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The Incoherence of Progress

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Progress has been the religion of the century. Its priests have been the myriad ‎scientists, economists and politicians who, from lab, lectern and loudspeaker have ‎declaimed in concrete terms the benefits of the new age. But the previous century was ‎even more vociferous in its boasts and arrogant in its confidence. ‎

It is heretical to argue against the point of view. One is likely to be (figuratively) ‎burnt at the stake. And the last treatment one desires is a sizzling from one's ‎contemporaries. If the herd believes it is moving ahead, who would dare to contradict it? ‎The solitary dissentient would soon fall prey to the hyenas. Safer and warmer to be in the ‎pack. ‎

The word 'revolution' is part of the caterwauling of this pack. To the best of my ‎knowledge, one of the earliest expositions of the word came from the pen of V. Gordon ‎Childe. He was at pains to try and explain the revolutionary nature of the Neolithic ‎revolution. He drew a graph showing population growth over the millennia. The graph is ‎a steady flat line except for two inflection points one around 7000 BC, and another, ‎much more pronounced, around 1750 AD. The Neolithic revolution had an effect similar ‎to the industrial revolution it made a larger population possible. This fact alone, in ‎Childe's opinion, justified the epithet of 'revolution' for these two remarkable events. ‎

Nowadays, of course, we are wont to make facile references to the 'information' ‎revolution; the 'internet' revolution; the 'telecoms' revolution (even the 'B2B' or ‎‎'business-to-business' revolution). Each of the terms carries a connotation of speed. It is ‎as though a highway driver accelerating from 40 mph to 80 mph regarded himself as ‎having done something 'revolutionary'. Or sometimes the connotation is of space that ‎computers hold more data, or that more signals can be delivered using the same ‎bandwidth, or that 500 channels can be viewed using digital technology. At any rate, the ‎emphasis is solidly on the word 'more'. ‎

There used to be a cigarette by the name of 'More'. The word litters every other ‎advertisement one sees or hears. There is more of the word 'more' and more and more ‎often. The cult of 'more' is here to stay, with the consumer at the worshipping and the ‎said economists, politicians, businessmen, etc., at the ministering end. ‎

And who can gainsay the benefits of 'more'? We have more drugs to cure more ‎illnesses, more gadgets to make us more comfortable, more varied flavours of ice ‎cream....In fact, we even have more time. We have not, it is true, yet turned into Tithonus, ‎but we do live more. The average Japanese can expect to retire from the 'sound and fury' ‎a solid octogenarian, for instance. ‎

But the story, despite our augmented longevity, must be kept short, and a short ‎story, as we all know, has a sting in its tail. Let us return to Gordon Childe, whom we ‎last encountered in connection with the Neolithic revolution. Suppose he were to extend ‎that line into the future would the chart continue to show human population ever ‎increasing, or, at least, continuing on a plateau? That is, would it assume the continuity of ‎the human race? Let us take tomorrow: how do we know that we shall not collectively ‎disappear before a new dawn, swallowed by a nuclear holocaust? ‎

In his Nobel Prize speech, William Faulkner identified this preoccupation as the ‎canker in the modern writer's soul. "When will I be blown up?" It is, today, impossible to ‎draw a Childean straight line projecting the human race into even the next day: the ‎imagination, as we shall see, is baffled by our knowledge. In which case, we must return ‎to our original question: have we progressed? ‎

The incoherence in the very heart of the notion of progress makes heretics of ‎some of us. They are the one's who cannot invest their entire personalities in the process ‎of improvement. These men and women tend to look at the total picture, rather than a part ‎thereof. In their stubborn adherence to the overview, they become temperamentally ‎morose, and unable to subscribe to the faith. They pick up chisel or pen or brush. They ‎observe and depict, and do not participate. ‎

Nor is it necessary, in order to understand their withdrawnness, to contemplate the ‎possible nuking of the world. A casual glance at recent wars would sufficiently explain ‎the impact of 'progress' on people. The use of the Maxim gun in the First World War ‎gave the latter the distinction of being the 'the machine gun war'. Suddenly, there were ‎more dead bodies, as well as more transcontinental cable. ‎

Considerations such as the above serve to explain why writers and film directors ‎since George Orwell's 1984 have depicted the future, not as paradise regained, but as a ‎series of dystopias and cacotopias (perhaps the most memorable, after Orwell's haunting ‎novel, was Anthony Burgess's more 'lyrical' cacotopia, "A Clockwork Orange", which ‎found the perfect director in Stanley Kubrick, the misanthrope of the twentieth century). ‎In the age of progress, and progress as faith, these doomsayers give pause for thought. ‎

Consider the number of science fiction movies dedicated to portraying future ‎dystopias: Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" or "AI", for instance, show awful ‎futures waiting for us. It is an interesting reflection that while western civilization never ‎tires of presenting itself as the bringer of progress to mankind, its artists are obsessed ‎with an awful prospect. The little-known writer, Philip K. Dick, produced a cornucopia ‎if that's the word of dystopias that have been turned into blockbuster films. It seems ‎that even the western masses no longer believe in "the future", that abstract religion that ‎serves to enslave the better part of mankind. ‎

Those who retreat from the business of bettering the lot of mankind, find ‎themselves assailed by family and friends as well as their own conscience. Are they ‎guilty of shirking the construction of the great pyramid of progress? When, individually, ‎so many of their peers, each in his own job, are doing useful work, why should these ‎misfits of modernity hold back and find something amiss? And is he not, in turn, ‎benefiting from their labours? Is it not a tergiversation from humanity? ‎

The answer is not pleasant. The sensitive and the intelligent always 'look at life ‎steadily and see it as a whole'. It is the partial-sighted who contribute to mankind's better ‎future. Great artists and philosophers have been horrified by the past, revolted by the ‎present and dismayed at the future prospects. ‎

They, too, find salvation in a specialty, but it is not the specialty of the craftsman. ‎They have found solace and redemption in the special talent of living only for the day, ‎and for the transitory and ephemeral pleasures, which, by some weird disposition of fate, ‎some conspiracy of the aeons, have landed him here, the library of human reflection, and ‎not there, strewn to bits in some minefield, or disease-ridden in some slum. And in ‎agonised appreciation of this arbitrary and capricious concatenation, he has dared to ‎impose order and beauty in his creations. He gives outline to chaos, symmetry to the ‎twisted, balance to the lop-sided and harmony to the discord. He sets a seal of approval ‎on the cosmos. ‎

 

http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 

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