Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Mirage of Progress

We are an advanced civilization. What, exactly, does that mean? How is it that we have advanced? What is it that has advanced? Well, our technology for one thing. But what about our technology has advanced? We have more of it, and are getting more of it on a daily basis. That is, we are acquiring more and more technological applications; we are using technology in more and more ways. It is becoming, more and more, an inseparable part of our day-to-day existence. But is acquiring more the same as advancing? We can look into history and compare the technology of past times with that of the present and notice a difference. Further, we can see that the difference is accumulative; new technology builds upon--extends--the old. But does this accumulation mean that we have progressed? There is a sharp distinction to be made between accumulation and progress. The distinction is one of direction. To accumulate is merely to collect, to gather and retain, occasionally discard. Accumulation says nothing about a direction other than that associated with simple accretion: more as opposed to less. Progress implies a specific direction, an ultimate goal. Progress is toward something, whereas accumulation is of something. Are we merely accumulators, collectors, gatherers of technology or is there some final goal toward which our creation of complex tools is directed? If our technology is truly progressing, advancing toward a goal, then what is that goal?

There is an historical sense in which our technology can be said to have progressed. We can do things better now than we could in years past. We can cure diseases that used to wipe out whole populations. We can communicate and travel with speed and efficiency that would make our great-grandfathers dizzy and confused. We can peer into the outermost regions of the heavens and the innermost regions of the substance of matter itself. Through accumulative changes in our technology, we have acquired abilities and capacities that we did not have previously. But outside of this historical, backward-looking perspective, can it truly be said that we have progressed? Was the telegraph achieved in order to invent the telephone? Was radio devised on the way to creating television? Was the adding machine created with the personal computer as an end in view? Progress requires a goal. I can progress on my way to the top of a mountain. I can see that I am making some progress in paying-off my mortgage. But to where is our society’s technology progressing? What is the end-in-view such that we can look at where we are today, compare it with where we were yesterday, and say that we have made progress toward achieving this end? Maybe what we mistakenly call progress is just a drive toward ever-increasing complexity. Will the increase proceed without end? Will there be some point of no return at which the complexity exceeds our ability to control our own technology? Have we already passed that point? Is the ultimate goal a state in which we have been completely eclipsed, replaced by our technology? Perhaps it is not a drive toward complexity that lies behind technological change, but instead a particularly insidious manifestation of entropy. Perhaps the continual increase in complexity is indicative of our slow disintegration into chaos.

The idea of progress is not limited to technology. It taints our thoughts about other aspects of modern society as well. Consider, as a particularly salient example, the idea of economic growth. What does it mean to say that the economy is growing? Unlike the idea of technological progress, where there is some evidence for qualitative change, or at least a change in the direction of increased complexity, economic growth appears to be solely a matter of accumulation; a growing economy means more business, more consumption, more jobs, more money being spent, more money being made, more people getting rich. There is no end-in-view. There is only the incessant drive toward accumulating more and more and more and more. A few wise souls have come to realize that economic growth has nothing to do with progress, and further, that it cannot continue at an exponential rate indefinitely. These prophets of doom plead for a sustainable equilibrium. So far they have failed to convince anyone. They first need to find a way to undermine the irrational idea of progress and its corollary: the incoherent notion of sustainable growth.

The idea of the progress is to society what the idea of personal growth is to the individual. Both notions confuse change and an increase in complexity with progression toward some final end. Personal growth is thought to be movement toward some final realization of human potential: the achievement of self-actualization. Progress is likewise thought to be movement toward some final realization of the potential of society: utopia. Both ideas suffer from problems of teleology. Both suffer from problems of evaluative criteria. How are we to decide which changes are in the direction of utopia and which are not? Our society is becoming increasingly complex. Is utopia a condition of maximum complexity?

Human civilization is not heading for some ultimate culmination of history. Civilized society has not progressed anywhere since the first hominid shared food with his neighbor. It has changed. But this change is not change toward something. It is not change in a specific predetermined direction. It is change that has accrued though an accumulation of the effects of circumstances--political, geographical, and meteorological circumstances. Utopia, as with its parallel, self-actualization, is a mirage that keeps us staggering around in circles like a man delirious with thirst chasing the shimmering hope of an oasis that evaporates into the sand as he approaches.

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