Just as every nation has its own concept of nation and finds the constitutive characteristics of nationality within itself, so every culture and cultural epoch has its own concept of culture.
To measure progress, we need to state a direction in which we are progressing. If progress is defined as distance, I can wander randomly and every step I take is progress. If I am in a desert and need to save myself, progress would be motion either out of the desert or towards an oasis. If progress is spiritual enlightenment, walking around may or may not mean progress at all.
In many cases, progress isn’t obvious; To an academic, progress can be failure – failed experiments or hypotheses; To an engineer, progress can be lack of failure or efficiency in production regardless of aesthetic; To an artist, progress can be quality and aesthetic of production regardless of cost; To an businessman, progress can be profit-margin for production.
Progress for one person is not progress for the other. Even worse, in some cases, progress for one is actually regress for the other.
So, while individual progress is not important, there is one definition of progress that many believe is constant and permanent.
Many feel that now we are living the pinnacle of human life, we have more stuff to use, more technology, we live longer, we “live like kings”. The storyline goes that through our collective efforts, we have built a great society and continue to progress rapidly into a brave new world. By those measures, we are better off than we’ve ever been and things are only getting better.
It is true, we live longer, have more stuff, and do not have the need to be constantly searching for simple food and shelter like some of our ancestors did. We are more productive and have access to more information than ever before. Yet is this progress?
By many secular and technological standards we have progressed further than any previous age.
For the elite who now have access to technologies and lifestyles previously reserved for the greatest of kings, it sure feels like it.
For the guy I used to see every day sleeping on the street under a streetlamp, I’m not as sure.
But no, the story told throughout the media, TED talks, etc. is that this is progress and the only way to continue it is to become even more productive, create even more technology (without consideration of consequences), build more businesses, to work work work.
I’ve heard and read this all before. Yet, the statement above contains it’s own fallacy – The Texas Sharp shooter fallacy. We are further along than any previous generation because we have drawn the target around where we are moving furthest. We are more productive than ever, but at what cost? In the US and Canada our leisure time is less than ever. In many cases both parents in households must work to pay the bills. We are so individualistic that many extended families never see eachother. We have less spirituality than ever, possibly because we have less time than ever, and our communities and social action has been reduced to pitiful non-violent rallies that make us feel good but accomplish very little.
Yet, we are in the best of all worlds because that is what we are doing best this century.
I can hear some of the more tech-worshipping followers reading this thinking: “Repent Harlequin!”
In a theological age, everything runs smoothly if theological questions are in order; everything else is “provided” by definition. The same is true of other ages. In a humanitarian-moral age, it is only necessary to inculcate morals, whereby all problems become problems of education. In an economic age, one needs only solve adequately the problem of the production and distribution of goods in order to make superfluous all moral and social questions. Mere technical thinking also solves the economic problem with new technical developments. All questions, including the economic, recede before the task of technical progress.
If humanitarian-moral progress is still expected by many today from the perfection of technology, it is because technology is magically linked to morality on the somewhat naive assumption that the splendid array of contemporary technology will be used only as intended
A fairly controversial political philosopher I have been reading discusses how every century draws the target to define progress based on what they are progressing in. From that definition of progress, the elite (or state) derives its power precisely because defining progress defines good and bad; an enemy-friend grouping.
Hence, one century marks it as piousness and religious progress and leads to religious wars, another marks it as philosophical and educational and leads to revolution, yet another marks it as economic progress and leads to economic wars and colonialism. The previous century marked it as technological and consumer based progress — we are more advanced than our predecessors because we have more tech, more stuff. We are better because we are efficient.
This makes us feel happy, feel accomplished, and feel comfortable with the status quo. While it is not a conspiracy, it also has the effect of encouraging the general population to support whoever is in power, not necessarily elected officials, but general elites. It defines friend and enemy groupings and ensures that those who are part of the larger grouping will have more power.
Yet, we must ask is this the progress we want. Is this right? In the last 15 years due to more pervasive technology, we work more than ever. Many people carry their smartphone with them and feel that they must respond to emails and work requests at all hours of the day, essentially working 12+ hours a day.
Some IT techs I know are on 24 hours alert, work well over 40 hours a week and don’t get paid for any overtime. They forbid the idea of unions or collective bargaining to attempt to be properly paid for their work because unions are not efficient (and they aren’t). Yet, if we have no leisure time, why the hell are we working so hard? Who are we working for?
It can’t be the next generation, so many people feel so overworked that they refuse to have children. Many make excuses for this, but I believe it comes down to the same reason people in famine situations don’t have children. If you are working your ass off to stand still, how can you believe there is enough of anything for the next generation?
It can’t be for us to simply live. We have had enough food and housing for decades. We have so much productivity surplus in the US that it is being wasted during a needless recession/depression because we pay more attention to the false golden idol of money than to the fact that people are wanting to work and they simply aren’t being allowed to.
It can’t be for our own leisure. Even leisure time is based on the utmost efficiency. Bucket lists are simply checklists for leisure, many don’t go to these amazing places to actually be in awe. They go to be able to outdo the Joneses.
Perhaps the bucket list is a clue, we need to create stuff, we need to be more efficient, we need to be productive – at all expense. If we are productive enough, then we will get some undefined reward because we have supposedly contributed most to society. It makes us feel better than those who are unable to find work or, by the definitions of meritocracy in our society, are deservedly poor. It reinforces the friend-enemy dynamic we want so badly around the “neutral” idea of efficiency and productivity.
We work this hard, at the expense of family, spirituality, religion and happiness, because that is how we defined progress.
Yet, in the end I don’t think we have progressed at all.