Innovation is a funny thing. We are conditioned to believe that anything that is new must also be improved. I don’t believe it is any coincidence that marketing departments have realized that this verbal pairing sells. Why does it sell? It sells because we believe in progress marching on. We have an entire political party that has built their brand on being progressive because of the power of this assumption. They want to be known as progressive because they believe that they are making progress toward something better. That is of course the assumption inherent in the term progress. It is movement towards an ideal, but it is a good thing. Nobody wants to call themselves the regressive party after all because we have associated progress with something that is desirable.
I am here to tell you that much of what you know about progress is wrong. You have been fed what marketing companies want you to believe. They believe in the inevitable connection of new and improved New can certainly be improved, this is not a necessary connection. Consequently, you will soon see that progress is actually not always a good thing. There are times when progress is in fact detrimental and destructive.
First, let’s deal progress being good. This should make sense to most of us. There are times where we are in a bad situation, and we want to make progress towards a better situation. Consider modern medicine. There are so many terrible diseases that we can handle simply today but were lethal just a century ago. It is progress that we are able to help people survive. That should go without saying, and I don’t know very many people that would argue that that kind of progress is a bad thing. It is clear that progress can be good.
Also, think about American attitudes towards slavery. In 1800, slavery was considered socially acceptable by a large portion of our population. Now, it is a vast minority that are so horrendously racist. I’m not saying the problem is solved, but I think we would agree that this is a form of progress. Society’s attitude has moved in the right direction towards an ideal where racism does not exist anymore. We are far from that, but it is hard to deny that there has been progress, and it is hard to deny that that progress has been anything but good.
These types of examples probably resonate quite clearly. There are things that are bad. We desire to move towards that which is perfect. Therefore, when we move away from that which is bad towards that which is perfect, we are making progress. Maybe it hasn’t gone far enough yet, or maybe there is a lot left to do, but it is clear that progress in many situations can be a very good thing.
Therefore, I am obviously not of the belief that all progress is bad.
However, let me suggest that there is a time where progress needs to stop. There are times where progress is only useful to a certain point. As kind of a ridiculous example, we hear a lot of people talk about our planet being overpopulated. Someone may suggest that we need to not have so many children. This is not a position I advocate for, but you have probably heard these arguments which is why I am using it now.
We can make progress towards that goal, but we need to know when to stop. We need to know when our population has returned to a sustainable level. If we continue progressing towards population reduction forever, then we are going to have no people left eventually. Even for people who would argue for having fewer children, they realize that progress towards their goal of reducing population is only worthwhile up until a certain point when we have the right number.
Or, to use an even more ridiculous example, I am sitting here watching a football game as I am writing this. Each team has the stated objective to move the ball towards one end of the field. They want to make progress towards that objective, and it is good for them to make progress. However, if they kept fighting with each other after the football went over the goal line, I think that we would all say it was kind of crazy. After all, there is a point where they do not need to make any more progress, and even if they continue trying, it is useless and probably even counterproductive. They got the football to the right place, so if they continue to fight to make progress in a given direction, it really is not going to do any good.
Consequently, I hope it is clear that progress can indeed be a very good thing and often times is. However, there can be times when progress is not productive anymore. If you go beyond a certain boundary, being productive actually causes harm. It was intended to do good, but it is possible to go too far. It is almost like the old proverb that reminds us too much of a good thing is a bad thing. That is not absolutely true. However, there are times when it is totally accurate and true.
Therefore, this is the myth of progress. We are told that everything new must also be improved. We are told that innovation is always a good thing. We are told that the things that are old are not as good as the things that are new. It is irresponsible to make blanket statements like this. Progress can actually be a very bad thing particularly if it has already gone too far or if it is about to move too far. Standing still can sometimes keep you in a better position than moving forward ever could.
I am not entirely sure why this myth has been perpetuated for so long. Part of it is certainly marketing. After all, if I want to convince someone to buy into a new worldview, product, way of thinking or really anything else, half of the battle is getting them to believe that what they currently have is insufficient. Why do you need a new car? Your old one just isn’t good enough anymore. It may function perfectly fine as a car, but it is missing out on all of the new and improved features, so you are sold on the perception that you need something bigger and better.
However, I think is also an innate expectation. After all, I began this article with a few situations where progress was clearly good. There has been a lot of progress that benefited the world. Therefore, we see that success and automatically apply it to everything. After all, there are so many things that we want to fix in the world that we assume when there is one technique that works, our best practice should always just be to assume that we need more of it. In this situation, we necessarily need to be progressing towards something no matter what. The current state cannot possibly be good enough. There must be some kind of forward motion to something else.
That is where the entire argument goes off the rails. The myth of progress comes down to the fact that progress itself is not always desirable. If something is already right, there is no need to progress away from it. That seems to make intuitive sense, but we buy into the myth that the way the world is must be old-fashioned or backwards. It can’t be good because it is not new and improved.
Here’s the problem with that though. I can pick up the work of Plato from thousands of years ago and find wisdom that is just as true today as it was the day it was written down. Should I reject Plato just because it is really old? Shouldn’t we have had some progress from Plato?
Partially, yes. After all, there are plenty of things in The Republic that are wrong. I am not really a fan of creating a national myth that explains why some people have higher positions in society for example. I would say that is an example of something where we should be moving closer towards an ideal about how we treat other people.
The key difference is that I would suggest we don’t want progress simply for the sake of progress. It is not just that Plato has a particular view and that he showed them a long time ago. We do not necessarily have to move ahead from Plato’s perspective. However, we are free to do so and should do so when there is a problem and we are moving towards a better ideal.
That comes back to what I wrote earlier on slavery. We do not reject slavery simply because it was an old institution, and we are progressing to something different just for the sake of rejecting that which is old. Instead, we reject something that is wrong. We are progressing based on a vision of something better rather than simply a rejection of the way the world is.
I think that is what is missing from a lot of our political discussion today. We aren’t happy with the way the world is, and sometimes that is certainly justified. However, we say that we want to move somewhere different just for the sake of moving where we are. That is the entirely wrong approach to take towards progress. If something is wrong, we move because we want to move to something better. Movement with no direction is what often times get this into trouble. It is like the example I gave above of the football field. That football team can move in any direction it chooses, but there is only one direction that is beneficial. They need to make progress towards that goal. If they move in the wrong direction or if they continue fighting beyond the end zone thus going way beyond where they should, this kind of progress is not helpful.
That’s the problem with most modern conceptions of progress. People don’t have a principal for moving in the direction that they want to go. They just want to move somewhere, and they don’t think that the current location is ideal. Movement for the sake of movement is not what we are looking for. We are looking for movement towards a consistent principle.
To use my example of medicine again, we can understand motion towards a consistent principle. The target is to eliminate some type of deadly disease, so making progress towards that objective means finding a means of treatment.
However, I can imagine a thought experiment where the situation was really bad. People were dying from a particular disease, and that was not acceptable. Therefore, people recognized that the current situation was not acceptable. People were dying from a disease after all. They realized that something had to change. There are a variety of ways that this could be dealt with. For one thing, you could just kill everyone who had that condition. In that way, the problem would be hypothetically solved. That illness would not be relevant anymore.
I think very few of us would agree that that is the ideal situation. We would be making progress towards something, but it would not be in the right direction. In fact, it is objectively better to live with a disease than to be dead. Therefore, even though the disease is not ideal, it progress towards eliminating the disease by means of killing everyone with it is actually worse than simply staying in the current state.
I hope you understand that I am not anti-progress. I am all in favor of moving towards that which is good. However, I refuse to buy the myth that new must be married to improved. New things are not always better. Some of them are, and we should be grateful for that. There are plenty of changes that have made the world a better place. However, we cannot assume that progress is always better. There are plenty of ways to progress towards bad things. It is important for us to discern which is which.