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The Triumph of Progress

In the last century or so the notion of progress through economic development has proved so popular that governments positively encourage it. The mindset has moved from suspicion to imperative. Innovation has become a buzz word: sometimes it’s “innovation for its own sake” and sometimes it’s “innovation as rhetoric” and these only complicate the three responses to change we have already identified: optimism, pessimism and fatalism.

Remember none of these is uncontested, but they are all expressed with totally unwarranted certainty — if is not one thing then it must be another — and the very human faculty of cognitive dissonance means that we can hold elements of them all, in varying measure, at the same time.

We ought to be alarmed by any government’s adoption of an act of faith as policy, especially if they are unaware that it is one. But Progress has momentum.

In 1965 Gordon Moore was asked what would happen in the silicon components industry over the next ten years. His prediction proved accurate enough to be called “Moore’s Law.” Forty years later he reflected:

There was no way we could predict very far down the road what was going to happen. It was just a lucky guess…but the industry made it a self-fulfilling prophesy, now the industry road maps are based on that continued rate of improvement, various technology nodes come along on a regular basis to keep us on that curve, so all the participants in the business recognize that if they don’t move that fast they fall behind technology, so essentially from being just a measure of what has happened, it’s become a driver of what is going to happen. —Intel Corporation website

Futurologist Ray Kurzweil sees a principle of accelerating returns in Moore’s Law with the dramatic conclusion that immortality is just around the corner. The argument, in a nutshell, is that life expectancy has increased year on year. It has increased by more than ten years in the last fifty. If it continues to increase exponentially soon the rate of increase per year will be more than one year. And if your life expectancy increases faster than you grow old you will live forever. The illusion of finality once more — the key word is if: “Much virtue in If.”

There are consequences to innovation developing a life of its own. Donald T. Campbell  describes what happens when the measure becomes more important than what it is supposed to be measuring in Campbell’s Law:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

And “laws” like these become part of the cultural baggage:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. — The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, J.M. Keynes (1934)

One idea that has been encroaching gradually is a distinction between two phases in the lifetime of anything new: radical change followed by incremental change. If we use the language of business, an innovative product or service is introduced and then the production/delivery process is honed and refined over time until it is replaced by something better.

And so we have periods of acknowledged uncertainty interrupting periods of (unwarranted) certainty.

The pace of change is vital to our understanding of the history of innovation. In ancient times change was slow enough to go unnoticed. By Victorian times technological innovation was undeniable. Marcus Aurelius saw nothing new after the age of forty; Prince Albert was less than thirty when he spoke of a period of wonderful transition; but almost anyone born today will have seen constant change by the time they reach adulthood. We have all seen innovations rise, fall and die in a matter of a few years – remember the pager, floppy discs, the electric typewriter? These were not failures, they returned on investment, but they were short-lived and easily forgotten.

The Inevitability of Crisis

The gales of creative destruction blow louder and faster. Meanwhile the so-called benefits of progress are challenged, confidence is undermined and no one can tell if or when we might get “back to normal.” Short-termism or inertia are seen as the only safe bets — for investors the exit strategy has become all-important. Even supposedly serious news organizations are unable to present anything more than a couple of minutes long. For example the BBC’s flagship news program which broadcast a timely piece on the dangers of short-termism on the day before the U.S. government was due to default.

Asked why short-termism is so prevalent Pascal Lamy, launching the report Now For The Long Term, suggested one reason is technology:

If you look at how the financial markets work now it’s all about short term; the news business is very much about short term. You probably had a bit of a time finding a bit of a slot on BBC Today this morning saying I’m going to have to talk about long term — “ooh ooh long term that doesn’t make sense for our listeners.”

Asked how would we change thinking he explained that some global issues such as Y2K, the millennium bug, and HIV Aids have been reasonably well addressed.

On the other hand , “Oceans, over fishing — a catastrophe; climate change — gridlock…” His report has analyzed these contrasting cases to draw some conclusions leading to “a few provocative proposals.”

At this point the interview, which has lasted around 90 seconds, is wrapped up with these words:

“We may have to wait until next time to hear exactly what those proposals are, but Pascal Lamy thanks very much for joining us. And now — sport.” — BBC Radio Four Today 16/10/2013

So what are we to make of it all? Adam Smith, writing of the need for political wisdom in times of disorder described the challenge as:

 When to re-establish the authority of the old system, and when to give way to the more daring, but often dangerous spirit of innovation. —The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Quite how dangerous that spirit can be is illustrated by the words of Saint-Just, arguing for continuing revolution:

Tout ce qui n’est point nouveau dans un temps d’innovation est pernicieux. [In a time of innovation, anything that is not new is pernicious.] — Speech to the Convention (19 Vendémiaire II) [10/10/1793]

Sadly for St-Just it was he who was found to be pernicious — a few months later along with Robespierre he met the latest judicial innovation: the efficient and “humane” Madame Guillotine.

Most of us, whether in favor of or against any particular change, look forward to the calm after the storm and want to achieve some sort of balanced view of a way ahead.

Misia Landau asked, “Can science use literary theory?” We can ask, “Can literary theory help us understand crisis?” An argument from another revolutionary decade:

Our own epoch is the epoch of nothing positive, only of transition. Since we move from transition to transition, we may suppose that we exist in no intelligible relation to the past, and no predictable relation to the future. — The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode (1967)

This loss of confidence has consequences, as per sociologist Robert Holton:

Those who believe in crisis cannot give us a convincing account of whether new patterns of normalcy will be established. Without any clear sense of the possibility of new patterns, crisis becomes a more or less permanent condition — a chronic illness or a dream without end. In place of the epic narrative we now have the soap-opera. — Problems of Crisis and Normalcy in the Contemporary World (2002)

Advice for the rationalist at the gate of the year

The contrast between epic and soap sounds pejorative but if we must explain culture in narrative terms consider this:

The thing about epics is that they always have an ending — they are not sustainable. Towards the close of Morte D’Arthur, the king sails off to Avalon leaving behind his old friend Bedivere who asks:

What shall becom of me, now ye go frome me and leve me here alone amonge myne enemyes?

To which Arthur replies;

…do as well as thou mayste, for in me ys no trust for to trust in.

To which Bedivere must have thought, “Well thanks a bunch! Now you tell me. That sword might have come in handy.”

Actually soap operas are not that bad: many of them are long lived and successful, they are built to last and are capable of great change and innovation during their lifetimes. They only get into serious trouble when they try to be epic. Epics get into trouble when they try to become soaps. There should be room for both in the schedules. Epics might have higher status but they don’t have the staying power. Some entrepreneurs and inventors fill the epic role of “great men” but most innovation is carried on by the rest of us with a lot less fanfare. If instead of always trying to cast ourselves as heroes, we recognized ourselves as actors (some of us bit players, most of us mere extras) in a larger, evolving story which requires us to interact with a multiplicity of possibilities, we might be able to look at the new season with a little more confidence.

Featured image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

About The Author

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Paul Kirkham is a Researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity at the Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Nottingham University Business School. Prior to joining the institute he worked for 35 years in the manufacturing industry.