 paper titled “Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message?”

Newspaper from the Pittsburg Press with the title "Students using IBMs do better than Apple users, study says"

Her conclusion? Students using a Macintosh produced inferior work compared to their counterparts on the austere command line (30% of Macintosh writers used complex sentences, whereas 50% of the IBM writers did.) Peoples Halio would quip in the paper: “Never before in 12 years of teaching had I seen such a sloppy bunch of papers” with regards to work created on the Macintosh.

An article from Rory J. O'Connor with the title "Do our students pen failure with colorful computers?"

The study would catch the attention of the San Jose Mercury News that would summarize her findings: “The same icons, mouse, fonts, and graphics that make the machine easy to use may well turn off the brain’s creative-writing abilities.” The story would be picked up by numerous outlets, a few international and eventually garnered a mention in The New York Times who noted in 1992 that no study had yet refuted her findings, also noting the criticism it garnered from other academics.

An article from Ex Machina by Peter H. Lewis titled "Computer words: Less perfect?" with a cartoon version of William Shakespeare writing on a personal computer.

The most popular critique was Halio’s methodology, namely the glaring absence of control groups. An Apple representative swiftly pointed out the studies flaws, Halio retorted, acknowledging some imperfections in her study, staunchly compared giving a Macintosh to an inexperienced writer to handing a brand-new sports car to a gleeful 16-year-old. The Los Angeles Times would admit “the idea that our minds are somehow warped by our word processors” was too compelling to ignore, but was generally critical of the study.

An article on Innovation by Michael Schrage titled "Quill or Computer? Makes No Difference"

Academic Steven Youra would publish a response to the paper the same year in ‘Computers and Composition’ where he would criticize the study’s inadequate design and flawed logic, criticizing Halio’s limited understanding of the Macintosh’s capabilities.

The authors central point is that students view the Macintosh as a toy, and therefore when they write with it, their language is less formal than that of IBM users, who associate their machine with high seriousness.

Steven Youra, “Computers and Student Writing: Maiming the Macintosh (A Response)”

He refuted the portrayal of Macintosh as fostering immature writing, emphasizing its potential to encourage playful, engaged writing experiences. In 1995, the same journal would publish a study that sought to address the studies flaws – producing results refuting Halio Pope’s findings.

The Chicago Tribune syndicated a column in 1991 co-written by a young Brit Hume, which concluded the debate was moot since GUIs would soon be everywhere, while noting the study likely suffered from sample bias because of the types of students who’d opt for a Macintosh in the first place (less academic more creative types.)

Article by T.R Reid and Brit Hume titled Scholar finds big gap between Mac, PC users", and another paper by John Marrs titled "Fancy Typewriters"

As we’re faced with new evolutions in writing tools – it is worth remembering this little debate and those that proceeded it, going all the way back to the original literary technology: writing itself.

Socrates critiquing writing:

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.

Plato quoting Socrates in the Phaedrus, 370 BCE

Blog Post | Economics

India, a Story of Progress

The world should take note of which principles brought freedom and prosperity to India.

The 76-year story of modern India is one of the greatest stories of progress in history. At the time of its independence in 1947, it was a mostly agricultural economy of 340 million people with a literacy rate of only 12 percent and a life expectancy of only 32 years. Today, it has the fifth-largest economy by nominal gross domestic product (GDP) and third largest by purchasing power parity. In his book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” Steven Pinker highlights six key areas of progress: life, health, wealth, safety, literacy, and sustenance. In every one of these metrics, life in India has significantly improved over the years.

Self-Sufficiency Is Self-Destructive

Since independence in 1947, India suffered the consequences of socialist ideals. In a quest for self-sufficiency, the government played a heavy role in the economy. Under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India pursued Soviet-style “Five Year Plans,” intending to turn India into an industrialized economy. From 1947 to 1991, the government owned most key industries, including steel, coal, telecommunications, banking, and heavy industry. India’s economy was closed to foreign competition, with high tariffs and restrictions to foreign investment. For example, the import tariff for cars was around 125 percent in 1960. The policy of import substitution aimed to produce goods domestically instead of importing them from abroad. In reality, massive waste and inefficiency resulted, as Indian businesses were protected from international competition.

Furthermore, India’s private sector was heavily constrained. Overregulation and corruption stifled the business environment, and subsidies and price controls disincentivized production, leading to market distortions and fiscal deficits. The government required industrial licenses for the establishment, expansion, or modernization of industries, causing bureaucratic barriers and corruption. This environment tended to harm small businesses at the expense of large corporations, as large corporations could better cope with the complex bureaucracy. The period was often referred to as the License Raj, comparing the extent of control of the industrial licenses to that of direct rule by the British Empire before Indian independence.

Sustenance, Health, and Life

In his 2016 book, “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future,” Johan Norberg showed how these problems impacted daily life. When Norman Borlaug invented new high-yield wheat, India was facing a threat of mass starvation. Despite that, Indian state monopolies lobbied against both food and fertilizer imports. Fortunately, Borlaug was able to bring through his innovations. In 1965, yields in India rose by 70 percent.

From 1948 to 2018, the number of calories per person increased by two-thirds, growing from 1,570 to 2,533. For reference, the recommended healthy number of calories per person is 2,000 for a woman and 2,500 for a man. The average Indian now no longer suffers from undernourishment.

This achievement is even more remarkable when one considers the growth of the Indian population, which added a billion new citizens between 1948 and 2018. As well as having a greater population, Indians began living longer, with life expectancy more than doubling between 1947 and 2022. Furthermore, fewer children were dying—infant mortality fell dramatically between 1960 and 2022. Many children previously suffered from malnutrition. Parents could now watch their children grow up and have children of their own.

Wealth, Safety, and Literacy

However, problems in India remained. The License Raj continued to strangle the Indian economy in the name of protectionism. In 1978, the economist Raj Krishna coined the term the “Hindu rate of growth” to refer to slow economic growth of around 4 percent per year, which was prevalent in India from the 1950s to the 1980s. But Krishna was incorrect. The slow rate of growth had nothing to do with Hinduism or factors unique to India. Instead, India’s growth was low, because of the restrictive policies of the socialist government. As soon as India removed the restrictions to competition and commerce, it began reaching growth rates of between 6 percent and 9 percent each year.

The economic liberalization of India was prompted by an economic crisis in 1990. India, having borrowed heavily from international lenders to finance infrastructure projects, was facing a balance of payments crisis and had only two weeks until it would default on its debt. A new government under Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao abolished the License Raj, removing restrictions for most industries and foreign investment into Indian companies. Restrictions on foreign technology and imports were scrapped, as were subsidies to fertilizer and sugar. India flung open its doors to the world, embracing competition in both imports and exports. Indian companies now faced foreign competition in the domestic market but also had the entire world market to sell to.

New industries sprung up, with India developing competitive industries in telecommunications, software, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, research and development, and professional services.

The result was a dramatic increase in the standard of living for ordinary Indians. The economy flourished as foreign investment flooded in. The innovating spirit of ordinary Indians was unleashed. Between 1993 and 2021, access to electricity went from 50 percent of the population to 99.6 percent. The literacy rate improved from 48.2 percent to 74.4 percent. This is even more remarkable considering that India added extra 600 million people during that period.

Having access to a microwave, refrigeration, and electric lighting are all amenities that we take for granted, but these conveniences are relatively recent for the average Indian. A virtuous cycle of more educated, well-fed citizens creates greater innovation and prosperity. It is also correlated with less violence, with the homicide rate falling by 48 percent between 1991 and 2020.

Absolute poverty also has been falling. In 1987, half of the Indian population lived in extreme poverty. By 2019, this figure had fallen to 10 percent. Granted, there are still issues in India. Millions of people live in slums, and poverty remains a problem. However, it is worth appreciating just how far India has come.

As the Indian economist Gurcharan Das says about his country’s progress in the documentary “India Awakes,” “The principles that brought so much prosperity and freedom to the West are being affirmed in a country that is in the East.”

These principles are that of a market economy, openness to innovation, and a favorable attitude to commerce.

Life, health, education, and sustenance have all measurably improved. Violence and poverty have declined. Progress has occurred, and the world should take note.

Build For Tomorrow | Ep. 61

The Greatest Myth about Learning

For decades, people have been told they have a certain “learning style.” Maybe you think you’re a visual learner, for example, or a reading/writing learner. But new research is upending all that. Here’s what we got wrong — and how we can become truly better learners.