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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. ‎
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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