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.

3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Progress

  1. Well written Bard.
    It resonates to our philosophy. But many just wont get it as they as either moving thru life like sheep. Its all too hard.
    Or as mentioned last meeting. Many cant see we co create our reality. They can’t understand these concepts. It is far too difficult to think history books are wrong. That there are greater forces. All in my reality already is predestined. We have a certain time line life lesson to fulfill and condtion and social consciousness changes our core wiring.
    Thanks for sharing.Evie


  2. So, my initial reaction on measuring progress. Let’s say that this is a good thing to do, but as you ask, what is the baseline. I would guess that there are a lot of people nostalgic for the past to the extent that they think we’ve regressed not progressed in their lifetimes.

    And I think this highlights the real challenge with the ideas you’re putting forwards. There is a quote I came across “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” – this was first written by a French author, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in 1728. So this difficulty of determining “real history” or “true history” has been around a very long time (or short if you’re measuring time on a geological basis – like history, time is contextual)

    So how would “true history” be captured?

    All media authors capture events from their context.

    Do the leaders of the Islamic State see themselves as fighting a righteous religious war? Do the Republican’s in America really think the bill on how insurance cover is delivered is going to improve health outcomes for Americans? I would guess in both cases their answers would be a very strongly expressed Yes. But from my context one is a corrupt bunch of vicious self-serving men and the other – actually, that might describe both. Either way, my “history” is different from theirs.

    And this is current “history” – where you’d think we would have the best opportunity to document “true history”. Or does defining “true history” become something that occurs in the future by pulling together all the different sources about an event and interpreting all of these to get “real history”? But even that analysis will be subject to the personal biases of the people doing the work.

    So I suppose I have difficulty in seeing that definition of a “true history” is practical to an extent that will allow us to measure “progress” over a very long period – even from the Greeks and Romans who had pretty reasonable records. But these only go back about 2,000 years.

    Is a definition of “true history” even useful?

    More to come, thanks for provoking the thoughts!


  3. I originally emailed my comment above to Bard, and the following was his response to my thoughts.

    From Bard:
    Thanks for sharing your ideas with me. I would urge you to share them on my blog as well, at some point, as I would really like to see more discussion on there, not just my thoughts.

    As for the need for ‘true history’, I don’t know if we will ever have a true history. As you quoted, in many ways history is a fable told by the victors. But that is never the whole story. I am reading a historical piece about the life of Cleopatra, and the author does a really great job of showing what you can do with a combination of available sources, even ones that are obviously biased, incomplete, and some completely mythical (or political, which is often exactly the same). The essence of ‘true history’ may not be to know the whole truth, which may be fundamentally impossible, but to separate the most likely – based on the available data – scenarios from the least likely ones, and show the trends underlying those scenarios.

    For instance, the Cleopatra story shows how much power and freedom women in ancient Egypt had compared to any known civilisation that came after. And this is not based on a feminist interpretation, but simply by looking at all the sources and compiling a list of the things those sources reveal about the many roles women played in both everyday life and in more public functions, all the way up to being Pharaoh. The fact, for instance, that Julius Ceasar would not just fall in love with Cleopatra (which could be a romantic fiction, for all we know) but that he had no problem supporting her claim to Egypt’s throne, and wasn’t stopped by his fellow senators, shows that they must al least have considered within acceptable norms – or they would have laughed him right in his face about such a ridiculous notion. But there is plenty of evidence for other women owning businesses, being priests, running for public functions, waging war, and divorcing their misbehaving husbands whilst keeping their possessions and the house.

    ‘True history’ therefore, is less about ‘great’ individuals – generals, kings, queens, heroes and villains – than about the daily realities of existence of the people from our past, extrapolated from the stories, the myths, the fabrications, and even the lies.

    But even if this kind of history can never be more than a very rough approximation of what reality was really like, it should at least serve as a caution not to take our own short-term views of the world too much for granted and for the truth. I would be already very happy if we can learn to keep a ‘reasonable doubt’ in our minds every time someone makes claims about the progress we are making, without showing any evidence, or by framing that progress in a window that is less than a dozen generations wide.

    Another function of ‘true history’ should be to make us stop from time to time and – instead of either congratulating ourselves for our greatness, or spelling doom and gloom because everything only getting worse – take a measured and balanced back and see what evidence we have for either position. To take all available sources, rank them by certainty and completeness, and construct a range of scenarios showing longer-term trends from a deeper past to a longer future, simply to create a wider view and a more accurate approximation of where we stand and seem to be going.


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