Posts Tagged ‘Progress’

Christopher Lasch and the case against progress

March 8, 2021

The American Dream, as I was taught growing up, is that it is possible for members of every generation, provided they make the effort, to be better off than members of the generation before.

Recently I finished reading THE TRUE AND ONLY HEAVEN: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch (1991), which argues that all this is an illusion.  He wrote that limitless material progress is not only impossible, but incompatible with the idea of justice.

Lasch, who died in 1994 at the age of 61, was a thinker who didn’t fit any of the usual categories.  A radical in politics and economics, he was a conservative in morals and culture. 

Virtue in the contemporary USA is equated with striving for success, according to Lasch.  Success is defined as improving your economic and social status.  This is not enough to inspire a good society or a good life.

He is nearly forgotten now, but I find his ideas more relevant today than I did during his lifetime.  Most Americans are pessimistic about the future, and with good reason.

Lasch didn’t believe in optimism, which is faith that things are bound to get better.  He believed in hope, which is the unwillingness to give up.

The True and Only Heaven is an intellectual history.  Lasch told how various thinkers, generation by generation, decided it was necessary to subordinate tradition, religion, family loyalty, self-government, patriotism and other moral principles to the goal of increasing moral output with less work.

The book begins with Adam Smith and the idea that free enterprise plus self-interest would ensure ever-increasing material abundance.

Smith did have misgivings, as Lasch noted.  He thought enlightened self-interest was an ignoble motive, compared to patriotism and religious faith. 

He noted that the widening of the market would lead to increasing division of labor.  He predicted assembly-line production, which he saw as degrading.  He also worried about replacement of militias with professional armies, which he saw as leading to a decline of discipline and patriotism.

But Smith was no friend of large corporations, which is his day were almost all government-established monopolies.  His vision was a society of prosperous independent farmers, artisans and shopkeepers.

He famously said that the self-interest of the baker, the brewer and the butcher who provided him with his dinner would be kept within the limits of a baseline middle-class Protestant morality.  As for the rest, he hoped popular education would make up the difference.

Smith’s vision seemed to be realized in the northern United States between the Revolution and the Civil War.  It seemed that any hardworking, thrifty Protestant white man could thrive as a farm owner, shopkeeper or self-employed artisan.  Working for wages was something you only did when you were getting started in life.

After the Civil War, as the USA transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation, it became apparent that the economy would be dominated by large corporations, and that the majority of American workers would be “hirelings” all their working lives.

This was shocking, at the time.  Many an editorial was written about the equivalence of “wage slavery” and “chattel slavery.” 

But in the end, most people accepted the corporate form of capitalism as the price of continued progress. 

Karl Marx was one of them.  In contrast to the “utopian” socialists, who experimented with alternative ways of organizing society, he thought corporate capitalism was a stage through which civilization had to pass on the way to socialism.

He wrote about how capitalism substituted profit-seeking for all other values—tradition, community, kinship, religion, even the marriage bond. 

But Marx thought that was a good thing in the long run because these older values were obstacles to human liberation, which could be achieved once industrial productivity reached the point of being able to provide abundance for all.

John Maynard Keynes thought the salvation of capitalism required the sacrifice of the core values of capitalism itself—hard work and thrift.  Rather the functioning of the capitalist machine required spending and borrowing in order to maintain consumer demand.

He, too, looked forward to a future of effortless abundance, without, in his case, even the need for revolution.

Material output in the USA, UK and other industrial nations has reached the level that Keynes hoped for.  But here is the result, according to Lasch—

To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light.

This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness … of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence and the pornography of “making it”; our addictive dependence on drugs, “entertainment” and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially constraints of marital and family ties; our preference for “nonbinding commitments”; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we “impose” our morality on others and thus invite others to “impose” their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude toward the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.

It didn’t have to be that way, Lasch wrote.  Economic and intellectual elites consciously chose material progress over other values, and opposed those who proposed alternatives.

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A 25-year-old bet that tech would wreck society

January 9, 2021

Some 25 years ago, Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future, a book in praise of the 19th century anti-machinery Luddite movement, bet Kevin Kelly, a top editor of the techno-utopian magazine Wired, that technology would wreck society by 2020.

The bet was for $1,000.  They agreed that William Patrick, a book editor who’d worked with both of them, would judge who’d won.

Sale predicted an economic disaster that would render the dollar worthless, causing a depression worse than the one in 1930; a rebellion of the poor against the rich; and a series of environmental disasters.

Patrick’s verdict was as follows:

Global Environmental Disaster. Environmental problems have far more to do with old school, industrial technology (slowly being retired) than with information technology (which may well be the only hope for a solution). Even so, with fires, floods, and rising seas displacing populations; bugs and diseases heading north, ice caps melting and polar bears with no place to go; as well as the worst hurricane season and the warmest year on record, it’s hard to dispute that we are at least “close to” global environmental disaster. Round goes to Kirk.

Economic Collapse. Not much contest here. Even with a pandemic, unemployment is a problem, but nowhere near a crisis—at least not in the closing days of 2020. (Stay tuned.) The Dow recently hit 30,000, and the leading currencies are cruising along. (Bitcoin, an entirely new form of currency unimaginable in 1995, is soaring—nearing $20,000 when I last checked.) So, Kirk’s dire prediction was way off. Round goes to Kevin.

War between rich and poor, both within and among nations. This is a toughie. Kirk’s apocalyptic forecast is especially problematic when you factor in huge economic gains in China and India, driven in large part by tech. On the other hand, how heavily do you weigh economic unrest as a factor in spawning the terrorism that triggered “forever wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia? And the economic dislocation among blue collar workers that allowed Trump’s faux populism to win them over? Meanwhile, anger at police abuses has led to massive protests from the left and bloody riots in the U.S. and Europe. It’s hard to say that “the poor rising up in rebellion” accurately characterizes the current state of the world (especially with that rising middle class in Asia) but it’s also hard to say, when you consider the unrest in the Islamic world and Trump supporters waving automatic weapons, that we’re “nowhere close.” Round is a toss-up, with an edge to Kirk.

Source: The Technium

However, the bet was not a draw.  Sale’s bet was that all three predictions would happen, and so he lost.

Sale doesn’t accept that he lost.  He thinks all three of his predictions will yet come true.  I think there’s a good chance they might.

LINK

A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society? by Steven Levy for Wired.  Hat tip to Steve from Texas.

Concluding Our 25-Year Bet by Kevin Kelly for The Technium.

Is Society Collapsing? by Kirkpatrick Sale for Counterpunch.

Progress, poverty and inequality

January 25, 2016

_87760046_world_wealth_disparity_624gr
inequality-chart-OUSSource: Oxfam.

I can’t get my mind around the recent report by Oxfam that 62 families have greater combined wealth than half the world’s population, which is between 3 billion and 4 billion, and that 1 percent of the world’s population has greater wealth than the remaining 99 percent.

I can’t reconcile this with studies by people such as Hans Rosling and Max Roser showing that the overall well-being of the world’s population is improving.

ourworldindata_the-life-expectancy-of-the-world-population-in-1800-1950-and-2012-–-max-roserSource: Our World in Data.

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Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014

1022785

Double click to enlarge

Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.

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An end to progress? Arguments pro and con

August 6, 2013

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An economist named Robert J. Gordon, and Erik Byrnjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, had an interesting debate at a TED forum on whether the days of rapid economic growth are over.

Gordon said improvements in world living standards are the result of two historical events that may not be repeated—the first industrial revolution, based on coal, iron and steam, beginning in the late 1700s in Britain, and the second industrial revolution, based on oil, electricity and the internal combustion engine, beginning in the late 1800s in the USA.

Both these revolutions have run their course, he said, and there’s no reason to think that the current technological revolution in information technology will have the same impact.  The i-phone is nice, but it will not change society in the same way that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone did.

Byrnjolfsson said computer and information technology are in their infancy, and will have as great an impact as the earlier technological revolutions.  Human beings haven’t as yet learned how to work most effectively with the new technology, he said.

Much depends on which one is right.  With rapid economic growth, it is possible for all classes of society, rich, middle and poor, to improve their condition without hurting the others, except maybe in relative terms.  With flat or declining economic growth, the struggle for economic and political power becomes much more of a zero sum game, a sorting of society into winners and losers.

I think the videos are interesting and worth watching, but I also think both speakers fail to emphasize an important thing—that improvement in the material standard of living requires not only progress in science and technology, but public policies that make the fruits of science and technology available to the wider public.

Improvements in public health, for example, are based not only on discoveries about vaccination, antiseptics and antibiotics, but also from public water and sewerage systems, food inspections and mass vaccinations of school children.   Universal telephone service is based not only on a technology, but also on a commitment by AT&T as a condition of maintaining its monopoly position.

Advances in technology don’t automatically abolish poverty.  George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about unemployed British coal miners in the 1930s, pointed out that every miner’s family owned a radio, a technological wonder unavailable to kings and emperors 50 years before.  And yet these same miners had difficulty putting food on the table.  Not having radios would not have enabled them to pay for it.

Brynjolfsson could be right.  Factory automation could produce a world of leisure and well-being for everyone.  But, depending on who is running things, it could produce a world like that imagined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his 1952 novel Player Piano.

I can easily imagine a future USA with amazing information technology, communications technology and virtual reality entertainment technology, not to mention science-fictional war-making and surveillance technology.  And along with this, growing shortages of affordable housing, medical care and higher education, and a deterioration of public services and the physical environment.

I’m neither foolish enough nor brave enough to attempt to predict the future.  I don’t think decline is inevitable.  But all it requires is for us to continue on our present path.  We’re halfway there now.

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I link. You decide.

May 28, 2013

Charts That Will Restore Your Faith in HumanityCharts from Business Insider.

Dear America: You Should Be Mad As Hell About ThisCharts from Business Insider.

What I take away from these two sets of charts is that the world has made a lot of progress in the past century, but the USA has regressed in many ways in the past 20 or so years.   You’ll notice that many of the graphs in the top set of charts end before they reach the year 2000.   What I get from these two sets of charts is that change is necessary, but progress is possible.

Small thanks 2012

November 20, 2012

rockwell_thanksgiving11

This is an update of a post which I wrote in November, 2010.

I have many things for which to be thankful.  I have food, clothing and shelter, and no reason to fear going without.  I had parents who loved me, set a good example for me and provided for my material needs.  I have never been without friends.  I have good health for somebody my age (75).  I live in a free country under the rule of law.  I live in an age when the great mass of my fellow citizens can devote themselves to other things besides working to survive.  And I am thankful for the gift of life itself.

But this post is not about these things.  It is about small, easy-to-overlook things I am thankful for.

I am thankful for automobiles that don’t rust out.  Road salt is less of a problem now than 30 years ago, but the plastic body of my Saturn doesn’t rust anyhow.

I am thankful for automobiles that always start in the winter.  I can remember when this was a big issue.  I would run my car in neutral when I got home, and before I tried to start the car, in hope of recharging the battery enough to get a good start.  Now, with alternators as standard equipment, that recharging takes care of itself.  I am thankful for automobiles that get good traction on ice-covered and snow-covered streets, for right-side rear view mirrors and for rear-window defrosters.  I am thankful for idiot bells that let me know when I am getting out of the car with my lights still on or my key still in the ignition; this idiot needs the reminder.

I am thankful for left turn lanes on expressways, for left turn signals on traffic lights and for automobile turn signals replacing hand signals.   I am grateful to snowplow operators in Rochester who keep the roads clear in the worst of conditions.

I am thankful for affordable airplane travel, which makes it possible for me to good see my brother in California or my good friend in Texas in only half a day.  This is easy to take for granted, but I can remember when airplane travel was a luxury and middle-class people traveled by train, and crossed the ocean by ship.

I am thankful for luggage with wheels.  I can remember walking through airports and, before that, train stations carrying suitcases that felt like they would pull my arms out of their sockets.

I am thankful for ballpoint pens that don’t leak over my shirts when I accidentally put them in the washer.

I am thankful bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders provide chairs so I can sit and read.  They don’t lose money by allowing me to read their books free; I spend more there than I otherwise would.

I am thankful for painless dentistry.  As a boy, I once had a tooth extracted without anesthetic.  The dentist used what looked like a pair of pliers.  He pulled and pulled and pulled, then had to stop and catch his breath before going back and finally getting it out.

I am thankful for plastic bottles shaped with grips.

I am thankful for thermostats.  My parents had a coal furnace, and we had to be constantly thinking not letting the fire go out, but also banking the furnace so as not to waste coal.  One of my chores, since both of my parents worked outside the home, was to go right home when school let out and shovel fresh coal in the furnace.  Now I have a gas furnace that doesn’t have to be monitored at all, and a thermostat which I can turn up or down when I feel too hot or too cold.

I am thankful for hot water heaters.  I can remember when the only way to take a warm bath was to heat a kettle on a stove, and pour the boiling water into a tub of cold water.

I am thankful for search engines since as Google that allow me to find information in two minutes that I would have had to spend an afternoon in library to get, if I could find it at all.  I am thankful for web hosts such as WordPress that allow me to have my own web log, free of charge and without needing to be computer-savvy.  I am thankful for being able to communicate with friends in distant places through e-mail.  Not to mention spam filters which free me from having to continually purge my e-mail and web log comments.

I am thankful for cable television which enables me to receive broadcasts from places other than the city I live in.  And I am thankful for YouTube and Internet television which enables me to see broadcasts that my local cable carrier does not carry.

I am thankful for direct-dial long-distance telephone service.  I can talk to people in distant states and even foreign countries at an affordable price and without having to deal with an operator.  And for telephone answering machines.

When I was a boy, telephone service was like Internet service today.  Most people had it, but a large minority didn’t.  And not all telephone users had private telephone lines.  Basic telephone service in those days consisted of a party line, networking a number of households; the phones of everybody on the line rang on every call, but you were supposed to recognize the distinctive ring of your own line and not listen in to others’ calls.

Microwave ovens are a great boon to a lazy cook like me.  I do almost all my cooking nowadays, which consists mostly of frozen dinners, in the microwave.  But I also am thankful for farmers’ markets, where I can buy fresh vegetables and fruit directly from the farm.  I am grateful for trail mix and Granola.   I am thankful for ethnic restaurants, which give me a taste of the world’s cuisines without me having to leave my native city.

I am thankful for unit pricing, which enables me to compare prices of what I buy at the supermarket.  Otherwise I would need a calculator to figure out what is the better bargain, and even then I might not be able to do it.

What am I overlooking?

What am I taking for granted?

Small thanks

November 21, 2010

I have many things for which to be thankful.  I have never in my life had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or whether I would have a roof over my head.  I have never been without friends.  I have good health for somebody my age (73).  I live in a free country under the rule of law.  I live in an age when the great mass people can devote themselves to other things besides working to survive.  Above all, I am thankful for the gift of life itself.

But this post is not about these things.  It is about the small things I have to be thankful for.

I am thankful for automobiles that don’t rust out.  When I first came to Rochester, the city and county governments used to spread large amounts of road salt in the winter.  Natives and long-time residents told me it was important to get a good rust-proofing service; I, foolishly, used an inexpensive service instead, to my regret.  Road salt is less of a problem now than it was then, but the plastic body of my Saturn doesn’t rust anyhow.

I am thankful for automobiles that always start in the winter.  I can remember when this was a big issue.  I would run my car in neutral when I got home, and before I tried to start the car, in hope of recharging the battery enough to get a good start.  Now, with alternators as standard equipment, that recharging takes care of itself.  I am thankful for automobiles that get good traction on ice-covered and snow-covered streets, for right-side rear view mirrors and for rear-window defrosters.  I am thankful for idiot bells that let me know when I am getting out of the car with my lights still on or my key still in the ignition; this idiot needs the reminder.

I am thankful for ballpoint pens that don’t leak over my shirts when I accidentally put them in the washer.

I am thankful bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders provide chairs so I can sit and read.  They don’t lose money by allowing me to read their books free; I spend more there than I otherwise would.

I am thankful for painless dentistry.  As a boy, I once had a tooth extracted without anesthetic.  The dentist used what looked like a pair of pliers.  He pulled and pulled and pulled, then had to stop and catch his breath before going back and finally getting it out.

I am thankful for plastic bottles shaped with grips.

I am thankful for thermostats.  My parents had a coal furnace, and we had to be constantly thinking not letting the fire go out, but also banking the furnace so as not to waste coal.  One of my chores, since both of my parents worked outside the home, was to go right home when school let out and shovel fresh coal in the furnance.  Now I have a gas furnace that doesn’t have to be monitored at all, and a thermostat which I can turn up or down when I feel too hot or too cold.

I am thankful for luggage with wheels.  I can remember walking through airports and, before that, train stations carrying suitcases that felt like they would pull my arms out of their sockets.

I am thankful for search engines since as Google that allow me to find information in two minutes that I would have had to spend an afternoon in library to get, if I could find it at all.  I am thankful for web hosts such as WordPress that allow me to have my own web log, free of charge and without needing to be computer-savvy.  I am thankful for being able to communicate with friends in distant places through e-mail. Not to mention spam filters which free me from having to continually purge my e-mail and web log comments.

I am thankful for direct-dial long-distance telephone service.  I can talk to people in distant states and even foreign countries at an affordable price and without having to deal with an operator.  And for telephone answering machines.  When I was a boy, telephone service was like Internet service today.  Most people had it, but a large minority didn’t.

And not all telephone users had private telephone lines. Basic telephone service in those days consisted of a party line, networking a number of households; the phones of everybody on the line rang on every call, but you were supposed to recognize the distinctive ring of your own line and not listen in to others’ calls.

Microwave ovens are a great boon to a lazy cook like me.  I do almost all my cooking nowadays, which consists mostly of frozen dinners, in the microwave.

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Things could be worse

October 13, 2010

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C., in 1925

When I get discouraged about how things are going in the United States today, I try to remember that there were times when things were much worse than they are now, and the country recovered from it.

The Ku Klux Klan was openly and proudly racist and violent, and not just in its language. Klan members committed murder and arson with justified confidence they would never be brought to justice.   In those days, the Klan was not a fringe group.  It was a powerful political force in the North as well as in the South.  The Democratic Party in its 1924 convention rejected a resolution to condemn the Klan by name.

As late as the 1950s, when I was a young man, it was still possible for white people in certain parts of the country to murder black people with impunity.  I hoped and believed that I would live to see the end of lynchings, but I never thought that I would live to see a black man elected President of the United States.  Knowledge of history, and ignorance of the future, are grounds for hope.

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