The case against perpetual progress

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For so many in the techno-elite, even those who don’t entirely subscribe to the unlimited optimism of the Singularity, the notion of perpetual progress is somehow taken for granted.  As a former classicist turned technologist, I’ve always lived with the shadow of the fall of Rome, the failure of its intellectual culture, and the stasis that gripped the Western world for the better part of a thousand years…

History teaches us that conservative, backward-looking movements often arise under conditions of economic stress. As the world faces problems ranging from climate change to the demographic cliff of ageing populations, it’s wise to image widely divergent futures.

Yes, we may find technological solutions that propel us into new golden age of robots, collective intelligence, and an economy built around ‘the creative class’. But it’s at least as probable that as we fail to find those solutions quickly enough, the world falls into apathy, disbelief in science and progress, and after a melancholy decline, a new dark age.

Civilisations do fail. We have never yet seen one that hasn’t. The difference is that the torch of the past has always passed to another region of the world. But we’ve now for the first time, got a single global civilisation. If it fails, we all fail together.”

Tim O’Reilly, ‘The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress’, in John Brockman, ed., What Should We Be Worried About?

Against nostalgia

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“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”

Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

In a planning department meeting brilliantly timed to coincide with the opening of the agency bar, we contemplated last week the deeper cultural changes that the mediating effects of technology were wreaking. Change was everywhere. And as with any creative act, there was as much destruction as creation. Things were disappearing. Good things were being undermined.  Things were being lost. To mourn or not to mourn. That was the question.

Perhaps it was the the crystal clear blue skies and the crispness of the morning air (so precious at this time of year in our dear Amsterdam), but I realized this weekend that sometimes you have to warn yourself. To administer a good, cold, bracing dose of reality to oneself. Indeed I suspect that the further one’s spring chicken years recede into the dim and very distant past, the more necessary this becomes.

So, I am writing this for myself. Though you are welcome to accompany me on the journey.

But first, a little social theory.

Community’ is one of those vague, fat, messy words, which everyone has a slightly different take on and it is hardly surprising that the body of literature on what exactly constitutes ‘community’ is more than fulsome. And the burgeoning ‘digitization’ of our lives is only fuelling and expanding it.

Fortunately the work of nineteenth century sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies provides us with a way of navigating through all the competing definitions and claims.  In his influential work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft he distinguished between two modes of human organization and relationship.

Gemeinschaft cannot be willed or examined into existence. It is either embedded and largely tacit, or it is nothing at all.

The distinguishing feature of Gemeinschaft (community) for Tönnies was that it represented a shared understanding:

The special social force and sympathy which keep human beings together as members of society.”

Whether this understanding was anchored in ties of blood, place, or indeed ties of the mind, he saw this shared understanding not as a result of human endeavours, but as the very starting point for togetherness.

Gemeinschaft binds communities together, and provides them with a shared truth, and a common framework for normative patterns of behaviour.

It means that we don’t have to question, or be forced back on our own resources and come up with our own answers and choices.

This framework of stability and certainty that tradition provides has historically given us with our sense of who we are. Identity was a function of the community we belonged to, and our role and position within it.

In contrast Gesellschaft (society), Tönnies argues was a modern phenomenon, and something much more conscious – something that was the product of human will, rather than something more organic and tacit:

The theory of Gesellschaft deals with the artificial construction of an aggregate of human beings which superficially resembles the Gemeinschaft in so far as the individuals peacefully live and dwell together. However, in the Gemeinschaft, they remain essentially united in spite of all their separating factors, whereas in the Gesellschaft they are essentially separated in spite of all the uniting factors.”

Modernity needless to say, unpicks and unwinds Gemeinschaft.

According to UN data, the proportion of the planet’s population that is urban is expected to rise to 61 per cent by 2030.

For the first time in human history the world has more urban residents than rural residents.

The professor of politics Russell Hardin provides some blunt advice on the matter:

Small towns are an anachronism in our times and they should be treated as an anachronism in the work of social theorists, who should no longer argue that our lives are somehow wrong because they are not like those of people in small communities.”

In our ever more urbanized world, our relationships expand in all directions. Urbanisation increases the sheer number and variety of people we come into contact with.

Consider for example how many people the average French peasant would have encountered in a single waking day, with how many his modern Parisian counterpart meets.

And with this expansion in our contacts comes a shift in social relations – from being all encompassing, to being segmented, specific, and task-orientated.

We have friends, close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, colleagues who are friends, family, face-to-face relationships, digitally-connected relationships, relationships with vendors of all kinds, and so on. In contrast to life in pre-modern times, our lives are now characterised by many relationships that are about relatively specific things.

Our lives, interests, activities, personalities and identities are now distributed across disparate networks, and we are now distributed beings. We are not to be found all in one place.

Urbanisation expands our social lives out, horizontally and yet at the same time, it thins them. Our lives are no longer housed within all encompassing closed communities. We begin to live horizontally, not vertically, spreading ourselves across open networks of friends, colleagues, and passing strangers.

At the same time as our horizontal networks are expanding, the physical shape of our lives and interactions are changing too. Our physical connections and presence are shrinking while our virtual ones are expanding.

Our spaces of connections and interactions are increasingly disconnected from any actual physical place.

Giddens calls this phenomenon ‘disembedding’, in other words the extraction of social interactions and relationships from local contexts and their “restructuring across indefinite spans of space-time.”

The forces of modernity that began with Enlightenment have fundamentally changed our position in and relationship with the world.

We have become seekers and inventors of realities, not inhabitants of a certain pre-packaged, preordained reality.

This shift away from a sense of habitation is is perhaps most evident in how people’s notion of spirituality has shifted. A spirituality of ‘dwelling’, according to the sociologist Richard Wuthnow emphasises habitation, in which humans experience the surety and comfort of sharing a sacred space that is created and inhabited by God.

We have moved away from the idea of human beings as participants in some knowable cosmic order to a separation of world and self. Things no longer had a definite place. Least of all ourselves.

As Wuthnow puts it:

A spirituality of seeking emphasises negotiation: individuals search for sacred moments that reinforce their conviction that the divine exists, but these moments are fleeting; rather than knowing the territory, people explore new spiritual vistas.”

It is perhaps not so surprising then, that we yearn for the certainty and fixedness of Gemeinschaft, and that the idyll of the small town and community, where we know each other by name remains a potent dream. “Sometimes you want to go, Where everybody knows your name… You want to be where you can see, Our troubles are all the same” as the theme song for the TV series Cheers went.

And it’s perhaps not so surprising, that we should be so entranced by entertainments such as the TV series Downton Abbey.

As Katie Roiphe notes, writing for Slate magazine,

There is something reassuring about the retrograde class structures in Downton Abbey, something elegant and comforting in their rigidity. Take the camera lingering on a footman ironing a newspaper so that his master’s hands won’t get ink on them… The characters of Downton Abbey may chafe and aspire, but their roles are inescapable, clear; and it is perhaps the inescapability and clarity that is so seductive.”

But – I get to my point at last – things were never as good as we think they once were.

First published in England in 1968, Below Stairs is Margaret Powell’s memoir, recounting her years “in service” (beginning from the age of fifteen) in the 1920s. And it provides a sharp contrast to the genteel, mannered community of Downtown Abbey where everybody has a place, knows what their place is, and loves being in that place.

Here is one dose of reality from Margaret Powell:

One morning, as I was polishing the brass knocker on the front door, the newsboy arrived with the papers. Just then, my employer floated downstairs — so I dutifully handed them over.

In response, Mrs Clydesdale just gave me a long stare, looking at me as if I were something subhuman.

As the moment lengthened, I couldn’t think what was wrong. I had my cap and apron on; I was wearing the correct thick wool stockings; my hair was even scraped  back in the regulation manner.

Then at last she spoke. ‘Langley,’ she said, ‘Never, never on any occasion ever hand anything to me in your bare hands — always use a silver salver.’

Tears started to trickle down my cheeks. So this was what being in service was all about: you were so low that you couldn’t even hand your employer something without it first being placed on a silver salver. I was just 15, I’d recently become a kitchen maid — and I wanted more than anything to run home. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wretched before or since.”

As for those who yearn for a return to smaller, ‘traditional’ communities, they often forget the twitching net curtains, the whispers and disapproving looks as one queues at the post office and just how claustrophobic such environments can be.

This is the curse (and yes, comfort) that we call nostalgia. It ladles sickly sweet sentimentality over reality, it denies the ugly, the violent, the unfair, the cruel. It sandpapers the past down to  point where it can no longer shock and appall us.

The Harvard Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures Svetlana Boym is much preoccupied with the conflict between memory and modernity.

Reminding us that the word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots: νόστος, nóstos (“return home”) and ἄλγος, álgos (“longing”), Boym defines it as “A longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.”

While its emotions are powerful, Boym points out the sheer futility of it:

Nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place but is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time as space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.

The British photographer Jimmy Nelson has travelled the world, photographing secluded tribes. The  introduction to his project puts it thus:

The purity of humanity exists. It is there in the mountains, the ice fields, the jungle, along the rivers and in the valleys…. There is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. Whether in Papua New Guinea or in Kazakhstan, in Ethiopia or in Siberia, tribes are the last resorts of natural authenticity… I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.”

Published under the title Before They Pass Away, Nelson has assembled an extraordinary, visually stunning body of work. And indeed one cannot help but ponder what the bulldozers of modernity are eradicating.

So much so that it is easy to forget that for all their authenticity, these are also lives characterized by ignorance, superstition, and rigidity.

No.  We can never go back.  The past, as Scarlet Johansson’s character says in Spike Jonze’s Her, is a story we tell ourselves. That place and time we yearn to reclaim never existed as we remember it.

So this is what I tell myself.

Time’s arrow travels in one direction only, and lest we fall victim to the incapacitating effects of nostalgia, we must accommodate ourselves to its trajectory.

In its wake we lose things.

But at its edge, new possibilities erupt.

Better to explore new territories, than mourn those that never existed.

***

Sources

Photo: Jimmy Nelson, ‘Before They Pass Away’

Sveltana Boym, ‘Nostalgia

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity

Russell Hardin, Trust 

Margaret Powell, Below Stairs

Ferdinand Tönnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2003 Revision

Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s

Katie Roiphe, Of Noblemen and Investment Bankers: Why we can’t take our eyes off Downton Abbey’, Slate, January 19th 2012