The Illusion of Progress

We do not have an accurate perspective on what the past was truly like nor do we look very far beyond our time into the distant future. So when we claim we’re making progress, which past are we measuring that progress against, and which future do we create by the improvements we think we’re making?

It is hard to say anything definite about human history more than a few generations ago. Human beings have always relied on forms of oral transmission – such as songs, stories, myths, and poems – to preserve their history, but those forms tend to evolve with the people that carry them. As our cultures change and adapt, so do their histories, and much of their original content gets buried under layers of reinterpretation, merged with stories borrowed from other cultures we interact with, or left out altogether, when later generations can no longer relate to or understand their relevance to their ‘modern’ situation. With the advent of writing, at least more of the original material was preserved, and became less malleable, but it didn’t stop the retelling and reshaping process of the cultural narrative completely. At best it slowed it down and helped it spread deeper and wider, but it has not seemed to improve our collective memory of our deeper history. And the faster our cultures change the faster our true history slides out of our reach.

From a history we can't really remember ...
From a history we can’t really remember …

And that is unfortunate.

Because of this continual retelling of our history we have very limited access to what it was like to live in past times. We continually replace our real history with an imaginary one; a fictional version that is more mythical than factual, more symbolic than historic, more a fantasy than a memory. This gradual replacement of true history with a fictional reinterpretation creates a strange kind of collective short-sightedness: we imagine both the past and the future in simplified terms and drastically shortened time-frames. So when we measure our ‘progress’, we measure it against a reduced and largely imagined past, and project it forward to an immediate and overly linear future. But we don’t see the slow, deep changes that gave rise to our current situation and we don’t see how short-term, immediate actions and solutions could make things much worse in the long-term, even when seemingly improving things in the here and now. Because of our limited sense of what the past was really like we may feel we are making progress, when in reality we are just barely recovering from the damage past ‘progress’ has done to our world and may still be far behind the positive qualities that made life beautiful and meaningful in the past. But we may equally make the mistake of longing for a return to an imaginary simpler and happier past, and in clinging to that illusion stop true progress from happening or in trying to restore a past that never actually existed prevent a more beautiful future from emerging.

... to a future we didn't see coming.
… to a future we didn’t see coming.

If we want to make sure that improvements and solutions for today’s problems constitute actual progress, and not a convenient, quick-and-easy cure that will become one of our future’s ailments, we must learn to distinguish true progress from momentary relief. We have to learn to think of progress in terms of long-term consequences, and of improvements as something that can only be measured over longer time-frames. We must rediscover our distant past and the lessons we can learn from that. We must stop oversimplifying our past: either as a paradise from which we have fallen into darkness, violence, and suffering, which would continue to get worse if not for the forces of order and constraint such as religion, laws, and moral principles; or as a primitive, savage struggle for survival we only recently have begun to make our escape from through the forces of enlightenment such as reason, science, and technology. We must understand that the past was most likely never so simple and straightforward, but was in reality a complex tapestry of happiness and agony, suffering and bliss, progress and decay, order and chaos, war and peace, all intertwined and moving in currents and time-frames much longer than our shallow stories encompass.

Let us learn, therefore, to discover both our deep past and ponder our long future, both at the same time. Let us try to measure progress not as a simple improvement over present day problems, but as an attempt to mix the best of our past with the best for our future. And let us carefully consider such attempts not just for our own brief lifetime, but project them forwards to the future of our children’s children’s children, and track trends and long-term consequences to make sure today’s improvement does not steal from future generations. Perhaps, even, if we learn to step out of the urgency of our own brief moment, we can learn to see time as a long unbroken flow from past to future, as full of valuable experience and knowledge as it is of as yet untapped but very real potential. And then learn to weave the two together and become part of it, dance with it, rather than constantly cutting it to shreds and pieces in our attempt to force the world into our incomplete and broken fictions.