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