The End Of Progress


NOTE: In order to make the best read of this post – but you do not have to – you can read The Last Question, by Asimov (at https://filer.case.edu/dts8/thelastq.htm) and one of my previous posts called Downtime (at http://www.fabianschonholz.com/2008/01/06/downtime)

A few weeks ago surfing the web I discovered a short story by Asimov I really liked called The Last Question. I have read many of Asimov’s works, but not this one. More  or less at the same time I read the story, I was having a conversation with – let’s call him Bob – regarding God, science, technology, mathematics, physics, etc. The whole idea revolved around the fact that mathematics is the language of nature. Bob shared with me a NY Times article that touched on the subject. My reply to the article was The Last Question. And his reply to me was: Can humanity come together and decide to stop progress? My answer is a categorical NO.

Around the same time there was a TechCrunch blog post regarding services downtime events during 2007 and how certain business were affected. I placed a comment to the blog post and later wrote a blog post myself that took a consumer centric approach to the post. I focused on the dependency we have on technology as a society and how our daily lives are affected by technology and any downtime. In my opinion our lives are, to a large extent, the product of technological progress. From medicine, food preparation and the web, to cars, airplanes, cellular telephones, etc. Humanity as it stands today is very much the product of technological progress.

Why is it that humanity can not come together to stop progress?

Humanity has never and will never come together. Our history, starting with prehistory, is all about control and dominance. Hardly a “coming together” bunch. As tribes were developing and humanoid life evolved, confrontations have been the common theme. Most of these confrontations were about territory. Early humans were not hypocritical; If they wanted a piece of land they fought for it. There was no guise or pretext to why they conquered by the sword: land, power, wealth and procreation, the preservation and expansion of the tribe. When hordes of barbarians moved from one place to another they left behind most of what they had – they traveled light. And each new conquered place was an opportunity for expansion in more than just territory. For as crude as it sounds, the image of the sailor with a girl in every port comes to mind.

As early humans progress took place, “progress” being the operating word and concept, new dynamics developed. Battles and entire wars were fought in the name of a God, or a series of gods. Religion and the religious establishment became a controlling political influence and factor in such progress. Culture, just another form of “technology”, was regulated by the political, but mostly, by the religious establishment. The motivation for war remained the same, territorial and financial expansion, basic economics. The spinning of these motivations is what changed. Humans became hypocritical.

Fast forwarding to the last few hundred years, the spinning has gotten worse. New players joined the party and old players have grown more powerful or have created splinters, adding even more to the confusion and “not coming together”. There is no unifying banner for humanity to gather under. There is no common ground for people to come together because people have become cattle. And the different herds are guided in opposite directions. How can humanity come together when a few people are waiting for the Messiah, while others are waiting for the Messiah to come again. How can humanity come together when a few people deny the Messiah and rather believe in prophets. How can humanity come together when we will kill because of skin color. How can humanity come together when our differences, as minute as they can be, are used to drive a wedge between brothers. The world keeps getting smaller and we keep getting further apart. The political, religious and economic establishment profits from it. While this may sound as though I am placing the responsibility solely on religion, I am not. However, religion does have a great influence on people thus, bad religion or bad religious leaders rather share a good part of the responsibility in not coming together. Also, religion is a tool of control, and as such, it is often used to manipulate public opinion.

The fact that by nature we can not come together as a general people is not small, but only a part of my answer. It can be argued however, if you agree with my assessment above, that the question is already answered. Indeed, it is. If we can not come together  how can we agree on anything let alone something as monumentally big as “stopping progress”.

On the other hand, let’s assume that we could come together and agree on something. Stopping progress will probably be the last thing we would come to agree on. If anything I can only see us agreeing on “regulating” progress. Why then progress can not be stopped. For one, as I expressed earlier, we are the product of progress. Secondly progress is part of the philosophical system we natively subscribe to: Capitalism.

Capitalism as a philosophical system.

Humans are definitely capitalistic in nature. Capitalism as an economic system is just but a product of a larger system that encompasses who and what we are. The failure of socialists and communist systems is normally attributed to external and internal factors with the emphasis on the external ones. Isolation policies and economic blockades are more often than not cited as the driving factors on the collapse of the so called leftist  regimes. However, my personal opinion is that communism, in particular, failed purely for internal reasons – the external influences only solidified and to a minor extent fueled the internal struggle. What then are these internal reasons? People and power. We as individuals want power and the struggle to get power fuels capitalism. So, how can you drive a communal based system when your internal participants inadvertently desire power and control? You can not.

In history we look at individual events and try to find the causes for them. In big blocks we find the dependencies of past and present events. But there is no granularity. There is no visibility at the individual levels. For example, we know that the “Boston Tea Party” kicked off the American revolution. We know a great deal about the mood at the time not only in America but in Europe (the French Revolution). And we know about some of the political undercurrents supported primarily by the Free Masons. But we do not know how it all really started. We do not know about a couple of guys drinking wine one night and being dissatisfied with their situation; we do not know about the conversation that ensued and their complaints expressed in terms of taxation, but in reality, probably about the discrepancy between their economic prowess and the power of their voice.

A few years ago two friends of mine and I went Baja California, Mexico, on a fishing trip. One night we got very drunk. Not that the other nights we did not get drunk, but this night in particular was different. We started with Tequila. After we were two bottles into it we got hungry, so I prepare some sashimi. Of course, beer and sake became part of the meal. Once we finished dinner we moved back to Tequila and that is when our “brilliant” idea started. In our drunken imagination we concocted a plan to unify California and Baja California as an independent sovereign country – California (being the 5th largest economy in the world) has the economic might to pull it off.

The point of the anecdote is not about the particular ramblings of three drunks, but  … how many a revolutions started just this way? How many a movement? How many people died because of two, three, four drunks came up with an idea? Moreover, our  ramblings were neither idealist or romantic, but focused on economic gains. In other words, three guys somewhere in the middle of the totem pole and doing very well trying to get to the top of the pole. Basically, a typical middle class dissatisfaction.

I guarantee you, if we had visibility into all levels of history, we will find that most of the big historical events started as the discontented ramblings of three drunks. No matter how well we are doing, we want more. We want more of everything – in particular more power. We want our voices heard. We want our legacy to last. We want, and in this want communal based systems are defeated. Utopia, for as fantastic as it seems is unattainable because it is not in our nature. Our nature, as a species, is to move forward, to “progress”. With Capitalism comes efficiency and efficiency is one of the key drivers of progress.

Progress is always expressed in terms of technological advances. Even “thinking progress” indirectly is expressed and explained by advances in technology. With efficiencies not only comes more productivity but also more time. With more time, inclined and “illuminated” people could educate themselves and “study”. And with the pursuit of intellectuality “thinking progress” takes place.

We are the product of Progress.

When I think of progress and Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens I think of them as one. I can not separate from the other. The closest species to us humans are the Chimpanzees. We share 98% of our genetic makeup, yet we have surpassed them in every possible area. This is not to qualify our actions as good or bad, but factually, we have indeed surpassed them. And while Chimpanzees use tools just like we do, we have taken the same tools and have made machines with them that have taken us to the moon. So, apparently 2% difference in a genetic map is an important difference. And in that difference dwells our desire to progress.

I can imagine early humanoid life in this planet. This includes all the primates at the time. All competing for the same resources and the would be humans not always winning in the struggle. The power for abstract thought drove us to understand our limitations better and to find ways to overcome them. Technological progress became the differentiator, the edge that allowed us not only to survive but to flourish. While other species progressed much slower or disappeared altogether, our ability for abstract thought enabled is to adapt the same tools every body used into machines that conquered space.

I finally understood “The Time Machine”, by H.G. Wells. The story warns us of our desire for progress, while “The Last Question” gives us a possible answer to the beginning … and End Of Progress.

And to conclude, a follow up question should be: “How dependent is progress on not coming together?

3 Comments

Filed under Religion, Technology, Thoughts

3 responses to “The End Of Progress

  1. Maury

    Your premise pre-supposes that if an event did not happened in history, or for that purpose – if it always happened in history – it will or will not happen in the future, see your comment “Our history, starting with prehistory, is all about control and dominance…”

    Hume suggested (which I agree) that induction is not a reason to suppose or assume anything, we have no assurances that the sun will rise tomorrow based on the fact that it always does. The issue whether people can get together and stop progress has to be addressed without induction – all revolutions defies the induction premise – revolution always happen for the first time when they happen…
    So – can humanity decide to stop progress? Before you do it you have to define progress I believe, and it is not technical progress but the ability to decide anything like common laws etc that is analogous to a common decision, if humanity is driven by self preservation – probably they WILL stop progress if they conclude that it is destructive, same as deciding to have common laws to be able to survive in a community (too awhile though…)
    More later

  2. I agree with Hume (and apparently with you as well) about induction, but here I am using probability. The sun is very likely to come up tomorrow from the East because it came up yesterday and every day before ever since before recorded history, also from the East. So the likelihood that tomorrow the sun will again come up on the East is very high. Similarly, if a majority of historical events that have led humanity to the 21st century are based on control and dominance, my money then is in that we have not learnt a thing and we have not mature as a specie beyond perfecting tools of control and dominance – including intellectual tools.

    I can see however, how you get induction from the post. I will address the issue of induction on the next related post. Good catch, thank you.

    I very carefully did not define progress. I did not want the confines of a definition yet. But you are right. The answer can not just be about technological progress. I did open up a little when I wrote “With more time, inclined and “illuminated” people could educate themselves and “study”. And with the pursuit of intellectuality “thinking progress” takes place.” Again, it is left to be more precisely defined on a follow up post.

    I do not agree with your self preservation argument. First of all there are plenty of examples from our past where civilizations self destructed. The Mayans for example – and we still know very little about them and what exactly happen, but we do know that they sort of imploded. Second of all you are assuming a level of mind maturity that I do not share. Yes, I think that most of humanity is just a tad above Chimpanzees as far as their intelligence goes. I would not hold my breath on self preservation. It is VERY disappointing to read the news and see what we do to each other. It is even more disappointing when I start looking at justifications. I would start agreeing with you if your brought the argument down to individuals. As individuals we are hyper tuned to self preservation. That is were Darwinism takes place. And again, Darwinism is about probability and not induction.

  3. Ron Traver

    I recall reading Asimov’s The Last Question when I was very young and enjoying the questions it raises about infinity, and how to make sense about there being an end to everything. I had forgotten how it started with the first questions being asked by drunks. I like the way this detail is woven into your essay.

    I agree that it is conflict rather than harmony that results in change. Much is written daily about how we must all come together to save ourselves and the planet, and yet in a very real sense we need passionate conflict to effect real change. I also agree that conflict is our natural state. I think it is a good thing to embrace that part of our nature and a waste of time trying to suppress it, individually or with utopian social systems.

    It is interesting to consider whether fallen civilizations like the Mayans vanished because they dissolved in self-destructive conflict or because they could not change and went on over that cliff. While either is possible, I think most of us have a gut feeling that it is the latter.

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