On Progress and The World as Grass

Two interesting posts from two of my favorite regular blog reads:

Mike Flynn says:

“We often hear that the rate of progress is accelerating. Change is coming faster and faster. Things that were once pooh-poohed as “slippery slope fallacies” only a few years ago are now spoken of as inevitable and well-established. We are building something new, we are told.

“Yet a building being constructed does not move faster and faster. A building collapsing does, as it accelerated under the force of gravity.”

Brian Niemeier says, among other things:

There’s another, more sinister aspect to this phenomenon that heightens the already disorienting experience of learning that the Weird Al single you’d meant to buy on release but kept putting off is now old enough to drive–like children born on September 11, 2001 are now. It’s an empirical fact that Western pop culture–and even Western technology itself–has remained largely static since the late 1980s.

Submitted for your consideration:

  • The last two generations of iPhones have had no new features.
  • The celebrated iPod performed the same essential function as a 1970s Walkman.
  • Movies and TV are dominated by sequels to film franchises and adaptations of comic book story arcs that first gained popularity in the 70s and 80s.
  • Nintendo is still the biggest name in video games, trading on IPs it established in the 80s.
  • In terms of ordinary street clothes, popular fashion hasn’t changed substantially since the 70s. You could zap the average American twentysomething dude back to 1988 right now, and no one would bat an eye, except perhaps to comment that he looked like a slob. There would be no Marty McFly-style gaffes, e.g.: “Hey kid, you jump ship?” “I’ve never seen purple underwear before!”
The issue is bigger than a generation of kids raised on Nickelodeon turning 40. As the 21st century lumbers out of its infancy, we find that the music-makers can only sample Vanilla Ice ripoffs of Queen songs; and the dreamers can only dream of the lifestyle their parents took for granted.
We’d better get some new dreams.
I commented on these thoughts, respectively:

Good image. Also, from working in the software industry: progress almost never means coding, or more generally, the stuff you can see happens as a result of the real progress, but is not progress in itself. Almost all the progress happens before there’s anything to show for it.

Two wildly different examples: in my industry, meaningful progress happens during the ‘thought-smithing’ stage, where sharp people figure out what’s really going on, what’s really necessary. Ideas and processes crystalize. THEN, if you’re lucky and did a good job, coders code, and there’s software to look at. But coders code and produce stuff to look at all the time – it’s called ‘shelfware’, beautiful software nobody wants, so it sits on a shelf. Conclusion: the software itself isn’t where things got made better.

Second, in honor of the upcoming feast of St. Scholastica, a lot of real progress was made more or less unintentionally when the great Benedictine monasteries were built. The Rule of St. Benedict and the motto Ora et Labora ARE the progress – they ALLOWED the monasteries to spread, thrive, and change the world through being consistent pillars and sources of stability, civilization and technological development. It was almost like having a cultural mom and dad, who, just by being there and not budging, allowed the kids to grow up more confident and optimistic.

Corollary I: few people ever see where the real progress is made, they only see the results of real progress and imagine those results are causes rather than effects.

Corollary II: What people most tout as progress probably isn’t – which I suppose is your point.

And:

Your point about new gadgets is good. I suspect the number of ways people can be distracted is not all that flexible, so a cool gadget that really hits the spot has nowhere to go. Technologically speaking, phones, games, movies can only improve on the margins.

Look at the new gadgets people seem to be pining for: robots (especially sexbots!) do DO anything really different, just free up more time for? New gadgets? Flying cars are called ‘airplanes’. Otherwise, we want *better* books, phones, games, movies – the same things, only better. Real progress in most ways we spoiled consumers define it has come to a halt.

Hegel and by extension all other believers in Progress as a sort of benevolent force at work in the world hang their faith on the very evident material progress made over the last 250 or so years. In his Logic, Hegel in fact asserts that it is obvious traditional logic needs to change (in the sense of be destroyed) as it alone among the arts and sciences has remained ‘unimproved’ since Aristotle. He sees Progress at work in the world, and anything not progressing as being, as the cool kids say, On the Wrong Side of History.

A story told by Feynman springs to mind: he was once on a scientific junket of some sort to I believe Brazil, and was asked about the problems of the poor and if science had anything to offer. The specific example was how slum dwellers needed to march down a hill for a long ways to reach potable water, and then haul it back up to where they lived.Feynman points out that all the technology, all the science needed to solve this problem existed and had existed for decades or centuries: run a pipe up the hill and put in a faucet. Whatever the reasons for that simple solution not having been done, science wasn’t it.

The Antikythera Mechanism. A beautiful dead end. ‘Ahead of its time’ – whatever that’s supposed to mean!

In a similar way, most of what we see as progress day to day is application of technologies developed years earlier. And, worse, it’s almost all fluff – unless you need cutting edge medical care. Even then, chances are the cutting edge is built on ideas that have been around for decades. Our TV and phones and cars are marginally better than they were 10 or 20 or 50 or a hundred years ago – but they serve the same purposes, and the new improved versions have improved our lives little – unless we measure improvement in gadgets.

Real progress is messy, difficult and relies on changes of heart and mind more than any mere material invention. The Greek philosophers legendarily considered caring (much) for practical improvements to day to day life to be beneath the dignity of a real man. Practical progress of a sort was made in some arts, Archimedes is a legend himself – and then there’s the Antikythera Mechanism. But the outcome was not airplanes and moon landings, or even better plows and printing presses – it was constant internal bickering followed by conquests by the Macedonians followed by the Romans and jobs as tutors to their conqueror’s kids.

What the Greeks were missing was ‘why’. Certainly, they were brilliant, curious and ambitious enough to have accomplished so much – that made little material difference. It took the influence of Jerusalem and Christian Rome to provide a civilization with enough room, enough hope, to turn random intermittent ‘progress’ such as is characteristic of men whenever and wherever we live into a program, a communal effort.

If we are made in the Image of God, and the Heavens proclaim His glory, and the world is His handiwork, then applying our minds to understanding the world is a worthy activity. We can use that understanding to better serve our brothers and sisters. We needn’t accept the way things are. Christians are the only people who as a culture were not indifferent to the lives and deaths of the poor. Romans and Greeks, Indians and Chinese would have considered it an affront for a poor man to have the temerity to die on their doorstep; a Christian would be expected to see it as his own personal failure. Look what I  have done the the least of these!

Only if despair is considered cowardice and treason will we persevere in our efforts to help the needy. Only in a culture of hope and duty to one another can material progress become the norm. Such material progress is a side effect of a change of heart.

To the nihilist, relativist Progressive, technology is a tool of power, and science is a bother when it does anything but serve politics. True science, which is no respecter of men if it is science at all, is a threat to power. It follows where it will – and we can’t have that!

But we can have more and batter gadgets, and live an ephemeral life. Until we don’t.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

10 thoughts on “On Progress and The World as Grass”

  1. On that subject, I’ve often reflected recently that, when all is said and done, the internet is nothing but an extremely efficient post office. Fundamentally, it hasn’t introduced anything new into the human experience: only reduced the cost (in time, money, and effort) of doing it.

    1. Yep. Similarly, when people talk of the boon of having all this learning available on the internet, I wonder why people who didn’t avail themselves of the library would now be expected to become curious just because that information is available on a glowing screen.

      1. Well, partly because me taking my 3 y-o twins (and newborn) to the library to try to look things up would be its own special circle of hell. So if my older ones want to learn things (or I do), we can do it before the twins grow up another few years. Not that we don’t use our books too, but even with thousands (literally) in our collection, there is still plenty we look up online.
        No screen apologist I, but I do waver between detesting the internet and thinking it’s the best ever.

      2. Anna – sure thing – here I am, on the internet, after all, and my google-fu is strong. I totally get it – I love poking around on the internet, and it’s cool as long as you don’t check your skepticism at the door.

        My point would be that you at least considered going to the library, and might have gone had things been easier. Most people demonstrably never think about going to the library , and likewise will never use the web to get educated.

        (3 year old twins and a newborn? I do understand how hard it is – we had 6, 4, 2 & 0 years olds all at once. Hard, but wonderful. There will come a time when you look back upon it all wistfully).

  2. Historian John Lukacs remarked (The Passing of the Modern Age, 1970, pp. 73-74) that during the 50 years of 1870-1920, the daily lives of people in the cities of the Western world changed more than ever before — or after. By 1920, all the features of modern life were already in place or anticipated. The worlds of 1970 (when Lukacs was writing) would have seemed familiar to the man from 1920 in a way that 1920 would not to a man from 1870. Nor will 2020 seem all that outre to a man from 1970 (or from 1920!) It will be faster, miniaturized, more complex. To the man of 1920, automobiles, airplanes, airships, railroads, and the like were old hat. Radio was on deck. The hologram had been patented (1910). The same year, Louis Coanda had made the first successful jet-assisted take-off (though not alas the first successful landing) and, in the course discovering the Coanda Effect, kicked off modern fluidics. There was virtually nothing in the daily life of 1970 that would not have been known to a man of 1920; whereas 1920 would have been unimaginable to most people prior to 1870. The computer? It’s just a fast numerical tabulator like those used in the 1880 census, but no longer employing punched Hollerith cards. The internet? Access to information is faster than a library; but contains far more bogus information. Messaging is faster than the Post Office, but delivers messages far more worthless. (Lukacs already in 1970 was writing about the inflation of modern life. Just as money loses its value as it is multiplied, so too do documents. The personal diaries of Talleyrand, he writes, reveal the minister’s private thoughts; the diaries of Kissinger do not — because he wrote in the expectation that they would be published.

    1. Lukacs keeps coming up in things I hear or read. Must add him to the tottering pile (which contains a couple unread Mike Flynn books already!) Then retire to have time to read them all.

      The internet is like a gossipy neighbor. They might point out something interesting, but you’d better retain a healthy skepticism unless it’s independently verified.

      The things that make life good – God, family, friends and a sense of place – haven’t changed at all. Given all the free time and longer life technology has given us, one might think our connections to those would be strengthened. That we’d spend some of that newfound time and energy on cultivating them. That is clearly not what has happened.

  3. I’ve been on rare occasion accused of being “ahead of my time” and more often being “behind my time” or “born too late” and perhaps most often of being ‘out’ of time (and not in the missed deadline sense.. though sort also happens, alas). I must be “beside my time”… wrong ‘universe’ or something. Figures.

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