Unforgivable Opinions 4 - Progress Is Bullshit

I am writing this essay less a day after learning of the death of my aunt from COVID-19. She had been fully vaccinated for 3 weeks when she fell ill, was intubated, and eventually passed. After a year plus of being told to trust and believe in the science, believe experts, and random voices of authority over my individual judgement you can please excuse me if I do not come off as a bit brash – I am incensed. I have continuously been urged from all sides to uncritically submit to mass ideas and have reached in many ways my wit’s end. Among these mass ideas stands the unshakable and widely held belief in technological, societal, and at base human progress – of which I am arguing against in this installment of Unforgivable Opinions. It is incidental that my aunt passed while I wrote this piece, I had had designs on this essay for months and it reflects thoughts I have mulled over for years. One of the few universal truths I hold dear is that life will never cease to supply biting, painful, ironies and coincidences. I do not ascribe to naïve ideas of universal progress and in many ways her death struck me as a morbid reminder of why.

Perhaps out of all the battles I have chosen to pick in this series of essays defending indefensible positions, the adherent belief in progress is the one I feel the most alone in critiquing. The idea of progress, in numerous aspects that I will touch on later, has been exalted past an idea to a level of unquestionable faith on par with the strictest and most orthodox of religions. We are unable to doubt the idea that people have made significant technological progress, that as a society things are better off today than they have ever been in the past, and even furthermore that the best is yet to come. These beliefs and assumptions are echoed and underwritten throughout our society, our media, and our common and slowly-homogenizing communication patterns.  In present day, belief in progress represents an altar that all are dragged before and forced to submit.

Technological Progress

There exists a blind adherence of faith in technological progress for humanity. Indeed, at first glance, the growth in technology even in the short decades of this century appears remarkable. It seems that technology is unavoidably advancing, and advancing at an accelerating pace, but some more nuanced analysis is due here.

Technology at its core is simply leverage – it allows one person, or a group of people to do the work previously required from many more. From the wheel, to Facebook – technology allows us to do things that would have mandated a much larger expenditure of time, resources, and effort without them. Embedded in this is the downside of leverage, as much as it allows for us to take positive and constructive actions swiftly with effects that are more broad reaching and so too does it allow the same for negative and destructive acts.

What is known as the turkey problem, or more broadly the problem of induction, states that because we have witnessed growth in the past we will continue to witness growth in the future. The turkey name, christened by Nassim Taleb, comes from the idea that turkeys will believe they are going to be fed more and more based off of prior experience that is until the eve before thanksgiving. In the markets this looks like extrapolation of a price performance chart that extends to all time highs right before the crash. With technology this takes the form of humanity continuing to believe that newfound and accelerating advancements and discoveries will be made pushing forward technological progress. (see image below)

However, there is ample evidence that we have a long history of analogous “market crashes” with respect to technological advancement. Ancient Rome had technological marvels like indoor plumbing and massive road networks which weren’t able to be reproduced for centuries, some technology like the use of nanoparticles in the making of the Lycurgus Cup, wasn’t rediscovered until the 1970’s. Even beyond Rome, we still are unsure of the technology used to build the pyramids and many other marvels from the ancient world. The advancements and then reversals in technological ability are true relapses in technological progress, but these do not take place just over centuries and in the distant past. We find technological setbacks even in the past few decades through simple mishandling of information (often aided by the incompetence of needless bureaucratic complexity) as evidenced in how the US military has forgotten technology necessary to repair and maintain its own highly advanced bombers.

The halts, erasure, and even reversal of the above technological developments all came about from errors and missteps on the macro and the micro scale. To restate the above point: technology is leverage both in constructive and destructive forms. This aspect combined with the proliferation of task specialization and siloing of information in the modern world leads to an extremely and increasingly fragile system. There are only so many individuals who can maintain and upkeep the highly complex power grids, information systems, resource lines, and supply chains that we depend upon. We are coming out of a pandemic that even with its high number of deaths was remarkably mild – what would have happened if fatalities were doubled or even a factor of ten higher? Perhaps we should count ourselves fortunate in this regard, it seems we are hardly aware of how much we are teetering on the edge of a cliff.

Akin to the turkey we continue to believe just because we have witnessed technological progress in the past two centuries that we are on a long march of history rather than an extended lucky streak. And just like the turkey who with every passing day grows more certain of its security and future, we too believe in rapidly approaching better days ahead. Instead of properly preparing and growing more cautious and robust we grow more bold, reckless, and hubristic in our security whilst our own proverbial Thanksgivings approach.

I am not making a diatribe against human genius, nor proclaiming hard-set intellectual and epistemic limits. Perhaps our ability to advance technology would be truly infinite given 1) limitless time and 2) no harm received – either self-inflicted or exogenous. But that second assumption is likely fatal – I personally consider myself an optimist however I cannot bring myself to be so naïve as to believe that if something can go wrong it simply will not. The more recent discoveries of civilizations that existed 11,000 years ago (nearly doubling the previous historical estimate) and evidence of seafaring technology from 130,000 years ago reconfirms that we are continuously rediscovering our species’ past abilities. Even more so, the absence of historical record of these civilizations from later ancient advanced societies such as Sumer, Egypt, Greece and others may imply we are simply on a continuous boom and bust cycle of technological progress, and the chart of advancement does not go from bottom left to top right, but rather is a pattern of sideways zig-zags.

The evidence of previous technological progress is all buried in the graveyard, so our natural bias is to believe anything we do not see is simply not there and has never existed. As a matter of fact, until the rediscovery of the Lycurgus Cup, the ample writing on the technology behind the cup from Roman time was thought to be at best extended metaphor and at worst myth and legend. As glibly naïve as we may be in forecasting forward into time, we are just as blind in the opposite direction. The issue with reverse forecasting is as simple as this posed question: if you come to a puddle of water on a saucer, try to reconstruct the shape of the piece of ice it came from. Now scale this question up to our even more muddled and complex world and you see there are incredibly arduous barriers to not only understanding our future but also our past. It is for this reason that difference in belief in the deep history of the universe whether it is the big bang or a pantheon of gods is at best a difference in aesthetics. Furthermore, belief in predestined futures including an oncoming technological utopia is little more than a matter of (rather bland and naïve) aesthetic taste as well.

Social Progress

Paired with the idea of scientific progress is the callow and often self-contradictory thought of social progress towards a more liberated, just, and equal society. Besides pointing out the idea that these complex and multi-faceted societal dynamics are nearly impossible to quantify and would fail in any manner to be objectively ranked across time and space – the belief that we are a “better society” is less about the actual practices of that society and more so about how those practices tend to square with the taste and preferences of the observer.

To set some perspective it is worth examining the idea of American Exceptionalism, or the belief that American society is a shining beacon on a hill whose tenets all other societies should adhere to by their own volition or by force. In the very distant year of 2004, the majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and this societal value was among those that American exceptionalists believed the world should be modeled after. After a decade, sentiment flip-flopped, legislation passed, and American exceptionalists began viewing other nations that didn’t allow for gay marriage to take place as oppressive and backwards.[1]

The point of the above paragraph is that societal mores change over time rather rapidly and wantonly, and not necessarily in ways that aren’t self-contradictory. Given the constant flux of what marks a just society’s morals, ethics, and liberties as advanced and progressive it is a hard sale to make the case that we are better than our antecedents, especially when what is considered a digression one day can be tomorrow’s progress. The same-sex marriage example can still be argued as an overall move towards a utopic egalitarianism. But, similar to technological progress – on the larger scale of human history, arguments for our lockstep advancement in the social sphere prove difficult to justify.

The racism that was the basis of trans-Atlantic chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and still hotly debated today was an invention of the Iberian peninsula and its colonies only in the 15th and 16th centuries – still a relatively recent development when viewed at a wider perspective of humanity.[2] The birth and widespread proliferation of this societal norm can only be seen as a devolution and relapse in societal progress. Further the continued echoes and debates we still have around racism prove that there is still ground to recoup. Similarly, many other facets of culture that people believe are “progressing”: acceptance of homosexuality, flexibility in gender expression, and the embrace of intersex roles in society have come and gone in numerous cultures and civilizations throughout history. Again, it is not a slow advent onward and upward that we witness across human history but rather random movements that change at the drop of a hat.

Biological Progress

In a bizarre synthesis between the belief in technological and societal progress rests the often unspoken but nevertheless pervasive and well-understood sentiment that humanity as a species has advanced to a higher, near-transcendent level above the rest of nature. Humans congratulate themselves for rising above their base instincts through the use of intellect and social civility.

A good example of this comes in Steven Pinker widely accepted claim that humanity is intrinsically becoming tamer and less violent through rising commerce, literacy, communication, and rational problem-solving. Pinker states the case for this in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature supposedly resting on data analysis of historical wars, skirmishes, and crime for proof. To argue that we as a species have become tamer and more reconcilable barely two decades out of a century that contained multiple mass-genocides and two world wars is perhaps in the eyes of some buffoonish. However, even if we were to accept his claim and ignore the recent past, how could we assume in a world with ever higher accumulation of weapons of mass destruction and where the annihilation of the entire species could be as simple as a press of a button that we are any less violent. People who wish to make this argument seem to be toying around with the definitions of words more so than they are observing and making credulous statements of reality.

But let’s continue to play devil’s advocate and assume humanity really has grown tamer, less cruel, more benevolent, and more caring in general. Why is a more sociable and civil species anything to applaud or claim as progress? The ability for humans to work together in non-violent ways is neither novel nor rare in nature. Ants toil in close-knit civil order and bees work in concert to terraform the earth – bringing bountiful propagation of vegetation every spring and summer – and both have done so for millions of years. Why should we consider togetherness and teamwork any different than hive-mindedness? Cattle herds display the fact that cordiality and group-amenable behavior are not marks of high erudition and distinction but mostly of a bovine cud-chewing passivity. It is little more than self-aggrandizing hubris for humanity to place itself atop a pedestal for these attributes.

Furthermore, if we were to see these tamed aspects of ourselves as a benefit, they are certainly not without cost. Naturally, people are stronger in cohesive groups – or rather the group has more power than the individual, but this does not come without the expense of the individual’s volition. There is no free-lunch. I find the flat one-dimensional condemnation of man’s existence outside of society – defined in Hobbesian terms as “nasty, brutish, and short” – to be lacking any degree of subtlety. Especially when it fails to highlight the cruelty enacted by society on the individual – which can be as much if not even more of a tyranny as mother nature.

If we truly have become less violent and our bent toward criminality has withered – does this represent anything positive or simply a growth in the traits of meekness and rule-following? The advent of compliance to rules may indeed represent little more than a sweeping ineptitude for individuals to take actions themselves. It marks a defeat of instincts of self-preservation that drive people to fight for what they love, need, and desire. From early childhood we are instructed not to face our bullies and hit back but rather to cow and plead for authorities to come to our rescue. In general, the continued expanse of private and public institutions seems to lend itself to the idea that we only bring about solutions by asking for bigger more far reaching exogenous authority to step in and intercede. If being non-violent means we are more willing to be subdued and passive to indignities whilst letting others fight our battles, then it is hard to justify this as progress. As Erntst Junger notes we have become a people who would search out for lawyers when witnessing the rape of our mothers. Such spinelessness can only be devolution, perhaps our lack of violence does not show an advent but rather a nadir in our species.

The last aspect of biological progress people usually flock to and that is heavily tied both towards beliefs in scientific and social progress are the supposed longer lifespans of modern human beings. Often this statistical factoid is dragged out as irrefutable evidence of scientific progress and the argument is considered over. Longer lifespans are realistically a statistical consequence of lower infant mortality – individuals of the mid-Victorian period could expect to reach an advanced age once they survived past the age of 5.[3] The drop in child mortality is a topic I will touch on shortly – but why do we even view the idea of simply extending life as marking us as better than our antecedents? It strikes me as simplistic to use longevity of the individual as a measure of progress, and it raises a myriad of questions: What if life extension simply means people are being too safe? What if it means individuals are incapable of taking risks? Animals in captivity surely live longer on average than those in the wild but would anybody mistake the domesticated life as progress over the lives of the free. Why is length our goal and not depth? It is literal one-dimensional thinking to rank life by age – why should we be looking at life as racking up a high score? Are we juvenile enough to believe it is as simple as “the more the merrier”?

People are warned to live as subdued and as straight pathed a life as possible. I do not call for self-indulgence or hedonism; but people tend to want to bleach passion, excitement, and deep sense of meaning out of their lives in order to lengthen them. Working in the hypercompetitive corporate sphere of Wall St. I would see my coworkers eat bland mush and run on treadmills like hamsters on wheels in order to eek out some more mechanical, routine, and flavorless years. I saw them take pills to neuter eccentric personalities and psychological quirks and dress in copy-cat fashion so that they wouldn’t stick out; all in attempts to scuttle away more money for a retirement fund to secure, stretch, and smear a flaccid and weak life even longer. Living a life of dulled edges and completely relinquishing the possibility of danger, does not enrich life but completely debases it – it is a bland and safe shadow of everything life could be. Aging used to symbolize triumph in the face of adversity, it now marks one’s subdued and cowing nature.

Lower mortality in and around childbirth marks not necessarily a good in itself but rather a lowering of the barriers to entry of existence. It is hard to make a strong positive case around doing this besides simply cherishing and worshiping life for life’s sake – attempting to add more life simply because there will be more of it –  rather than making any qualitative adjustments and improvements to life. This viewpoint remains blind to senses of discernment and distinction or appreciation of degree and rank. It mutes and squashes out any ability to exalt the aspects of life that can make it beautiful by not prizing these aspects above the rest and throwing all of life into the same pot.

The abhorrent and ignored hypocrisy here is that the safer life becomes, and the more common life is – the more devalued and ordinary the wondrous essence of existence grows. Living transforms from something precious and rare to a routine and ultimately superfluous event. Even more so the longer we smear out our longevity the less precious each moment becomes. The myth of progress and our search for a continual extended future at the sacrifice of today goads people to put off hopes and dreams, deride meaningful experiences, and avoid adventure in the moment with the promise of better and more tomorrows. The promise of progress is a chimera and a distraction continually pulling us away to tomorrow so that we cannot be bothered with the things that can be fixed today. The locus of control of our lives is being removed from our immediate grasp to an ever more distant place – the future.

Removing danger and risk from life and cheering on propagation only for the sake of propagation diminishes the value of the individual and the esteem we have for each other – it forces us to not see neighbors, family, friends, and the like as people any more so than as mere numbers, points of datum, or widgets churning in the gigantic machine of society we have progressed into. How else could you explain the advent of social sciences that now guide our world where the unique individual has disappeared and humanity is only considered en masse.

The illusion of progress – both in society and technology and their synthesis – places people outside of the driver’s seat of their own lives. Society will move forward and improve with or without us, it is better to sit idly by and allow others to make decisions for us, allowing history to follow its natural course. The idea that we are on an unstoppable march forward permits us to think that our lives are better dealt with in the hands of exogenous forces and the powers that be rather than our own. Why should private individuals who are so woefully ignorant, inexperienced, and incapable be allowed to stray outside the guide of external experts when this could be regressive and go against our shared idol of progress? We cannot allow individual volition and deviation even in the most intimate part of our lives such as how to raise our own children or care for our own bodies.

Billions of people live under the illusion of progress and better days. They believe they are self-sacrificially helping nudge humanity along but are actually doing little more than killing their own individuality and throwing away their liberty. The deep irony of this is that genuine history can only be made by the free; history is the stamp that the free person gives to destiny.[4]

Any idea that we are vastly advanced, evolved and progressed should just look at the general deterioration of our wellbeing and vitality. Across society physical fitness and mental health have crumbled. The acting out of our bodies and our psyches are canaries in the coal mine that we are headed in an incorrect direction.

I again am returned to thinking about my aunt who just passed. How much blind faith did she put into science, into society, into progress and perhaps how fatal did it prove to her? I think about our own relationship that had always been strained since I was a young child. How often did I let time pass, thinking we would reconcile some day in the future, which was sure to come and never did – time spent dawdling instead of connecting with loved ones and building deep meaning in life. Tomorrow isn’t promised, and it certainly isn’t promised to be better than today.

[1] This observation was borrowed from Andrew Bacevich from his talk about his book Age of Illusions link. The actual data is from Pew Research link.

[2] https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-racism-was-first-officially-codified-in-15thcentury-spain

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2625386/

[4] This is again a borrowed phrase from Ernst Junger