Progress is a concept of human invention, which requires the existence of cognitive abilities. Humans themselves present with a wide variety and diversity of perspectives on the world. Thus, there is no reason to believe there is an external, objective reference frame for what progress means. I.e.: There is no objective notion of progress1.
Objective progress does not exist.
We might be tempted to think, there must be some fundamental vector of human progress. Surely so much progress has been made in the last few thousand years. But here we would be mistaking the existence of progress (progress does happen), with the falsity that there is an objective notion of when such progress is happening, or how to achieve it.
Let’s assume each person is born imbued with a randomized unit vector that constitutes their inner compass for progress, and that this vector probaby has a range within which this individual is willing to let it be swayed. In a two-dimensional progress universe, that would look something like this:
If these vectors were entirely random, then they would (in general) sum to 0, and nothing very interesting would happen.
But we are not isolated creatures, and there are other qualities we are imbued with upon birth, namely personalities and a social nature, which cause us to associate more or less with different groups of people. Nature and nurture combine to see a convergence in these unit vectors around certain values, which themselves assemble into longer vectors represting their, say, strength, or momentum.
What we see is that vectors of progress exists, because we choose vectors to rally around as humanity. Importantly, there is still no objective notion of rightness in these choices. It is always possible that there exists some other (equally subjective) vector which would suit the collection of current humans just as well, or better. Which means that making room for choice and plurality is fundamental.
Making room for choice and plurality is fundamental.
One way to think of this progress field, and our movement within it, is akin to the Cosmological Principle popular in astrophysics today. The Cosmological Principle introduces the idea of isotropy: the idea that our position in the universe is not privileged in any way. In an isotropic system, you can look in any direction and the variations you see will be (statistically) indistinguishable.
Progress, like the Cosmological Principle, clearly has local structure (because we do experience progress, and variations therein), and therefore it can be said to have local maxima. But we have good reason to believe (because humans are variant) that there is no global maxima. This has strong implications about our approach to striving for progress in our short lifetimes.
Now, let’s take a brief disgression about scale. To talk about scale is often to talk about the largeness of something. Things that have (large) scale are internally homogenous (even if highly complex). They have a consistent internal logic or framework that keeps them functioning as a coherent whole. For something to be large scale, is a statement about the number of people or things that this coherent whole affects.
The internal framework of a ‘thing’ at ‘scale’ is infrastructure. The thing about infrastructure is that it provides scaffolding to make other things easier. Now, our reptilian brain likes it when things get easier, because easier = more efficient, and efficiency, all else being equal, will increase our chances of survival. This creates an inherent pressure in our social systems towards efficiency.
When something increases in scale, we have the same (homogenous) infrastructure, working across an increasing number of people. This is also a version of efficiency– you are getting more (people), for the same system.
If choice and plurality are fundamental, this inherent pressure towards efficiency and scale is problematic. Understandably, this arises out of a desire to have a sense of making progress. Efficiency feels like progress because things are increasingly easier.
Fallacy: mistaking increasing ease, for progress
When scale increases, homogeneity increases (which also increases efficiency), which decreases variety, choice, and, ultimately, accuracy. Accuracy of what, you ask? Accuracy of human wants and needs. Why? Because humans are plural, so when singular solutions expand, there is, simply mathematically, an increasing reason to expect they will fail to serve everyone’s needs.
Homogeneity homogeneity, efficiency choice, acccuracy
The growth in scale of particular solutions calcifies infrastructure, creating a feedback loop that makes it hard for us to do things differently. “Hard” = time and energy cost, lag to see impact, uncertainty over the quality of a new solution, etc. Another way to think of this is that we accrue technical social debt for our existing social systems2.
In practice, this means things have to get bad enough to motivate the work and uncertainty. This is exacerbated when we sabotage or outlaw alternatives.
In today’s world, the two areas where we have the least choice of alternatives are economic and political systems (within which many other systems are subsumed).
So, what strategy should we take? How are we to search for optimal directions, and do so in a world where we are compelled to make the biggest impact possible due to some not-entirely-distinguishable influences from our ego and our ethics?
On the one hand, since progress isotropy suggests every direction will eventually have good and bad, simply picking a strategy that is gratifying for yourself is not an entirely unreasonable strategy. But for of us those who are hoplessly concerned with our own impact 4, there are two strategies that stand out.
This first strategy is related to infrastructure. Infrastructure plays a dual role. Because it calcifies existing systems to create efficiency, it makes alternatives hard; but, it’s also what we need to be able to compete with any existing paradigm. The irony of course is that by creating alternative infrastructures, we end up recreating the problem.
On the one hand, there is a very natural cycle there, and present seemingly dire developments notwithstanding, one might well argue that these pressures and resistances are simply the fundamental nature of human systems. But another lens on it suggests that the times we have achieved the greatest scale, longevity and flexibility, is when we design open, composeable systems. DeLanda calls these assemblages, and contrasts them with what he calls organic totalities3. In assemblage theory, the individual components that articulate into a functional whole, can be recomposed into other wholes. They have an identity and a life of their own. Contrast this with organic totalities, which may also have emergent behaviour, but the components of which are not subsumed rather than articulated into the system.
The other strategy relates to our (ultimately ill fated, our course) search algorithm for the “best” direction to go in our progress field. Since we know there is no global optimum, we can only but do our best to navigate through higher grounds using approximation techniques. The first is a heuristic search strategy: send scouts. To do this is basically akin to supporting alternative projects. These are our scouts. And if we can communicate with people in other parts, we can also begin to extrapolate between local topological data.
Finally, both of these strategies return us back to the key insight about scale and progress - beyond insurance strategies for reinforcing the dominant global paradigm, why have one paradigm at all? Genuine diversity increases accuracy. It’s simply less efficient. To do this and indulge in striving for positive impact, we need open and composable solutions that can scale as a function of choice, not imposition.
Certainly there are metrics, and many of those metrics are increasing. Also certainly, we may well experience an agreement across humans about a specific objective for progress. But it is not itself objective, just a happenstance convergence of subjective preferences. ↩
“Technical debt is a concept in programming that reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.” - wikipedia ↩
Manuel De Landa, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006) ↩