Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Progress or Infinite Change?

H.G. Wells
I have recently been spending a fair amount of my time during my sabbatical year at Princeton as a Madison Fellow reading and thinking about H.G. Wells, in preparation for an upcoming Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good conference. Wells was tremendously influential in the first half of the twentieth century and, as it seems to me anyway, he was crucial in popularizing “progress” as a kind of moral imperative, an idea whose strengths and weaknesses are still with us today.

Wells, along with Winwood Reade (whom I discuss in my new book Eclipse of Man), was a pioneer of trying to tell the human story in connection with “deep history.” But so far as I know he never argued, nor would he have been so foolish as to argue, that there was any kind of steady, incremental progress in human affairs that could be traced all the way back to prehistory. While as a progressive he may have been second to none, his view was far more careful and nuanced.

First of all, he knew at some level, along with his friend G.K. Chesterton, that any talk of progress requires a goal, and he wrote in The Outline of History that the foundations for the human project that would become progress were only laid in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. As Wells put it,

The rest of history for three and twenty centuries is threaded with the spreading out and development and interaction and the clearer and more effective statement of these main leading ideas. Slowly more and more men apprehend the reality of human brotherhood, the needlessness of wars and cruelties and oppression, the possibilities of a common purpose for the whole of our kind.

Yet even at that, our power to actually achieve such goals is, in Wells’s account, severely limited until Renaissance thinkers open the door to the scientific and technical revolutions that, by the nineteenth century, have given humankind unprecedented power over nature, with far more promised to come in the future.

Indeed, real progress for Wells was something that was still to come. That is because it would not have occurred to him to think that at any given moment the positive changes in human affairs necessarily outweighed the negative. Each generation may not even be better off than the one that came before:

Blunder follows blunder; promising beginnings end in grotesque disappointments; streams of living water are poisoned by the cup that conveys them to the thirsty lips of mankind. But the hope of men rises again at last after every disaster.... [Ellipses in original]

Progress was not a sure thing, an obvious fact of history, but the hope that a golden thread running into the relatively recent past would not be broken. Such a hope may or may not be realistic, but it is refreshing to see Wells identify it for what it is, rather than trying to adduce some sort of necessary laws of historical development or to find all the silver linings in very cloudy weather.

Now, Wells gets himself into trouble when he tries to reconcile this view of progress as the achievement of old goals with an evolutionary, competitive imperative that forbids him to imagine the future as any kind of stable end state. While in numerous books, at often tedious length, he lays out various relatively near-term futures that represent his view of how human brotherhood and peaceableness could be realized by an elite’s proper deployment of science and technology, they often include a certain amount of hand-waving about these utopias just paving the way for even more extraordinary possibilities as yet unenvisioned because perhaps unenvisionable by us, with our narrow views. In principle, at least, this means that in the end Wells can defend change, but not, past a certain point, progress.

This difficulty reconciling progress with mere change is still alive in our own day. Our tech industry sometimes tells us the ways that it will make our lives better, but sometimes adopts more neutral terminology — we routinely hear of “change agents” and “disruptors” — no longer even promising progress except understood as change itself. “The Singularity,” strictly speaking, is just the extreme expression of the same idea. But it is not really “progress” any more if perpetual competition means that all that is solid perpetually melts into thin air. The changes that come along may be wonderful or not, each in its own way. They may aggregate into circumstances that are better or worse, each in its own way. Our non-prescriptive, libertarian postmodern transhumanists are in the same position; to call “anything is permitted” progress is only possible if progress is defined as “anything is permitted.”

When the way we understand future history thus dissolves into particularity, it is hard to see how the future — let alone the bloody and oppressive past — could be a positive sum game, as we expect that one generation will have only a severely limited common measure of “positive” with the next. We see signs already. Is the present generation a little better off than the previous one, because they are being raised with cellphones in hand? Surely the passing generations, with their old-fashioned ideas of friendship and social interaction, are entitled to doubt it, while the generations yet to come will wonder at the bulky and clumsy interface that their progenitors had to contend with. How did they walk along and look down at the screen at the same time? What a toll it must have taken! Perhaps people just had to be much tougher back then, poor saps....


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