The Myth of Progress

mechanic-63201_640By Eric Giannella, originally published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.

The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The idea that technology will bring about a better world for everyone can be traced back to the Enlightenment aspiration to “master all things by calculation” in the words of Max Weber.1 The successes of science and technology give rise to a faith among some that rationality itself tends to be a force for good.2 This faith makes business easier because companies can claim to be contributing to progress while skirting the moral views of the various groups affected by their products and services. Most investors would rather not see their firms get mired in the fraught issue of defining what is morally better according to various groups; they prefer objective benefits, measured via return on investment (ROI) or other metrics. Yet, the fact that business goals and cultural sentiments go hand in hand so well ought to give us pause.

The idea of progress is popular because it ends up negating itself, and as a result, makes almost no demands upon us. In Silicon Valley, progress gets us thinking about objectively better, which suggests that we come up with some rational way to define better (e.g., ROI). But the only way to say that something is better in the sense we associate with progress is to first ask whether it is moral. Morality is inherently subjective and a-rational. Suggesting that a technology represents progress in any meaningful, moral sense would require understanding the values of the people affected by the technology. Few businesses and investors would be willing to claim they contributed to progress if held to account by this standard. If people are concerned with assessing whether specific technologies are helpful or harmful in a moral sense, they should abandon the progress narrative. Progress, as we think of it, invites us to cannibalize our initial moral aspirations with rationality, thus leaving us out of touch with moral intuitions. It leads us to rely on efficiency as a proxy for morality and makes moral discourse seem superfluous.

Why progress and rationality are so closely linked in our imagination

We need to look to our cultural history to see why our understanding of progress is so bound up with rationality. Silicon Valley’s faith in progress is the purest distillation of Enlightenment ideas that Max Weber saw embodied in early Americans like Ben Franklin.3 Weber was interested in the rapidly growing role of rationality in changing how people lived and experienced life.4 People like Ben Franklin not only thrived on a pragmatic, rational approach to life, they celebrated it. They took the rational and calculating style of thought that made the sciences so successful and applied it to every aspect of life. Because worldly success demonstrated one’s grace (in Protestant America), productivity became a moral issue and rationality was its engine. This allowed early Americans to view a purely means-ends approach to life as praiseworthy rather than shallow.

Once this means-ends approach to life was introduced, Weber thought that there was no going back. Rationally designed and managed firms would spread because they would outcompete firms that were run on more traditional bases – such as a mixture of family obligation and devotion to craft. Henry Ford’s manufacturing system for the Model-T would beat any other system for producing cars. Yet it was not just businesses that saw rationality applied in greater measure. In the German city-states of the late 19th century, professional administrators following explicit rational procedures allowed the government to attain a previously unimaginable level of speed, coordination and power. The rapidly expanding use of rationality in planning and running human affairs could also be seen in religion, the law, and even the university.

While it had innumerable practical benefits, applying more rationality to more of life took an existential toll. Combined with scientific explanations of the natural world, the observation that so much of life could be controlled through systematization reduced, for some, the power of traditional sources of meaning – superstition, religion, as well as pre-modern ethics like honor. With science being able to explain so much, and technology able to control so much, the world had become disenchanted.

Why progress became a source of meaning

Weber knew that people need narratives to provide coherence between their lives and their understanding of the world. He wondered what new beliefs modern people would invent to find meaning in their lives. Ironically, with no common ground left but the tools of disenchantment, we have enchanted those tools. John Gray describes the general pattern

Modern myths are myths of salvation stated in secular terms. What both kinds of myths have in common is that they answer to a need for meaning that cannot be denied. In order to survive, humans have invented science. Pursued consistently, scientific inquiry acts to undermine myth. But life without myth is impossible, so science has become a channel for myths – chief among them, a myth of salvation through science.5

To put it another way, progress is the only myth left when rationality has eviscerated other sources of meaning. Because of our faith in progress we have granted rationality itself a positive moral valence.

This article was originally published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

  1. Weber, Max. 1958 [1919]. “Science as a Vocation.” Daedalus 87, no. 1: 117 []
  2. For example: Weber, Max. 1949. Pp. 34-47 of “The Meaning of Ethical Neutrality in Sociology and Economics” in The Methodology of the Social Sciences edited by Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. Free Press.” []
  3. Weber, Max. 2012 [1905]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Dover. []
  4. Brubaker, Rogers. 1984. The Limits of Rationality: An Essay on the Social and Moral Thought of Max Weber. HarperCollins; Schluchter, Wolfgang. 1985. The Rise of Western Rationalism: Max Weber’s Developmental History. University of California Press. []
  5. Gray, John. 2013. The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. P. 82 []

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9 Responses to The Myth of Progress

  1. Citta Hari dasa

    Great article. One point in particular struck me: “Because worldly success demonstrated one’s grace (in Protestant America), productivity became a moral issue and rationality was its engine.” We see this idea of material success as proof of grace being applied to Gaudiya institutions. By this metric the bigger the mission is the more grace Krsna has bestowed upon it (and of course its members). But in fact there is no such correlation, and to think there is only perpetuates the Machiavellian ethic.

    • The “idea of material success as proof of grace being applied to Gaudiya institutions” was something that both Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and Srila Prabhupada believed in, and at least strongly suggested to their disciples. I see some validity in that belief, especially when we look at the supposedly ‘material’ success of their missions as something a lot more spiritual than material. It is not just money, buildings, books, and men (followers). These are temples, shastras placed in hands of millions of people, and new devotees who are engaged in devotional service. I believe that we DO need to judge things by the results.

      • True, but such external results can also me misleading and I think that is Citta Hari’s point. The real result we are after is internal, which may or may not show up externally in the form of books, printed, temples opened, and so on.

  2. prahlada bhakta dasa

    Beautiful article! It nicely demonstrates the shift of ideas that took place among the general people during the industrial revolution and subsequent times. It explains so nicely the underlying causes of rationality becoming the yardstick for knowledge in the modern times. Its like an eye-opener for me.
    Thank you for posting it!

  3. It is amazing that the very things that are supposedly giving people increase freedom and control over their lives, i.e. automobiles, computers and smartphones, place such demands on the whole society. What an enormous drain of time and energy on the individual. We must have a car, we must have a smartphone, we must have internet at home, etc. And therefore we must work that much more to pay for all these things, which takes up that much more time which could be spent reading a book or doing service to the community or chanting Hare Krishna. And my God is there any quiet place left for a person to take a walk or ride a bike without the risk of getting hit by a car?! For practically anything that a person needs a car trip is required. And silicon valley’s solution is electric robot cars? Of coarse any solution which would not involve a car or some kind of app for a smartphone is not considered. When all you have is a hammer every problem looks a nail. It is no wonder that the yogis would rather live in a cave. If consciousness is raised even a little the whole “advanced” economy appears completely absurd. Next they will tell you that robots with AI are conscious beings.

    • Yes and the idea that consciousness can be uploaded to a machine that can live longer than a human body, while sounding liberating, really is extremely dehumanizing.

      • I guess the implication is that we are all essentially robots and free will is an illusion. That is a convenient philosophy if your main interest is main interest is ROI and you don’t want to be troubled by feelings of compassion.

  4. Technology and rational systematic organization are just not enough. Without raising consciousness and pursuing the deeper meaning of life there is no progress. It is walking up the down escalator. Apparently walking but not going up. All this stuff is still only within the physical realm. It is so constraining. It is amazing that all these scientist would expend such an incredible amount of energy over generations, using quantum mechanics and complex algorhythms, only to createthings like robots that package stuff in wearhouses, and ultimately it all just serves making profit. What a shallow goal. And really although the technology appears to be so advanced again, it only touches the physical realm. Which is not really the going to satisfy the need for meaning. For that we need the higher technology and the enlightened people with skills to teach us how to use it.

  5. Science and Technology are strong components of a world that we Mortals are dependent upon and strongly needed by all. However, Science and Technology have good and not-so-good points. For example, the Smartphones have taken away our sense of compassion for our fellow human beings: we limit our talking to one another: our eye contact, for the most part, has become non-existent; we are engrossed with looking away from one another, rather than looking into one’s eyes. The Art of Conversation has become lost!

    I long to dream of a balance, yet, it seems to me that Science and mostly Technology have, and continue to be taken the extreme…compassion is somewhat lost and I believe that it will not be found in the near future, and that is a worrisome thing as far as I am concerned

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