Progress

December 2, 2009

Tonight was a bit a whirlwind, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll get some more posts up about that and the thoughts stirred, but first I want to address a question that came up during seminar tonight.

It occurred to me while we were discussing Popper that many social scientists assign positive meaning to the word “progress.” I think this is a mistake. Frankly, I think it is surprising that the idea has survived this long, since it is a relic of the Enlightenment, which has had so many of its underpinning ideals decisively undercut in the last century or so.

I said as much in class, and offered that I thought what we typically call “progress” is really just change with no value assigned to it. Our tutor asked me “Well, then why do we have the word in the first place?” Good question; I didn’t have an answer at the time, but I think I’ve formulated one now.

I can tune in to a soccer game and check it’s progress. “Oh look, we’re in the 53rd minute, and Fulham are up 2-1.” I can keep watching and observe the game progressing. This is because a game of soccer is a discrete, easily isolated incident with a defined beginning and end, and agreed upon rules of success. I don’t think that society can say the same of itself.

Researchers looking at the skeletons of humans have noticed that when humans stop being hunter gatherers and settle down in towns, growing their own food they shrink. Seriously. And it isn’t just a few inches, we’re talking as much as a foot in some cases. The bones also show increased signs of disease, and the people don’t live nearly as long. Progress?

Sure, we can solve those disease problems with antibiotics, but that took us millennia to figure out; and by the way, have you read about those drug resistant diseases? We can make almost anything out of corn nowadays, and we can squeeze amazing amounts of corn out of an acre of land. Good, right? Feed the world. Let them know it’s Christmastime. Um… well, now Iowa’s a near complete monoculture, requiring vast amounts of pesticide (progress!) and erosion controls. We have to monitor our lakes and streams to make sure they’re safe to swim in because God help us if the agriculture runoff gets in there.

Our modern, Western life allows human beings to be more productive than at any other time in human history. It also gives us diabetes and coronary heart disease. The car made it incredibly easy for people to travel long distances in a relatively short amount of time. It also gives us scads of crap in the air that I don’t want to breathe and suburbs.

These things are part of our everyday life now, and I’m not saying we should get rid of them; modern life wouldn’t be possible without them. I am saying that we should stop romanticizing things and acting like the things we create only have good side effects. Progress doesn’t necessarily move humanity forward; it just moves it along.

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2 Responses to “Progress”

  1. Andrew said

    Entropy, my dear Chris, Entropy! All progress is backwards; it’s the second law of thermodynamics.

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