myth of progress
Monday, July 21 2003
The most important point of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was that the idea of steady scientific progress is a myth perpetuated by textbooks. In reality, the scientific method and the organic meritocracy of scientific theorizing has resulted in a series of scientific fashions that Kuhn called paradigms. Just when you think your life work is contributing to the greater glory of Man, some pimply-faced patent clerk comes up with a theory that makes all your experiments irrelevant. Admittedly, such changes of paradigm aren't particularly common, but when they happen, it's almost as if a field of study were starting from the limited understanding of a Brazilian street urchin. A paradigm shift throws a science into an orphan state - dramatically cut from its roots, yet expected to somehow survive.
Still, in the world of technology it seems that progress really does happen in the manner advanced by textbooks. Sure, the transistor was a paradigm shift away from the clunky world of vacuum tubes, but since then most of the advances in electronics have stood on the shoulders of their predecessors. This is why we now have single handheld devices that can hold hundreds of hours of recorded music, take pictures, surf the web, and calculate one's astrological chart. Reaching more complex fruition than even electronic technology, some of the hard sciences have not experienced paradigm shifts in over a hundred years, and so it's tempting for many to assume that humanity itself is progressing, achieving a higher state of being, taking the wisdom of its elders and advancing to a newer, higher state of societal evolution. There are even a number of examples of this: emerging tolerance of other races, cultures, and now sexual preferences. All around the world, corporations are discovering the profit-boosting efficiencies created by globalization, deregulation, disregard for workers and the environment, and the thorough computational analysis of data. It's tempting to think that soon a handful of corporations will run the entire world with robots. The expectations raised by these forms of progress lead to all sorts of fantastic thinking. More perilously, though, it encourages people to forget the limitations of humanity and society, the environment in which technology grows and advances.
Because, you see, despite the fancy futuristic patina, humans are ultimately just animals. If you doubt this, consider the single greatest use of the internet. It's exactly the same use rabbits would make of it. And all the fancy whiz-bang technology we use to fight our wars still results in piles of dead people, killed (in our latest war) by a motivation that history will remember as either one of theft or ignorant revenge, neither of which were invented by human beings. If one stands back and looks at the world from a great enough distance, the impact of our internet & nuclear powered civilization resembles that of mold.
These are the things I needed to tell myself back when George W. Bush and his "brain" Karl Rove seemed to be engineering a flawless totalitarian takeover of ours, the oldest constitutional democracy on Earth. Without firing a shot, they'd seized control of all the major media outlets and fed them focus-group-tested subterfuge as they scurried to implement their extremist Christo-Fascist agenda. Sure, without the assistance of Osama bin Laden, the tools at their disposal would have been far less effective. But, taking full advantage of their windfall, they tapped into the animal weaknesses of their constituents with formidable success, pulling the strings of the Great American Normal as if it were a marionette. Once the war in Iraq was won, it seemed that all possible correcting counter-forces in our society, forces I'd counted on more than once, had been destroyed. The next logical step seemed to be for George W. Bush to crown himself Emperor and begin transporting Democrats, atheists, homosexuals, and immigrants in cattle cars (or, if we were lucky, repurposed Amtrak coaches).
But a funny thing is happening on the way to Christo-Fascist dystopia. It's turning out that focus-group-tested subterfuge and an administration-wide policy of repeating one message on a backdrop while doing something else entirely has left our administration ill-prepared for the public-relations nightmare that an occupation of a foreign country can be. Sure, the embedded press sang the party line while the glorious war was raging. But once the war was "won," the only story worth reporting is the daily deaths of our boys. Nationalism, like the fear of foreign terrorists, is another of our animal weaknesses, just one among the many things that makes us incapable of venturing far from the primordial slime. It makes Americans pay a lot more attention to the death of an American than we do to the death of anyone else. The drumbeat of these deaths has now become so relentless that people are starting to ask why the hell we went to Iraq to begin with. And when questions like that begin to be asked, suddenly all the focus-group-tested subterfuge becomes more of a liability than an asset. The evil of the nascent fascist regime starts to be like the weight of a giant who has been tripped. Somehow the perfect fascist storm mamages to get downgraded to a mere logical depression. Karl Rove may well be brilliant, but he must have overlooked something. And why shouldn't he? Why shouldn't the enlightened view be the ultimate victor in this battle? We're dealing with an admistration whose core philosophy is essentially medieval! Why should people like this prosper in this age of perfect knowledge and just-in-time nabobism? I'll tell you why. Because, as Kuhn taught us, there is no progress. George W. Bush's medieval worldview makes perfect sense to a democracy of people whose Normal is fundamentally still medieval. We're all still just trading partners in the muck.
Being an unwitting sucker for the typical good-versus-evil narrative, you probably overlooked the transition where I went from stating Karl Rove's problems to advancing the straw man notion that progress should be saving us. Remember, Thomas Kuhn taught us that progress is an illusion. What we have to count on instead is failures in progress, failures (in this case) of Karl Rove's perfected societal models and efficiencies. Such failures are a lot more predictable than progress itself.
There was a dead Flying Squirrel in Gretchen's study this morning. It was a beautiful animal with oversized eyes, a webbing of skin connecting its front and back legs, and a widened tail. Perhaps Edna had killed it, but it lacked obvious injuries and looked like it had been dead for awhile, so hopefully Edna had only found it and brought it home as a novelty.
This evening we had a severe thunderstorm that knocked out our power for several hours. During the height of the storm's intense electrical activity, we moved down to Gretchen's basement study for added safety from a possible lightning stroke. Since our house is at the top of an escarpment, lightning often strikes nearby. We lit a bunch of candles and corralled all our creatures together with us. As usual, Sally was terrified by the storm. But the cats didn't much care. Noah actually likes rain and prefers to sit our under the eaves even in heavy downpours.
Later Gretchen and I
played a candle-light game of Boggle Deluxe.
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