What is progress?
Have we made progress?
Medicine—our capacity to keep a person healthier for longer—has progressed. Our ability to apply that capacity consistently across the population, less so.
Energy—our capacity to power the needful within ecological limits—has progressed. But our ability to deploy that capacity flounders, and our idea of what the needful is is more confused than ever.
On that note: all this computer stuff. Has that been progress? Surely, some of it has. But if we were pressed, what’s the simple story of ‘tech’? Progress? Or a scheme to increase the asset valuations of the world’s wealthiest people?
Progress toward what? A budding field of ‘Progress Studies’ has struggled to articulate answers to this question. Its architects have gestured toward advances that “raise the standard of living.” What does it mean to “raise standards of living?” I asked this question on ProgressForums. Jason Crawford, a central figure in the movement, and founder of the nonprofit The Roots of Progress, responded with a frank admission that no rigorous answer exists. But he pointed to some “overall material conditions.” Some of those conditions were plausibly transcultural, like “overall health and protection from disease.” Others, less so. For example, “the quantity and quality of possessions that the average person has (clothes, electronics, tools, jewelry, sporting equipment, etc.)” Who cares about electronics? Only a highly electronically-minded society, and a community that views access to electronics as a pre-requisite for a meaningful life. Those assumptions in turn assume shared values: that global connectivity or access to labor is intrinsically enriching. (More likely, they are less intrinsically enriching than they are conducive to continuing or accelerating progress as we view it).
My view is: There is no “progress” without normative values about what lives people ought to live. The only question is, how finely can we articulate those values?
Why care about progress? If we had a grasp on progress—what it is, what it’s for—we could build a notion of design around it. A design that aims toward progress. Without a firm notion of progress, toward what does design aim?2
I’ll ask it again. Has all this computer stuff been progress? The fact that we can’t with certainty answer shows how aimless we’ve been.
Thanks to Joshua Crawford and Noah Saso for the conversations.
Recent social science has begun to take this charge seriously, reaching to Aristotle to understand choice and thriving. (Even the World Happiness Report talks about eudaimonia these days). That work might also look to analogous concepts outside the West. Indigenous notions of kinship, Japanese ikigai—what else?
For whatever it’s worth, I doubt there’s a universalizing theory of progress to be found. Likely, there are only per-culture answers at best. I still think progress is worth having a theory of—if only to check the universalizing impulse of well-intended intellectuals.