The Myth of Progress

[A quick introductory note: After reviewing this submission I have noticed that it is overly preachy and pedantic. I would like to apologize for this. Also, as a warning, this preachy and pedantic rant (for thats what is seems to be) is overly long, running 5 pages printed, so I thank you in advance for your patience. --AC]

If there were any word to define our times, it would have to be "progress", though in our case it would be postfixed with a bold exclamation point. Everything in our environment is in a state of improvement for its own sake, from out technology, to our social interactions, to our government and laws. Everything seems to be in a constant state of being fixed, it seems like this (quite literal) progression must be going someplace. This constant state of revision must be leading someplace, towards the ultimate Hegelian state, right? Things are getting better; they must with this endless energy towards improvement, right?

Technology is the most obvious arena for this frenetic progress. It seems that every year something new must come out, or whole tech sector will collapse on itself. Expect a new copy of Word, or a new Copy of Photoshop coming out within a year; expect a new hardware revision coming out every other year, and a major new operating system every three. Moore's Law dictates that the speed of your gadget will roughly double every year. Perhaps saying "your gadget" is a slight faux pas, since you are, of course, expected to go out and pay for this new gadget. Do any of these revisions actually improve the product?

Perhaps in the past these omnipresent innovations did, indeed, improve quality. But I think we have reached the threshold where the maxim "the more things change, the more they stay the same" has reached ascendancy. It really doesn't matter if your computer is running at a "mere" 800mhz, or at a whopping 3Ghz, both powers are functionally, and discernibly the same to us. They do the same things, about equally well. Yes, the latter is faster, but does a second wait really mean that much in the grand scheme of things? This one-ups-manship is driven by software.

In software each revision brings new features that apparently save time and effort, and this is true to an extent. But with each new feature comes another layer of complexity, something new that me must learn. Instead of software being developed for us, we must develop ourselves (in a manner of speaking) for the software. Instead of it existing towards us, we exist towards it, to put it more philosophically. This exponentially increasing complexity and synthetic needs causes undue stress in that we must follow and keep up with the advancements. It also, on a side note, decreases the actual functionality of the product, in that more complexity increases the presence of flaws, and it also makes us less productive, since we have more options to crawl through and more active selectivity we must use. Why should we wade through millions of unused features just to do a common task like change margins, or increase contrast? Ironically, more functions does not correlate with a higher degree of functionality. In the end, there is no real reason that my word processor should also be an image editor, or a graphing tool, this does not make life easier.

This is also clear in our gadgets, mainly cellphones. Every year something new is added to the cellphone, be it a camera, a gaming system, Bluetooth, or a MP3 player. Every year cellphones are the exemplifier of feature bloat. The basic premise of a cellphone remains the same, nonetheless, a cellphone is a phone plain and simple, all these features add nothing to this basic premise, they are merely marketing gimmicks (as is 90% of progress), an attempt to create a need to keep the market running. A small, utilitarian, cellphone that does nothing but makes calls, is just as functional at this core premise, as the newest gimmick laden 'smart' phone, there is no actual need for more than just the simple ideal of cellphone (namely a portable phone). The same goes for PDAs (now part of the 'smart' in cellphones); all they are is gadgets made to replace a simple notebook, for a much higher price. This is progress, apparently, reteaching yourself to write just to get the functionality of a $1.00 pocket notebook, or $10.00 day planner, and paying $100.00 plus for the experience.

Does any of this make our lives better, or simpler? Evidence (albeit informal) points very much to the contrary. Our time is sparser than ever because of the progression of technology. Now we suddenly find ourselves with a perverse need to gear up constantly, we are naked without of cellphones and gadgets where ten years ago we wouldn't have noticed the lack. We must constantly work now, since we are capable of it, which doesn't seem like a benefit to me (more on consequences later). We actually feel some guilt for being behind the latest contrived update cycle, we feel bad that our cellphones don't have the newest superfluous widget. We get looked down at as luddites if we refuse to participate in this brinkmanship of bloat, of useless featuritus. It makes me ask: what is wrong with being a luddite? Rephrase that as, what is wrong with taking time out and actually thinking about the consequences of constant upgrades? Shouldn't we choose what we accept into our lives, instead of accepting every release that doesn't add anything to our lives? Should life be consigned to a constant battle of keep-up-with-the-Joneses?

This fevered run towards progress also applies in the land of the law. Is the world a better place because congress and the law-making courts are constantly at work? The people in charge of lawmaking are paid to do just that, make laws, constantly, and thus they do. Yes, some change is needed, since times do change, but the amount of new legislation far outpaces the amount necessitated by changing times. Its not like we're marching towards an idealistic and dialectic form of perfection (again the Hegelian ideal rears its ugly head). Would any one really notice if congress took a year off from their constant legislation? For every law passed, 10 more issues come forth that must be fixed, it seems that perhaps we should just find a point in which to just call it "good enough". Our law books are already so complicated that we need to create an ever-growing number of specialists who exist only because things are too complicated for the people that laws should (in a perfect world) serve.

This brings us back to an important point, that can be universalized for all things touched (my first word choice was "blighted") by progress, the fact that progress is self-serving on the behalf of those who promote it. Without constant revisions and updates the technology sector would have no real reason to exist, so it is in their interest to produce (notice I do not say exploit) a need in order to come out with more features, useable only on faster hardware. Without the increasing complexity of law, lawyers would be out of a job, thus it is in their self-interest to keep upping the complexity, and thus the need for higher paid specialists. Progress does not serve us, for the most part; it serves those who make products.

To simplify, progress can be defined, as the act of creating and filling a niche that was non-existent before the act. And, as stated, this is only for the benefit of those who produce, and not for the lay public. It has come to a state in which we exist towards progress, and not that progress exists towards us (meaning it makes our lives easier). The consequences of this endless and meaningless rush forward are beginning to show detrimental effects upon the fabric of our society.

Before touching on the bad side of progress, I would ask my readers to step back for a second, and take an objective stance. It has become disgustingly common for people to make the absurd claim, "I couldn't live without my x!" X is generally taken to be a cellphone or PDA, or some other material "sine qua non". It might be time to take a step back and evaluate needs, which ones exist for themselves, and which ones exist synthetically. Is a cellphone or PDA an actual need, or is it a created need that comes from without, and weigh the actual positive effects and negative consequences. Do this for not just your gadgets, but also for the legislation and propositions you vote on.

Thanks to progress in communications (IM, 'Texting', cellphones, email, the web, etc...) we are constantly struggling to keep up with a ceaseless flow of correspondence and information. We constantly seek to balance the signal/noise ratio, we complain of spam and unsolicited messages constantly. Most our incoming correspondence is junk and noise, a very small amount of it is wanted communications. This constant, and increasing, act of sifting is becoming more and more time consuming, at the expense of actually digesting the wanted communications and ideas. This is true of all media technology, including internet facilitated messages, as well the more traditional mediums such as television and print. Also, due to increasing ease of use, the actual content of messages is decreasing. The less work it takes to communicate, the less meaning our communications contain. We live in the age of small talk, saying things of importance is less and less common. We talk more of ourselves than ever before. Our speech is becoming fragmented and meaningless thanks to the ease of communications. This is, I admit, and uncommon view in this age, where we laud the ease of communication as a "good thing", and are completely unmindful of the consequences. We are becoming more and more used to staccato bursts of text and speech, with no form or meaning, and no context. We have come to accept that wading through piles of noise is a necessary condition of human existence, and not an optional consequence due to our acceptance of more and more technology. All meaning is lost in our thought-free sound-bite self-referential existence.

We communicate so much that the whole process borders on meaningless. There seems to be too much of a good thing, now that we communicate only for the sake of communicating.

Thanks to technology advances, and software revisions, we are constantly seeking to live on the edge. We are always striving to keep up with the constant flow of the new. We work to upgrade, we live to be on the bleeding edge. This takes money, time and effort, and thus we should wander if it is necessary to always stay on the edge. At some point our needs must be filled, or the whole game is for naught. There is no need to upgrade, if it does nothing for us functionally, we need to keep this in mind. Why expend effort on something new if it is no better (in any real way) than the old? Even if it makes our lives simpler, we waste the saved effort with the next revision anyway, and we waste even more effort on relearning how to complete old task on the new medium.

Our little pocket gadgets have more nebulous and far-reaching (perhaps even dire) consequences. They seem to have seriously disrupted civility and social coherence (especially true of cellphones and portable audio players). It is becoming more and more common to be interrupted in face-to-face communication by incoming calls (generally of no importance), also ubiquitous is listening to other peoples conversations about matters that have no public importance. More and more are we interrupted in traditionally quiet setting by the annoyance of ringing phones where there should be none. Of course people take this as matter of course, ignoring the fact that it is optional, and that they are part of the problem. (As an aside, I'll come out and say it: people guilty of the above are boorish assholes.) Part of this problem is also due to the permissiveness of the offended, too, of course, for not taking steps to put the impolite use of technology in its place as taboo, and letting the offenders know that they overstep polite society and are acting as egotistical asses. Cellphones also help with the problems due to easy communications covered above.

Digital music players (exemplified by the iPod) also help erode civil society. Increasingly (via phone or headphones) we shut ourselves off from the civil world around us, we no longer know how to communicate with others. It used to be that we could communicate with those around us, and thus know the state of the social world (the real world), by this we were forced into the uncomfortable realm of difference. Now we don't have to suffer this discomfort thanks to constantly being able to immerse ourselves in the familiar. We never have to be confronted by that which we might not want, and thus we wear blinders, we have an incomplete view of the world. And thanks to this we are constantly ill informed, our picture of the world is how we want to picture it, and not as it actually is. This is not a good condition in a democracy, where our decisions affect those who we choose not to see. Also, in past ages, our world was enriched by our contact with random others, we've lost this.

Politically, and legally, this constant progress has negatively effected our social structure. No longer does a layperson have any understanding of the complex laws that govern his possible behaviors. We are lost in the law; our legal landscape is more and more arbitrary and complex. We have lost the simple principle of law. Law exists for us, and not the other way around. More and more of our activities are needlessly legislated, just to keep the lawmakers looking like they are doing something. This constant legislation opens the doors for superfluous and unethical influence in law. Better to pass dubious laws and look busy, than lose your paycheck by not looking busy. What reason is there, in the end, for law to be indecipherable for those that they serve? Is this a necessary condition? Laws should be as simple and few as necessary to serve the purpose which they are set out to serve. We are now constantly in a grey area of legality because of this progression of complexity, we never know clearly if we are within the bounds of legality or not. Also the more complexity the more loopholes we create, the more loopholes the more lawlessness we breed. It seems that we defeat the purpose of legislation by constant legislation.

In each of the above cases, we can draw two simple (and cliché) interpretations:

More is not always better.

and in most cases; Less is more.

We need to stop equating progress as a necessarily good thing, this ethic is the cause of our problems. This ethic has allowed progress to exist for itself, instead of (to reiterate) exist for US. Its time for people to publicly analyze progress, and publicly critique it. It is time for people to draw a line in the metaphorical sand, to realize when enough is actually enough. Something has to give, and I vote for needless progress to give, those who serve to profit be damned.

And, last off, as I head into the sixth page of this diatribe, I thank you for actually making it through this huge rant. This was written mostly as catharsis, but it would be appreciated if made someone stop for a minute and think about the constant brinkmanship in technology and law, to think of effects for a single moment of their lives, and perhaps stop the hypocrisy, and realize that we all are part of the problem, and not somehow exempt from it (oh, the wonders of the internal attribution error). If you interrupt a conversation to pamper your cellphone you are part of the problem. If you fuel the hardware and software upgrade cycle (by producing or buying) you are part of the problem. If you constantly strive the new when the old is just as functional, you are part of the problem. And most off, realize the old adage, IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON'T FIT IT!.


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Miss F said...

thaNks for this wonderful read. Your ideas are so simple (it is a compliMent- i mean you simplified someThing so c0mpLicated) and therefore so sensible and wonderful. I agree w/ you... I am inspired by this p0st and hope to write s reacTion in my 0wn blog (about my obsession w/ downloading mUsic)

Dennis. said...

I have posted a pretty big comment on you Kuhn-Foucault 02.16.06 post. I would like to hear your views.