During an intro to cultural anthropology class, I mentioned (I thought offhandedly) that progress itself is a cultural myth. One of the classes’ best students looked startled and concerned, and raised his hand. “No, it’s not.” he said firmly, and with complete conviction.
It is an incredibly difficult thing for people of any culture to have their most cherished values challenged. And progress is one of the key values of Western culture.
Things Just Keep Getting Better
For a moment, let’s think of Western culture as a book. That book, like books of any genre, has an underlying theme that tells us a lot about who the winners will be, who the losers will be, and what it all means.
For modern Western Culture, the theme could well be “progress.”
“Progress” is the idea that things just keep getting better and better. It has several corollaries, such as the idea that all “improvements” are somehow inherently good, and that greater efficiency is somehow a good in and of itself.
The schema of “progress” mixes together several ideas in what amounts to a value judgement. It takes the idea of complexity, and attaches it to “the good.” We believe that the complex is somehow better than the simple.
There’s a good reason that we value progress. The last 10,000 years or more have seen a steady increase in the human population and its population density. Throughout that time, change has been a constant.
From the time of the first cities (around 7,500 BCE), after the advent of farming and the Neolithic revolution, humans have lived in higher population densities than ever before.
Despite being social animals, we primates aren’t given to getting along in large numbers. We have had to develop cultural systems to manage the problems of putting so many territorial primates together. The developments in culture that came with urbanization — stratification, rule of law, etc. — required, and allowed for, ever greater cultural complexity.
With the ever-increasing human population, increased innovation, including complexity in technology and other aspects of culture, becomes necessary to maintain relative peace.
As population density increases, populations have to spend more and more effort not only on resource management, but also on some kind of cultural “research and development.” Otherwise, conflict breaks out as competing groups let loose under the increased pressure. Ever-increasing population density means ever-increasing complexity in human methods of management.
Even such recent inventions as the Internet, seen through this lens, are tools for allowing increasing numbers of primates to somehow manage in a changing and increasingly stressful (in a primate sense) world.
“Progress” is required to maintain some kind of counterbalance to increasing biological pressures. More than that, our culture values “progress” as an idea. We invest in it. That investment is what allows us to maintain and develop the complex cultural systems that keep us relatively fed, healthy, and safe.
The idea that “progress is always good” is tied to the underlying assumption that human population density will always increase. As long as the population keeps going up, progress is a necessity.
Progress — increased complexity and efficiency — is necessary, but that doesn’t make it perfect. The ways that we understand progress are cultural. “Progress is good” is a statement of values, values shaped by specific realities and tied to the underlying assumptions of Western culture. Our ideas of progress determine winners and losers just as much as any war.
“Progress” is one of our bedrock assumptions about the world, and it is a needed one in these times. Yet despite its utility, it is cultural, an idea. Increased complexity is necessary, but that doesn’t mean everything labeled “progress” is inherently good.