Monday, January 16, 2012

Against Progress: an Introduction

Against Progress: an introduction

(I intend to write multiple posts regarding this topic, and will, after editing, post them all again together on a separate page. In the meantime, I greatly welcome comments and arguments concerning what I've written here.)

Unseen and often unexamined exist frames of thinking, postulates and “truths” by which we filter our understanding of the world and each other. I suspect we exist in perpetual shorthand, developing habits and assumptions which serve us (usually) so well that we rarely have reason to question them, let alone even acknowledge them.

When we sit in a chair, we do not usually ask ourselves whether or not that chair is sufficient to bear our weight. We do not invoke gods or spirits or the scientific method before lowering ourselves backward upon a surface—we just do it, and for the most part, our unseen presumptions are rewarded. Anyone who's ever had a chair break when they've sat upon it, or worse, had some asshole think he's being funny by removing it just before we've landed would probably agree that the experience is horribly jarring. The trust in our own assumptions, the ease brought to the mind by not needing to question each and every physical motion, the freedom to think about other things might be crucial to our everyday sanity, and the strange shock when something so basic no longer appears to be true is far from amusing.

This shorthand has been variously explained by multiple systems, but I'm not interested (and I don't find it relevant) as to -why- we do this, only that we do. The inclination, desire, tendency or even need to explain the mechanisms behind such behaviour is both equally interesting and irritating—to the same degree that some find spirits or divine forces influencing all human behaviour, other find evolutionary or societal drives, and they get quite heated over topics that seem more fitting to lesiurely conversations or quiet contemplation, not angry, often political, debates.

Similarly, I'm not interested in the semiological or semantic urgency and precision which would require me to use universally-recognised terminology; instead, I'll define for you what I intend to mean by some of the more contentious words I'll be using in this argument (if, indeed, I mean to argue, which I think I do.)

Suffice it first to say, though, that I intend to speak against the narrative of progress, and I hope you won't decide what I mean by that before I've had the chance to tell you. I'm aware that, by now, I've already used a few words that seem already to borrow from whole systems of thought which some are (probably correctly) inclined to reject altogether.


An entire chapter could be written to explain what I mean by “narrative,” which in multiple ways does indeed overlap with some specific fields, but in a few ways attempts to break out of their limited uses and reduce, when possible, the “bludgeoning effect” of post-modern contortions of language. Not really wanting to write such a chapter, I'll do what I can here.

By narrative, I mean, at its most basic, the process by which we show relationships or make connections between things, particularly events. As such, I mean it to be a close synonym of logic, but a distant relative of “myth” and “story.”

You're standing on the sidewalk. Two cars, passing each other, collide, and you witnessed it and are then asked to describe (that is, narrate) what occurred. The details you actually saw and can remember will highly influence your account. So, too, will many other things about the way you think, whether you are blind to certain colors, whether you knew and felt sympathy for one of the drivers, whether you drive yourself or dislike cars. The account you give of that event is your narrative of that event.

Most people are aware of how different two people's account of the same event can be, even if they were both standing as close to same point and were both equally attentive to the event. The variations seem to increase when the event is not common, but those variations do seem to continue even in realms where everyone is supposed to be paying attention. Consider the discussions you may have with a friend who watched the same film with you, sitting next to you in a theatre; consider the odd moments when you realise that someone very dear to you, whom you considered thought very much like you, heard the same conversation or story but experienced a very different meaning from what you did.

These variations, I assert, are the operation of different personal narrative styles, different ways of observing and drawing conclusions derived from what the narrator sees as relevant or important. An example here might suffice to make this more clear: About 8 years ago, I worked in an office in a skyscraper, processing legal documents (photocopying, digitally archiving). I was trained on days, and then moved to evenings, and was told that, when I arrived for my first swing shift, I should talk to “Mike.”

I didn't know Mike, or what he looked like, and so asked the friendliest appearing person in the office which person was Mike. She pointed to a crowd of people of about 12 people and said, “he's the one with the blue shirt.”

There were 12 people standing together. 5 of them were female, 7 were male, and of the men standing there, only one was wearing a blue dress shirt. But it took me a few seconds to sort through the colors of the shirts, longer than I'd like to admit, because there was another distinguishing characteristic which set Mike apart from the others: he was black.

It took me weeks of self-contemplation to understand why I'd been so confused by which detail she'd chosen to distinguish this person from the others. I got to know her better, and was able to learn that she'd had no special sensitivity training or political-correctness indoctrination—she was bi-racial, had lived surrounded by people of varying skin colors, and had, because of her background, not learned to see skin color as a useful way of distinguishing one person from a group.

Beyond suggesting that there are multiple ways that a white man (even one very consciously anti-racist) might be perpetuating racism, this disconnect between what detail she used to identify a subject and what I thought the most obvious/natural detail to bring to the forefront is important for understanding this concept of narrative.

That is, the details one chooses (consciously or habitually) to mention in an account are not “natural” or “self-evident.” There is the “real” of a thing, what “really happened” or “really exists,” and then there are the things we overlay upon an event in order both to describe and understand it. I take an agnostic position upon whether or not anyone can get at the “real” thing—that area is either the realm of religion or philosophy, not of anything that is settled.

So, again, by Narrative I mean the entire process of putting together events, showing relationships between them (including what-caused-what), and choosing which details are important and relevant, and which ones are not. And this process extends not just to individuals and individual events, but to entire groups of people.

Most of us are educated in similar ways, a product both of universal schooling and near ubiquitous media (or mediation). Also, our parents, who usually first define our world had rather similar educational experiences, as well, so many of us from similar geographical locations, of similar ages and similar financial circumstances very likely think some of the same things about the world. We may all generally believe that the place we were born and live in is called America, that it is a good thing called a democracy, and that is a place where anyone can be what they want to be. These ideas, together, are also a narrative, a story we tell ourselves or are told about who we are and what we are. This narrative is also largely inherited—nobody I have known received an education when they were young which also stated “you were born on land which is still claimed to belong to people your ancestors mostly slaughtered,” but most people I know were taught with educations which asserted “America is the greatest, most free, richest country in the world.” I don't know anyone who came upon this narrative on their own, but I know quite a few (in fact, my favorite sort of people) who at some point recognised that it wasn't their own idea nor the product of their own rational processes. Most of them rejected it, one or two decided, mostly independent of their earlier indoctrination, that there was something to that narrative.

Narratives, functioning on more than an individual level, can be seen to act as a filter on experiential data flowing to each person, and can define how new events are ordered and understood. Just as my bi-racial friend didn't divide people into black and white, although she most likely experienced the same skin tones as I did, so too might an entire section of society interpret a bombing by an individual to be an attack “on democracy,” or on any other principle, while others might instead see it as an act of resistance to an oppression, or a consequence of previous bombings, etc..

But I need to clarify. I do not believe Narratives themselves are bad or good—they seem to just exist, in the same way that ideas or thoughts just exist; intangible, unable to be scientifically dissected or proven, but still, as “things,” they just are. Certain narratives seem to take hold and dominate huge sections of societies and perpetuate themselves, but I do not believe this dominance makes them “good” or “superior,” anymore than an honest biologist (brunette or not) would assert that the brown-dominant color of most human's hair is superior to any other color, only that it is dominant. There are explanations for dominant traits in organic life, and they are mostly extrapolations from adaptation theories, but just as external environmental changes can make a dominant trait suddenly become a disadvantage for a species, so, too, can external environmental changes cause a narrative to no longer be useful for us.

There is worse, and there is better. There is earlier, and there is later. But for very specific historical reasons, and because of a very specific narrative, many of us equate these two statements together.

This is the problem, and the point of these essays. Time is a form of narration of events—one thing happens, another thing happens after it. Evolution is another narration of events—something was once this, then it changed and became this. Progress combines these two separate narratives together, with a statement of belief—what was before was not as good as what is now, and what will come will be better still.

I am defining Progress thus—it is the belief that change over time (evolution, not limited to biology) generally results in a quantitatively superior resulting form of what existed previously. Put more simply, the present is better than the past (and can be shown to be), and the future will be better than the present (because the present is so much better than the past).

I intend specifically to avoid discussing too thoroughly the narrative of progress as it relates to evolution, because others far more knowledgeable than myself have done a better job of it (specifically, Steven Jay Gould). I'm also aware that John Gray, a fantastic writer who is rather damn pessimistic, has written extensively regarding what he considers the “utopian” idea of progress, an evaluation with which I agree but a metric I find less useful for my purposes here.

Instead, I'll be examining the Narrative of Progress particularly insofar as it relates to several key concepts which have become analogues of the broken or missing chair, areas in which our reliance on the short-hand or habitual may actually cause us pain.

A friend of mine developed excruciatingly painful Sciatica. She went to multiple doctors, each who gave her tests and made suggestions about its cause (sciatica is not a causal medical problem itself, its the painful result of another underlying dis-alignment, just as a headache is a symptom, not a disease). Each of the disagnoses and prescribed changes in behavior (stretching, more exercise, wearing flats instead of boots) resulted in no change in her situation, and she endured quite a bit of pain until, at her wit's end, she relented to the suggestion that she check in with a naturopath. Possessing no high-level degree or equipment (and maybe dubious training), the naturopath listened to her complaints and previous treatment, and then asked what sort of chair she had at her computer desk at home. She owned an ergonomic desk chair, one of those expensive sort developed by engineers familiar with the science of human anatomy, built to reduce back trouble and the negative effects of sitting too much.

He told her to get rid of it, to get a normal chair, and she did, and her sciatica went away.

New does not equal better, though sometimes it might equal more useful or more efficient. Old does not equal primitive or backwards, although sometimes is may less desirable. Sometimes, an old chair, the sort that people'd been sitting in for centuries, might just be more durable and less harsh on one's back than the product of “progress.”

I must make this clear, though: while the notion that something new is therefore better and something old is therefore worse is integral to the narrative of Progress, I do not mean to take measures of time out of the realm of measures by which we evaluate ideas or things. There is also something to be said for the span of time during which a thing has been used or an idea has survived. Though I'm aware of the converse of the progress narrative—that believing something from the past is useful and maybe even desirable is the delusion of nostalgia—I will be asserting that, like the sort of chair that people have been sitting in for centuries might have survived so long for a reason, old narratives that have refused to die must still be kicking around for a reason.


  1. Great post. Reading your description of the way we construct the world around us, I had to stop occasionally and check authorship: I couldn't tell if it was you or Pinker.

    You should be careful in your discussion of evolution- no serious evolutionary scientist views evolution as "progress"- just what "is." Thinking of it as progress is putting a false narrative on it that is a common misconception, but not the way anyone who truly understands it would describe it.

    As for your assertion about old things enduring, yes, I agree, if they have endured for a long time it is always for a "reason." The question is, is it a good one? The British Monarchy exists, at this point, as fuel for Murdoch-owned tabloids. It is an anachronism that has out lived its once useful nature. Yes, there are still definable "reasons" for its existence, but I, for one, find them no longer convincing.

    But truly, great post. (Super hurried here... not sure all my statements make sense... sorry.)

  2. Ah!
    Thanks for your comments!

    Regarding the evolution/progress thing--you're definitely right. Something that takes a little more time to tease out is the separation between what people who study/are trained in an idea believe, and what the rest of us are given to believe about what they believe. I haven't figured out whether I should address that issue within this series of essays or in another, but it seems constantly apparent that the language of the sciences, as mediated through media and, to a lesser extent, education, becomes parlance re-inscribed back into popular narratives of western society. That is, evolutionists generally don't believe that organisms evolve into "better" creatures, but most other people often do.
    That bleed-over of language and theory into realms it wasn't meant to describe is probably one of the reasons for social darwinism as practiced in the early 1900's, and also the "evolutionary" theory of economic and political systems still spewed out by populists and political theorists, but be put at ease--I do not think evolutionary theory was either a product or a progenitor of this narrative, and in fact remains neutral in itself. It's become only another field of study re-inscribed into the narrative that we are always getting better...

    And yeah, the monarchy's pathetic. : )