What’s wrong with progress? Nothing, except the way we think about it.

I am always bemused about the way we frame everything, often unconsciously, around the notion of ‘progress’.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Progress – bigger, faster, heavier… more. This sucker is four times the size of the trucks I used to deal with when I was working for a trucking company and can take 100 tonnes of spoil in one hit. That’s me on the right.

The concept of progress has been part of our lives ever since the Age of Reason burst upon the western world and we started down the path of that led from rationality to industry to nuclear weapons and climate change. Progress.

Not every society has that view – but western society does. We see ‘progress’ in a lot of things. It’s how the world, supposedly, works.

Things ‘progress’ from primitive to sophisticated; it is often used to explain or justify human constructs – ‘you can’t stop progress’, usually uttered as a wrecking ball slams through the last piece of rain-forest.

The implicit meaning is ‘directional change for the better through time’. It suffuses the way we think, and is so much an automatic assumption that often we don’t think about it.

Karl Marx used the concept of ‘progress’ as a pivot for his theories about social change – the notion that society changes directionally towards an ultimate final point. He’d taken that in turn from his inspiration, Georg Hegel. As Barbara Tuchman points out, one outcome was that Marx became the butt of one of history’s greatest jokes. His concepts of verelendung and zussamenbruch simply didn’t work. History is not determinist. Yet, as far as I can tell, this same principle of progress to a final end point also framed the thinking of Francis Fukuyama when he declared, in 1992, that history was over with the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy and capitalism had won, we’d hit the final ideological nirvana and there would be no further change.

The problem, I think, is that we misunderstand the concept of ‘progress’. We mix up two different ideas.

Progress describes the process of human learning and invention – the way we discover things, and the way we apply those discoveries. Look at computers. In 1995 I bought a computer running Windows 98 with a 266mHz PII CPU. In 2006 I bought a hand-held iPAQ (not an Apple product) whose ARM processor outspecced it. That’s progress, and very good progress too.

As I write this, I still have the iPAQ.

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

But this concept of progress doesn’t describe everything humans do. Still less the way the universe works. The wider universe doesn’t automatically change in a direction at all, still less in a better one. We might define some of those changes as an improvement from our perspective. But not all.

Take the climate. It’s always changed naturally. Did it ever change in an ‘improved’ direction? Not really. It just changed. The state – ice age, dry, wet, and so forth – was  always transient. Of course now it’s changing in a specific direction, thanks to us, which is certainly not an improvement. Not for us, anyway.

It seems to me that the supposition that things change directionally has skewed our view of the way things work and – paradoxically – held up our understanding. We mask the deeper secrets of the universe from ourselves by viewing it through an obscured lens. And if we’re not careful, it’ll play jokes on us, the way history played jokes on Marx.

What’s your take on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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8 comments on “What’s wrong with progress? Nothing, except the way we think about it.

  1. Reblogueó esto en cotera motory comentado:
    mola!

  2. M. Hatzel says:

    If I understand the implications of what you are saying, then you suggest that there is no forward movement? In that sense, fragments of Marxism will remain and we will never fully leave it behind? Is this the joke of the last paragraph?

    • There is movement to the extent that we create it. Sometimes, as happens when we explore new technologies or ideas, there is movement in a direction – towards discovery. This, in the human sense, has often been labelled ‘progress’, and I think it is in the sense we usually imagine the word to mean.. But I think we come adrift when we assign the same process of ‘discovery progress’ to the operations of the wider universe as a whole, including issues such as climate; these things are not human constructs, and the better way to view them is simply as change through time. It may not necessarily be to our benefit. Or it might. But really, the only absolute direction for the universe is towards entropy.

      The joke that history played on Marx (and Feuerbach, Hegel etc) was that it wasn’t directional in the sense they imagined. Societies do not ‘evolve’ in the way they thought, and there is no inevitability about where societies go, in the sense that Marx considered. We can absolutely prove this because the societies that followed his precepts, as developed subsequently by people such as Lenin, were artificial constructs that all failed in the end, and did not enter the end-point nirvana imagined by Marx.

      It’s also true of efforts to fit Marxist dialectic to earlier periods. He was unquestionably a produict of his own time, an early ninetenth century racked with social and economic dislocation, and his ideas reflected that framework. But I recall an Honours level course I did (nearly 30 years ago – now gak!) on the historiography of the English Civil War, which occurred 200 years before Marx but where the interpretation had been hijacked by Marxist historians trying, valiantly, to fit the inevitability concept into those events. Of course it didn’t work.

      My own philosophy in this sense, derives in part from what I was taught post-grad by Peter Munz (a pupil, directly, of both Karl Popper and Wittgenstein) – and refers more to relativism.

      • M. Hatzel says:

        I have Derrida’s Spectres of Marx next to me at my desk. Reading it has been a challenge, especially reading it without being able to discuss it with anyone. And truthfully, I feel I’m lacking some context for this work, and your comments help here.

        Marx might have been a product of his time, and completely wrong, yet he lingers into the present (as invoked again by your essay) and will be there in the future. There is a sense that the definition of progress is as much determined by what it is not as by what it is… and this is a bit progressive.

        I’m throwing this into over-simplification and confusion, not intentionally, I’m just not sure how to proceed with this conversation; I might not be able to articulate my thoughts without more work. But I think there is something deeply compelling in your concluding paragraph, beyond the joke of reading backwards to see what lies ahead in the future,

        “It seems to me that the supposition that things change directionally has skewed our view of the way things work and – paradoxically – held up our understanding. We mask the deeper secrets of the universe from ourselves by viewing it through an obscured lens. And if we’re not careful, it’ll play jokes on us, the way history played jokes on Marx.”

        Perhaps it rests in the way Marx read history to fit his theory, did violence to the ‘truth,’ but provoked a response that demanded an ethical and responsible treatment of past truths. (Sometimes fictions, lies and secrets do more to bring forth the past than they do to bury it. If that makes sense?)

  3. We also mistake technology for progress when in fact new technology dulls our senses, clouds our reasoning, and leaves us unable to function without it. I’m sorry but that isn’t progress.Maybe I’m just getting old……

    http://notestoponder.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/once-upon-a-time/

  4. The only guarantee in life is that things will change.

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