Western belief in progress has been slipping steadily for decades, but is now at a nadir. Anyone who still believes that politics will uplift humanity is considered a crank. Yet the idea of progress hasn’t vanished. It has simply been privatised. Just as those early Parisian socialists believed in humanity’s progress, westerners increasingly believe in their own personal progress. They don’t think the next human generation will be better off, but they are making darned sure their own children will be.
…The western middle-classes increasingly believe in progress in their own lives. They read self-help books, take cooking classes, go on diets, stop smoking, do “home improvement”, and have invented a new mode of parenting, “concerted cultivation”, which largely means the sort of nonstop education for your own children that those moustachioed socialists had envisioned for the workers.
Ideas of progress are shaped by human needs, and broad shifts in those needs have necessarily influenced the course of innovation. The technologies we invent have tended to move up through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from tools that aid us in safeguarding our bodies to tools that help us to feel peppier, prettier and more special—from tools of survival to tools of the self.
Once our ancestors felt reasonably secure, their ambitions grew and they began to invent technologies of social organization. They created farms and cathedrals and weapons. These were followed, more recently, by technologies of prosperity like the steam engine, the assembly line, and complex systems of communication, power and finance. As our wealth increased, we began to crave technologies of leisure, and soon we had radio, television and myriad mass-produced consumer goods.
Now, finally, our attention has turned inward. Think of Prozac and Viagra and Adderall. Think of cosmetic surgery and of antiaging creams infused with stem cells. Think of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest. Think of all the other tools we use to indulge our vanity and pursue our desire for self-expression and self-promotion. These are the inventions that we prize today and that our entrepreneurs are motivated to deliver.
One consequence is that inventions have become less visible and transformative. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society. We are altering internal states, transforming the invisible self or its bodily container. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it often looks like stagnation—or decadence.
John Gray likes to say that while progress is a fact, faith in progress is an illusion. What you have here is the wringing of hands over that felt loss of faith, a yearning for some grandiose structure to mingle within or some vast, onrushing current in which we can dissolve our individual anxieties. But maybe what the intellectuals are bemoaning is an extrapolation to a cultural level from what many individuals experience as they approach middle age—the realization that the future never was limitless for them, that they never were going to patent that invention, write that novel, make those millions, and so life becomes about customizing and optimizing what they do have. We’ve challenged every earthly boundary, colonized every frontier, and yet we’re still just as conflicted and fearful as we’ve ever been. Wherever we went, there we were. Anyway, I’m just pleasantly surprised Carr didn’t blame the Internet.
Maybe the faithful will find some kind of blanket mythology to replace the ones that didn’t survive the 20th century, maybe not. History will continue as cycles of gain and loss on a scale that defies our comprehension. Individuals will try to incrementally improve their lives, and the wisest of them may even approach the serenity of the old Chinese farmer.
The mystics say
now that the planets align,
there will be great change.
Some predict gloom,
Planets are nothing to me.
I say, It is snowing.
— Sam Hamill