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How do we measure progress today?

~I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way~

Writing: Magdalena Jablonska

Throughout the daily methodical repetition of work, eat, (minimal) sleep and repeat, we might on occasion gaze out the window, eyes glazed over, and ask, “just what is the damn point of it all?”

What’s the end goal, that is. It seems to be a question we’ve always asked ourselves—what are we progressing towards? And if we’re not, anything from dull parent-teacher meetings, popular plays or political manifestos have tried to paint us a vision of a future worth striving for. One invariably more shiny, more fulfilling and more egalitarian than our present. 

Progress, in other words, gives meaning and purpose to our actions. We put more time into school projects to get better grades; campaign for equal pay, gay marriage and trans rights, all to try and create a less divisive society; or re-draw that bowl of fruit in front of us for a third time, as we aim for a greater likeness. It seems obvious that without aspirations to strive for, and ways of measuring how close we may be to achieving them, our short time on this small rock hurtling through space would often seem pointless.  

Among our many assumptions about progress is its inevitability and constant upward trajectory. 

In a time of rapid technological change and the glory days of consumerism, it seems to be a given that we will continue to materially improve our lives, without any apparent limitations lurking in our future. In the nineteenth century, J.B. Bury: historian, philologist and all-round classical Greek geek, was already able to formulate the birth of such ideas concerning the cult of progress. Our faith in the guarantee of progress was seen by Bury to lie in the triumph of reason over spirituality. After all, if we think we have the afterlife to continue our existence, what pressing urgency is there in the present to advance towards goals set for ourselves, or society? We were also, according to Bury, fairly humble and unassuming in the face of divine power and thus could not form such arrogant ideas about our abilities to rise onward and upward. 

J.B. Bury

Inevitably, we have, since Bury’s day, begun to entertain scepticism about the inevitability of progress and no longer believe blindly that progress will be with us, whatever may happen. Science, and its Frankenstein creation of nuclear weapons, showed a destructive as well as constructive capability, while modernisation proved unable to be the panaceum to social inequality many had hoped for. Likewise, we have begun to experience more directly the costs of our fervent pursuit of modernity, which are perhaps best illustrated by our current state of climate crisis. 

Such crises will, we are told, be solved by technology. Whether we embark on space exploration in order to find a new planet to call home, or whether we develop new technologies with which to survive an increasingly environmentally hostile planet; progress appears to have been firmly outsourced to the application of scientific knowledge, rather than its pursuit. Enthusiasts claim that all modern problems can be fixed by the invention of a better machine, method or algorithm. 

Yet is such a belief not misplaced? Is our veneration of technology not merely a replacement for our previous veneration of the inevitability of progress and of the power of science? More importantly, does technology itself also not come with a list of costs? Technology, for all its promises of freedom, bears the hidden price of our ever-growing dependency on it, as well as its greater control over our lives. Now seems as good a time as any to ask, is technological progress truly progressive?

Image: via Wikipedia

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