A Defense of Progress

AUTHOR
Richard Volkman

ABSTRACT

The theme of Ethicomp 2010 is inspired by Alvin Toffler, who writes, “change is non-linear and can go backwards, forwards and sideways.” To some ears, this may sound like a shocking admission from a well-known futurist and techno-enthusiast; it may seem that admitting the inevitability of set backs and missteps along the way is a retreat from the “practical optimism” expressed so often by Toffler and his ilk, an optimism summed up neatly in the title of a Wired montage, “Change is Good.” However, a closer look reveals that proponents of our wired futures have always acknowledged that the path of progress is bumpy and difficult, even as our movement forward is inexorable. To critics, the view of inevitable progress has seemed Panglossian and even dangerous. They have worried on the one hand that futurists and enthusiasts makes predictions that cannot be justified reveals that proponents of our wired futures have always acknowledged that the path of progress is bumpy and difficult, even as our movement forward is inexorable. To critics, the view of inevitable progress has seemed Panglossian and even dangerous. They have worried on the one hand that futurists and enthusiasts makes predictions that cannot be justified (e.g., Norton, 2004), and on the other hand they accuse the proponents of technological progress of a crude “technological determinism” which is understood on the model of the vulgar Marxism wherein all culture is but an epiphenomena dancing atop the deeper material reality (e.g., Winner, 2002). But the defense of progress is in fact much more nuanced and compelling than many critics have imagined.

As I will show, there is excellent reason to believe that on balance change is good, and we are on a path of inexorable progress, even as it is admitted that there pitfalls and distractions along the way. The argument in no way supposes or implies discovery of a deep dialectic of History, or the ability to see the future in any way that transcends the epistemic limits of good science Indeed, the defense of progress is substantially drawn from the understanding of scientific progress advanced by Karl Popper, especially in The Open Society. In short, an understanding of the selection process that governs cultural evolution as an algorithm for the discovery of clever solutions to the problems we face reveals that there is excellent reason to believe we will find the best solutions to our problems, whatever those problems are. That is progress.

The analysis draws heavily on work in biological evolution, especially in defining the selection algorithm that moves evolution as an optimizing procedure that searches nearby “design space” to discover peaks in a “fitness landscape,” occasioning an equilibrium that offorestalls further change unless and until some environmental variable is altered, such that the fitness landscape itself is altered, prompting anew the search for new peaks. The analogy with cultural evolution is deep, but invites significant misconceptions. To be clear: the view that the same algorithmic processes govern cultural evolution and biological evolution is NOT any version of so-called “Social Darwinism.” The most important difference between biological and cultural evolution involves the significance of feedback between the environment and the results of difference between biological and cultural evolution. Since the environment helps to define the selection pressures and even the fitness landscape that defines solutions, this is a huge difference between the two processes, even if they are implementations of one and the same algorithm. To sum up the point: In biological evolution, the environment changes arbitrarily, so being “fit” has no legitimate normative sense for us; in cultural evolution, the environment itself is defined largely by our choices, which just are our variously expressed judgments of value, and “fitness” means fitness to these revealed values, so the normative dimension of the process is not at all out of place (although it can be easily misplaced, as the analysis will explore).

While this analysis in no way permits us to peek around the corner of the unfolding of history to predict exactly what shall be, and it is by no means a deductive proof or guarantee of progress, and especially not along any particular timetable, the argument provides sufficient warrant for the expectation that our future will be better than our past, in a sense of better that is itself better than our present conception of what counts as better. So, while the defense of progress does not specify what exactly will count as progress, nonetheless there is good reason to believe that, given the circumstances that set up the right selection algorithm to govern cultural evolution, the results of the process will be an improvement over our present circumstance, without supposing we already know in advance what an improvement would be. This is just one more dimension of progress to be discovered by the algorithm itself. To cite a famous maxim in biology: “Orgel’s Second Rule: Evolution is cleverer than you are.” (Dennett, 1995)

Since the defense of progress is too abstract and procedural to permit the particular predictions favored by futurists and other readers of tea leaves, it speaks against any policy analysis that supposes we already know what the process has yet to reveal. At the same time, the defense of progress reveals the sorts of policies that are crucial to the well-functioning of the process that warrants our expectations of progress. While the institutions of the open society warrant an expectation of progress, it is not automatic or inevitable that these institutions will be maintained, let alone that they will be maintained in a way that best facilitates progress, especially in the face of technophobia, xenophobia, or the resistance of vested interests. The future is for the better, but it still has its enemies. Proponents of the future need an awareness of the sources and limits of the defense of progress if they are to advance their projects.

REFERENCES

Dennett, D. (1995) Darwin’s dangerous idea. New York: Touchstone.

Horner, D. (2004) Nanoethics: Fact, fiction, and forecasting. Ethicomp 2004.

Popper, K. (1945). The open society and its enemies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Winner, L. (2002) Are Humans Obsolete? The Hedgehog Review. 4(3): 25-44.

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