THE PROGRESS TRAP

EPISODE 26 MUSIC IN PHASE SPACE

BEWARE OF THE BEARERS OF FALSE GIFTS AND EMPTY PROMISES

Most people in the Western cultural tradition still believe in the Victorian ideal of progress, “the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind . . . that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is towards improvement.” Progress is a law of nature: the mammal is swifter than the reptile, the ape subtler than the ox, and man the cleverest of all.

Mathematically, progress means that some new information is better than past information, not that the average of new information will supplant past information, which means that it is optimal for someone, when in doubt, to systematically reject the new idea, information, or method. Clearly and shockingly, always. Why?

Nassim Taleb

We often unthinkingly pick up a narrative of progress in which each generation of technology is an improvement on the last, from abacus to iPhone. We marvel that we carry more computing power in our pockets than was used to put a man on the moon in 1969. What we have at our fingertips is smaller, faster and more complicated than before.

THE PRODUCTIVITY PARADOX

The fact that all the new computer and mobile technology of the past 20 years has not led to an increase in productivity. Employees must constantly learn new ways to perform the same task over and over again as technology changes. However, this does not necessarily increase the speed at which jobs are done.

FOR “TECHNOLOGY” READ “PACKAGING”

Almost all today’s computers still use an architecture devised in the 1940s for fragile, valve-based machines to do precisely one thing at a time — and no more. This is why the typical modern computing device needs such a fast, energy-hungry processor.

Where GAME A excels is in their tendency to “run away” with any technology that they eventually decide to adopt, forcing it into every possible nook and cranny of economic life that might yield even a short-term profit, and stifling other technologies that might threaten the profit stream — hence the winner-take-all character of technological change in capitalist economies.

Technologies that start out full of promise turn into juggernauts. The better the technology, the worse its impact: And here’s the paradox. Every new technology aims to achieve more with less. Yet the moment the forces of economic competition get involved, the equation is thrown into reverse. The more efficient the technology, the bigger its environmental impact.

THE PROGRESS TRAP

A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve. The error is often to extrapolate from what appears to work well on a small scale to a larger scale, which depletes natural resources and causes environmental degradation. Large-scale implementation also tends to be subject to diminishing returns. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to societal collapse.

Behavioral causes

Besides vested interests and socioeconomic compliance, individual behavior is a significant contributing factor to progress traps, which are not limited to technology. This can be verified in terms of new information from the neurosciences, notably lateralization of brain function, where the short-term goals of a man-made world are increasingly favored over long-term global interests. His study of this shows how institutions and societies can become committed to an exclusive form of technocratic rationalism. In this scenario, humans diverge from a default interdependence with nature with the result that short-term technical preoccupations slowly inhibit creativity and long-term problem solving, thus compromising long-term interests.

ARS GRATIA ARTIS

If we accept that there is no progress in art, and that the kind of brilliance had emerged independently in isolated cultures many centuries and continents apart, we must be looking at archetypal imagery. And perhaps there is an explanation for that intelligence that suggests that we, in our own culture, are less able to create the beauty and the stylistic and symbolic meaning we see in those examples than were the artist-craftsmen of those ancient civilizations, and the so called “primitive” cultures. And maybe that is because we in the West are lost in a confusion of our own making, starting in childhood when we were fed a visual diet of cartoons, Muppets, electronic games, factory made toys, sitcoms with canned laughter, and the rest.

We are exposed to a profusion of things of mediocre quality and an over-abundance of choices. Fast food and fast other things replaced what could be more meaningful. I could say more inspirational, but that would suggest that there was an intention there that just wasn’t there.

Alan Feltus

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