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Exactly what is the goal of progress?

Some might be familiar with the work of Steven Pinker whose book Enlightenment Now! makes an impressive case for the world being in far greater shape than we generally consider. Pinker presents data showing how our rates of violence are lower than ever, how many have escaped from abject poverty, and how much healthier and longer living we are.

Seemingly running counter to the popular narrative, he cites the media and negative news culture as being the primary source of our apparent negative view of the state of things. He’s definitely right about that and it’s nice to hear someone of his stature starting to recognise the disastrous effects of our fear-mongering media. It’s also very refreshing to hear someone talking the world up rather than down!

However, though I can’t argue his statistics and cheerful optimism showing how much better off we are today than twenty years ago, there are a couple of problems with his summation in my view:

1. No-one today (eg. in western culture) thinks that running water, or electricity, or even internet are a big deal. They have quickly become the expected minimum standards.

In other words, human expectations are forever on a sliding scale. We literally don’t care what life was like twenty years ago. While it’s certainly of interest to scientists, the vast majority of people are only concerned with the issues and environment that surround them today. And we still have plenty of problems and things to solve in our world today.

2. There is something awry with modern society and all its technological conveniences that I don’t think is fully understood yet. (And this should be of interest to RBE advocates too) Suicide rates in developed countries are rising. Mental health issues are becoming epidemic. Digital connections are replacing real world connections. We are becoming digital dope addicts. In some ways, we are connected too much, and in other ways, too little. There is much more to be learned, I feel, in this apparent inverse relationship between scientific progress and human happiness. It certainly seems the more technologically proficient we become, the more detached and miserable we get.

Obviously it’s of little comfort to someone on the brink of suicide or suffering stress and anxiety to say that ‘life is better today than twenty years ago!

My personal theory on this is that perhaps the more we lean on technology, the more physically (and ultimately emotionally) redundant we become. We are, after all, genetically programmed to toil somewhat in order to support our existence, and perhaps when that toil is removed, it has unexpected emotional consequences.

This is why I don’t fully support a wholly scientific (RBE) approach to addressing society’s problems or planning for a moneyless future. What might appear to be the most efficient solution might not actually be the best one for us ‘spiritually’.

For example, which of the following would you choose? You could stand and watch a self-driving electric combine harvester harvest a field in half an hour then have the rest of the day off to do as you please. Or, you could be part of a team of workers spending the day harvesting that field with tools, enjoying the elements, the exercise, the camaraderie and having a celebratory dinner afterwards. The first option is certainly easier and the more efficient, but the second option may arguably be much better for your spirit and feelings of self-worth.

This is a somewhat extreme example, but it demonstrates the point. My guess is that most people would choose the first option, and, admittedly, it’s a difficult choice to argue.

So what is the goal of this thing we call ‘progress’? Just to have less and less things to do? That certainly seems to be the general direction, but is that really the best possible outcome for humanity? To become static consumers of the spoils of mechanization – perhaps until we too are mechanized?

Shouldn’t the goal of progress be to create a happier society – whatever that entails?

I think so. Like so many things we find in life, the answer is in striking the right balance. The balance between leisure and intrinsically-rewarding labour. Between science and spirituality. Between freedom and responsibility. Between the utility of digital connections and the joy of physical ones.

Statistically, yes we are better off than we were twenty years ago. But are we happier? I’m not so sure.

Published in Blog


  1. Arron Craft Arron Craft

    My view is that the goal is not to eliminate work but to free ourselves from needing to ‘make a living’ so that we can pursue work that is meaningful to us and supports our communities and planet.

  2. Sarah Sarah

    In some cultures/belief systems they believe that lack of physical stimulation can result in psychological issues due to a lack of balance. But then on the other side of the scale you’ve got hundreds of people working their backsides off to make ends meet, but never quite able to, then unsurprisingly suffering psychological issues out of despair and exhaustion. Balance is an important factor that must be addressed when considering the next step in our evolution. Great article. 🙂

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