Friday, September 30, 2011

The Pains of Progress

To measure time by how little we change is to find how little we've lived, 
but to measure time by how much we've lost is to wish we hadn't changed at all. Andre Aciman

The last frontier is not the Antarctic, or the oceans, or outer space. The last frontier is The Unknown. We mentioned in an earlier essay that uncertainty - which makes baseball and life interesting - is inevitable in the human world. Life will continue to be interesting as long as the world is rich in unknowns, waiting to be discovered. Progress is possible if propitious discoveries can be made. Progress, however, comes with costs.

The emblem of my university entwines a billowing smokestack and a cogwheel in the first letter of the institution's name. When this emblem was adopted (probably in 1951) these were optimistic symbols of progress. Cogwheels are no longer 'hi-tech' (though we still need them), and smoke has been banished from polite company. But our emblem is characteristic of industrial society which has seared Progress on our hearts and minds.

Progress is accompanied by painful tensions. On the one hand, progress is nurtured by stability, cooperation, and leisure. On the other hand, progress grows out of change, conflict, and stress. A society's progressiveness reflects its balance of each of these three pairs of attributes. In the most general terms, progressiveness reflects social and individual attitudes to uncertainty.

Let's consider the three pairs of attributes one at a time.

Change and stability. Not all change is progress, but all progress is change. Change is necessary for progress, by definition, and progress can be very disruptive. The disruptiveness sometimes arises from unexpected consequences. J.B.S. Haldane wrote in 1923 that "the late war is only an example of the disruptive result that we may constantly expect from the progress of science." On the other hand, progressives employ and build on existing capabilities. The entrepreneur depends on stable property rights before risking venture capital. The existing legal system is used to remove social injustice. Watt's steam engine extended Newcomen's more primitive model. The new building going up on campus next to my office is very disruptive, but the construction project depends on the continuity of the university despite the drilling and dust. Even revolutionaries exploit and react against the status quo, which must exist for a revolutionary to be able to revolt. (One can't revolt if nothing is revolting.) Progress grows from a patch of opportunity in a broad bed of certainty, and spreads out in unanticipated directions.

Conflict and cooperation. Conflict between vested interests and innovators is common. Watt protected his inventions with extensive patents which may have actually retarded the further development and commercialization of steam power. Conflict is also a mechanism for selecting successful ideas. Darwinian evolution and its social analogies proceed by more successful adaptations replacing less successful ones. On the other hand, cooperation enables specialization and expertise which are needed for innovation. The tool-maker cooperates with the farmer so better tools can be made more quickly, enhancing the farmer's productivity and the artisan's welfare. Conflicts arise over what constitutes progress. Stem cell research, genetic engineering, nuclear power technology: progress or plague? Cooperative collective decision making enables the constructive resolution of these value-based conflicts.

Stress and leisure. Challenge, necessity and stress all motivate innovation. If you have no problems, you are unlikely to be looking for solutions. On the other hand, the leisure to think and tinker is a great source of innovation. Subsistence societies have no resources for invention. In assessing the implications of industrial efficiency, Bertrand Russell praised idleness in 1932, writing: "In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving ...." Stress is magnified by the unknown consequences of the stressor, while leisure is possible only in the absence of fear.

New replaces Old. Yin and yang are complementary opposites that dynamically interact. In Hegel's dialectic, tension between contradictions is resolved by synthesis. Human history is written by the victors, who sometimes hardly mention those swept into Trotsky's "dustbin of history". "In the evening resides weeping; in the morning: joy." (Psalm 30:6). Change and stability; conflict and cooperation; stress and leisure.

No progress without innovation; no innovation without discovery; no discovery without the unknown; no unknown without fear. There is no progress without pain.


  1. You almost had me wait before I would respond, but the last line made that impossible. It too much reminds me of a line that has made a deep impression on me since I read it for the first time.

    "For the intelligent being was not living in the present alone; there can be no reflection without foreknowledge, no foreknowledge without apprehension, no apprehension without a momentary slackening of the attachment to life" Bergson 1932, 179*.


  2. Significant Progress without serious innovation and discovery is also possible and can be of tremendous practical and economic value, even if it cannot be caught in econ numbers such as the GDP. But I am defining progress in a wider sense, perhaps.

  3. It was probably a risky proposition to include revolution as an example of progress. Social revolutions can and often do lead to regress, not progress (Islamic Revolution in Iran is one example.) What we call revolutions in science and technology are not really revolutions: old knowledge gets integrated with new one, not negated; old technology co-exists with new one for significant time.

  4. There is a lot of food for thought in this blog piece, and it is much more fun to think about it than grade the exams of my graduate course, even if it is one of my favorites (System Reliability and Safety).

    Wars (esp. Civil Wars) and Revolutions can be and have been terribly inefficient and costly (both in human life and resources) ways to try to improve things (not always with success, and even if successful, not permanently). And to make it worse, those killed in a war have usually been 20-something year olds, long before they have lived a useful, full life.

    Herodotus, the so-called "Father of History", said it best about War and Peace: In peace, children usually bury their parents, but in war, parents usually bury their children. (from memory). And speaking of victors writing history, Herodotus did write about the Persian wars, where his fellow Greeks won, but he also devoted more than one of his 9 books to Egypt, which was a main source of Egyptian history, for lack of an Egyptian history book, even though the greeks at that time did not rule Egypt. (they did so about 200 yrs later, under the Ptolemies, for 3 centuries)

    I once read a humorous piece with a typical American dad, probably in the 50s-60s, who had found the solution to every problem he had with those around him. Whenever somebody was complaining, or was not giving him the best service, he gave them some money or a gift they wanted. That was sort of "the American way". You like Alaska? You pay $7.5 million (!!), which even after inflation is an utterly insignificant $0.75 billion, and it's yours (or maybe it was a lease?). Far cheaper than waging a war to conquer it! Same with the "Louisiana purchase" back in the early 1800s.. and in that case it was not just Louisiana but a large area containing about a third or a fourth of today's US states.

    "Idleness" raises more questions. Four hours a day sounded like a low number of working hours to Russel in 32, the same way that our current 8 or less hours a day would have sounded to somebody back when the normal workday for most workers was 12 and more hours.

    I remember (but not the exact phrasing) Lev Tolstoy having said at one time how much he enjoyed doing nothing. But he also said of writing "War and Peace", I believe, that it was a very difficult, time consuming enterprise, when he tried to improve on the text again and again. He did not get the whole thing perfect just by inspiration, I guess.

    I better stop here before my comment is as long as the blog itself!

    Have a good weekend, all!