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When did we begin taking progress for granted, and why? - John Tan

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When did we begin taking progress for granted, and why?

Doing everything is difficult. Doing nothing is impossible.

Is this the reason why we, as a society, glorify progress? We never want to sit still. There are many reasons. Moral envy is one; we tend to compare ourselves to other individuals whether it be material wealth, competence or physical looks. Perhaps, it’s of a religious nature; idleness is a sin they say. Then there are also moral obligations; we need to support our families financially and the only way is to have a successful career. As illustrated, progress here is of an individual nature; as individuals, we seek to improve our lives and our position within society. What is the result, is collective progress that is experienced within society; we hear in the media, “scientists have discovered a new cure” or “we are one step closer to Mars”. Progress. Progress. Progress.

It’s almost as if progress is inevitable. This is a key statement. We have seen how progress has made the world richer, alleviated individuals from absolute poverty and advanced our medical & technical knowledge. Now, we assume not only is all progress good, but all progress creates good. As we can see through society, not all progress is good. The expected loss of millions of jobs due to automation or economic progress encouraging environmental degradation and destruction certainly pose us a future dilemma. Not all progress creates good either. The ethical & moral implications of recent advances in AI demonstrates how progress has gone too far in certain industries.

It can be noted that the first sign of taking progress for granted was when we started measuring economic progress. We are repeatedly reminded of this mysterious figure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which seems to be used as the main indicator of a country’s success and progress. We have become too reliant on GDP when using it to measure progress, overlooking aspects in our lives which cannot be measured such as family time, care or environmental impact. The mentality of individuals within society, especially those whose job exactly is to ensure that the country’s GDP is rising, has shifted towards prioritising economic growth at all cost. It was thought that with economic progress came greater opportunity for individuals, greater wealth and better lives in general. Capitalist societies believed their way was best, encouraging less developed countries to adopt their ways of thinking, the promise being greater prosperity. However, by thinking that all economic progress would inevitably bring us riches, we have dug our societies into holes filled with problems we never did conceive to be knocking at our front door. Problems such as the rising inequality in countries such as the USA or the fears that environmental tipping pointing has been reached. The realisation that these problems are real and the experiences of relative poverty, for example, has helped to at least awaken some individuals from the truth that it is misleading to assume all progress is good and all progress creates good.

When Simon Kuznets first formulated GDP , he had the idea of establishing one single measure to acknowledge the economic production of a country. Adopted by Bretton Woods institutions post-war, it has become the “ultimate” yardstick of progress until recently when we have begun questioning whether progress, measured using GDP, really causes our societies to develop in ways we want them to. It appeared to be vital that any sort of measure was needed to show that societies involved in WW2 could develop; a measure for reconstruction needed to be used. Western societies used GDP as a way to guide their countries towards wealth and riches. Progress was measured from quarter to quarter, whilst it was assumed that wealth would trickle down and be distributed to the poorest, creating fairer societies and more equal societies. This tacit understanding of trickle-down economics, also known as the Keynesian bargain, was largely evident between the 1940s to 1970s, with gains in worker productivity being matched by increasing worker compensation . After 1975, something strange began to happen, with productivity and compensation beginning to part ways. As productivity rose, most of the profits remained amongst the wealthiest with the trickle-down theory becoming non-existent. It was after this point that progress began to be taken for granted, leading to what I have already mentioned as the two most worrying consequences our generation has to face and deal with: rising inequality and environmental degradation. The logic that tells us that societies should thrive due to rising productivity leading to greater GDP growth and the redistribution of wealth should play no part in our societies today, yet it is still assumed that this still happens. Our heavy faith in using economic measurements of progress has left us to take for granted what progress is and the outcomes of progress.

Complacency has also caused us to take progress for granted. In other words, we have become complacent into thinking that, in a society so characterised by positivism and scientific know-know, that science has all the answers to live by – scientific progress means progress in society. As E. F. Schumacher writes in Small is Beautiful, “Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live. Even the greatest ideas of science are nothing more than working hypotheses useful for purposes of special research… but it tells him nothing about the meaning of life… ” There is no doubt that the emergence of scientific discoveries has led to a greater understanding of how things in life work – that is clear. Although this is the case, in order to understand how to live life or better our understanding of the meaning of life, one must recognise and appreciate the richness of the humanities. Nearly every aspect within today’s society seems to succumb to scientific know-how with progress made in areas of life we would never have had even thought of ten years ago. Similar to a social convention is the trust we give to science when applying it to other areas in our life – we place too much faith in positivism in order to achieve progress in the fields of education, psychology and healthcare, showing little awareness to metaphysics and ethics. As a society, we cannot help but to rush into making use of the latest technological advancement; our belief of which is that scientific understanding always creates progress.

Now, let us analyse why we take progress for granted on a more micro-scale by looking at how businesses take progress for granted. Businesses that show monopolistic behaviour believe that just by defending their moats alone, progress & success will continue (in the form of growing profits gained from rent-seeking behaviour). But as history has told us, it’s never enough to just defend moats; in order for effective progress within industries to happen, businesses must seek to improve their castle too. As Steve Jobs went onto describe in his The Lost Interview , companies with a monopoly market share care very less about innovating to the needs of their customers through improving their own products. Instead, the company focuses on expanding its sales & marketing team who end up running the company, driving out the “product people” – those who actually look to create product progress. So, what can we learn from this anecdote by Jobs about the reasons why progress is taken for granted? It portrays how progress only occurs with intent; in this case, for technological progress to persist, any company must be driven to innovate to the needs of their customers. Despite this imperative, in the past when we have seen companies develop monopolistic behaviour, they often forget about the means of their progress. For companies that do exploit their monopoly market share, their accumulation of profits has been disguised to seem that the cause of these profits is real progress, such as innovation in products & services, when in fact it is otherwise. From this analysis, we can acknowledge the idea that progress does not occur without intent. We must not take for granted that achieving progress is a task of ease but one that takes effort and willpower. As Jobs states , “It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people ‘here’s this great idea,’ then, of course, they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product.” The means of creating real progress, whether it be innovating new products or reaching certain goals should not only be disguised behind the curtains of exploitative behaviour (such as that of exploitative monopolies) but should be seen to be a task of courage and craftsmanship, rather than one that hides behind the façade of altruism for example.

As Keynes stated in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but escaping from the old ones. ” We must retire our faith in believing that our assumptions that all progress is good and all progress creates good bears truth in today’s society. We began to take progress for granted when we decided to focus on measuring GDP and then after, the 1970s when we chose to believe that economic progress would continue to bring prosperity. However, this is now not the case with trickle-down economics failing to come to fruition and the ever-increasing rate of inequality between the wealthiest top 1% and the rest of the population. Our obsession with certainty, influenced by the scientific and technological climate we find ourselves to be in, has given rise to our desire to operationalise progress. Yet, we fail to question why we need to always measure progress in the very first place. We are complacent when we think that by introducing the discoveries of science into other aspects of life, that progress will be accomplished. We take progress of this nature for granted, thinking it will always bear good fruit but when we realise that the rush to achieve such progress was an unwise decision, we soon realise that progress requires thought and consultation of metaphysics & ethics, especially when it comes to applying scientific & technological knowledge to other aspects of life.

Last but not least, it is significant to realise that taking progress for granted is only human. Our societies have indeed become wealthier, some more prosper and we continue to be fascinated by discoveries in human understanding even on a daily basis. It is rather a norm that progress is taken for granted. Think about the times when you have taken things for granted. But I think it is in this behaviour that when we take progress for granted, that we choose to progress even further because we, as humans, are never satisfied by now. We always want more. You could argue whatever you like to justify this behaviour; maybe it’s greed & selfishness or seeking to do good. Now, we potentially know why we take progress for granted; because to be human, is to progress.


Footnotes:

1 | Elizabeth Dickinson, “GDP: a brief history,” Foreign Policy (January 3, 2011). https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/01/03/gdp-a-brief-history/
2 | David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, p.179
3 | E.F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p.55
4 | Steve Jobs, The Lost Interview, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRZAJY23xio
5 | Ibid.
6 | John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, preface




John Tan

Move education forward. Move the world forward. And get closer to the truth. Excited by the intersect of psychology, design, tech and education.

 




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