“Web to weave, and corn to grind;
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
In A Short History of Progress , Ronald Wright states that the Victorian ideal of progress can be summed by “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." While it is clear that progress relates to that which moves forward —what is most unclear about progress is its relation to improvement. Who is to define this improvement? What are the criteria by which it will be judged? It is a nebulous and subjective concept, constrained by the societal conditions by which we decide whether something is better or worse than it was in the past.
To some populations, improvements are simple — sanitation standards, availability of electricity, and access to clean water and food are the key criteria. To others, economic purchasing power, creature comforts, speed, efficiency, and relative status define improvement. So, how then do we universally go about defining progress?
For decades, the West has viewed global progress as it related to the spread of capitalism and democracy. As such, the industrialization of the last century and a half has been a strong indicator of the positive direction of our shared arrow. However, as the recently deceased sociologist Daniel Bell once stated in his famed book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, “The contradictions I see in contemporary capitalism derive from the unraveling of the threads which had once held the culture and economy together, and form the influence of the hedonism which has become the prevailing value in our society.” The lessening of the “Puritan work ideal” and the increasing of consumerism is to what drives this contradiction. After much of the world has been industrialized, and this “prevailing hedonism” grows, how will progress shift? How will cultural progress and economic progress intersect in defining what progress overall amounts to?
“The Internet has emerged as a human and mechanical way of mediating and evolving thoughts through technological and collaborative communication.”
If cultural progress is an equally prescient and important measure, then the Internet’s social implications play a large part in understanding improvement. Through the Internet and technological development, it has been increasingly possible to maintain cross-border and global relationships. As Christian Fuchs , a well-known critical theorist, states in his book Internet and Society: A Social Theory , “the technological structure mediates human activities and results in emergent aspects of thinking and action. Here objective knowledge emerges from the cooperation of human actors…new embedded and objectified knowledge emerges that is stored in the technological structure.” The Internet has emerged as a human and mechanical way of mediating and evolving thoughts through technological and collaborative communication. Using the Internet for fuelling social and political movements, for example through the crowdsourcing of action, brings these thoughts even further. The improvement of communication and facilitation of global relationships and even action via the Internet should be considered one of the next steps in post-industrialization progress.
But this all begs the question: is our growing hedonist consumerism and dependence on the Internet worthy of being seen as a global societal improvement? Perhaps, in that it has allowed for a diversified cultural experience. Societies are less siloed, and more similarities are discovered and shared globally. An improvement in interactivity and shared learning should be considered a form progress.
“The Victorian ideal that progress necessitates forward movement may be correct in some regards — but the concept of forward movement in and of itself might be different to what we had originally conceived.”
However, the bigger question is that if some aspect of progress occurs does that mean progress with a capital ‘P’ is occurring? As Ronald Wright theorizes, “the twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology that has now placed an unsustainable burden on all natural systems.” When it comes to progress, this past century has simultaneously been the most prodigious in certain aspects and also the most destructive in others. Our societal values have been problematic with trajectory of our economy and with our consumption preferences. But a recent movement to appreciate some of the more basic tenants of life has emerged, especially since the economic collapse of 2008. A 2010 Boston Consulting Group report entitled “Consumer Sentiment: a new world order of consumption” stated that, “recession anxiety has triggered a clear shift back to basics in what consumers say they value most. Home and family, stability and calm, saving, and the environment have all increased in importance. Luxury and status continue to decline — the U.S., Europe, China and Japan included. Might the appreciation of more simple human pleasures like family and the environment encompass economic and cultural improvement as compared to what happened a few years ago as a direct result of irresponsible consumption?
The Victorian ideal that progress necessitates forward movement may be correct in some regards — but the concept of forward movement in and of itself might be different to what we had originally conceived. It is time to re-evaluate our meaning of improvement in order to shape sustainable, worthwhile economic and cultural progress in the future. An indicator encompassing economic, environmental, social and cultural measurements should shape the new 21st century definition of progress. Progress might be best re-imagined as the growing and meaningful interconnectedness of people and goods providing solutions to global problems. Yet, in the end, as Oscar Wilde so keenly stated, “It is because Humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its way.” Although we as humans believe we are going forward, it is in fact our unknowing of our true direction that keeps us progressing.