The Paradox of Progress: why does making things better make things worse?

One more labor saving device and I think I’m going to crack.

A strange truth shadows modern society: the better things get, the closer we all drift towards collectively admitting ourselves to the psych-ward. We are the richest miserable people to ever exist.

Yet it’s not just us. This enigma haunts civilization – each jump up in technology has resulted in humanity face-planting into some awaiting tree branch we didn’t see coming. Agriculture gave us food. Great! Then it gave us cholera. Not so great. The industrial revolution gave us rapid fire consumer goods. Then rapid fire machine guns. Then Auschwitz, and nukes, and climate change, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stand today at the peak of our powers, the precipice of our annihilation, and in desperate need of a pick-me-up.

Why is progress so problematic?

One answer is we’re all just whiners. Buck up. Be happy. Everything we measure is getting better, you whiny wimps.

Unless… we’re measuring the wrong things.

The global economy is very good at meeting material needs. Too good. Like a supercharged robot gone rogue, the global economy is so committed to making stuff that it is on a suicidal quest to convert the entire mass of the solar system into a spinning disc of Buy-One-Get-One-Free deals. Meanwhile all the other things us humans need are being destroyed: community, meaning, stability, equality, nature….

Coupled onto all this is a pill-poppingly depressing narrative. We are told we live in a meritocracy. Rags to riches – anyone can do it. We all end up where we deserve. Therefore, if you fail then you are a pathetic worthless loser. And by the way, we’re all engaged in ruthless selfish competition. Don’t bother asking for help. Just die. Worm.

Slather on top the 24hr tragedy news-stream and it can’t start to feel like the world is ending. What’s worse, we might not be wrong. Climate change, nukes, mass extinction….

Be happy?

Go suck a foot.

The rate of change alone is enough to do us in. We go from snappy youngsters with all the latest tech, to confused eighty-year olds stumped by doors. Our progress is progressing too fast.

Technology has another big problem – The Law of Unintended Consequences. Each new techno-power cuts the red ribbon to a new district of possibility. Sadly, many of those new neighborhoods turn out to include crime-infested ghettos of horror. Sometimes, it’s all ghetto. We’re looking at you leaded petrol.

These muck-ups aren’t all the fault of incompetent inventors. The nature of the system invites surprises. Solving problems creates new problems.

Imagine you are a butt-naked farmer. It’s you, the dirt, and some beans. A three component system. As simple as it gets.

But you aren’t growing enough. To boost production you make a digging stick. It’s a stick. You dig with it. Great! One wrinkle – now you have to cut up a tree. Now it’s five components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, and the tree.

Wood is hard. Snapping it up by hand is borderline impossible. The time you spend tugging at that tree could’ve gone into growing beans. So you make a stone-axe. Now the system has seven components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, the tree, the axe, and the stones.

Each round of problem solving – progress – lifts the complexity of the system exponentially. Every new component requires resources, maintenance, and managing. They all interact. Each problem solved creates a myriad of new problems to solve. Keep this process going and soon you’ll be needing deep-shaft mines, trade caravans, governments, and ten-thousand years later, the entire global economy. Billions upon billions of components.

The Law of Unintended Consequences rules supreme. Components conflict. Energy requirements grow. Resource depletion sets in. Interactions spin off in unexpected directions.

Problematically all this complexity is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Going from bare hands to a digging stick is a big win. But adding the stone-axe is only useful insofar as it allows more digging sticks. With us, we have reached a point where we are considering vast Geo-engineering projects whose sole purpose would be to save our bean farming from all the things we done to improve our bean farming.

Progress becomes regress.

We end up in a dizzying world which paradoxically winds down the more it winds up. We feel like we’re losing our minds. Thankfully we solved that problem by inventing anti-depressants. What could possibly go wrong?


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Just in case you weren’t already feeling depressed, according to Dr Joseph Tainter diminishing marginal returns on complexity is the sign of a civilization about to collapse, watch on Youtube here.









Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s