Sometimes people ask if there really is such a thing as progress and sometimes they deny that there has been progress. These people are usually left leaning egalitarians who are inclined to believe that progress is just a part of capitalist ideology. That is, that it is a false belief which has the purpose of keeping us all consumerist, debt-bound wage slaves.
It is true that the belief in the superiority of the latest is a part of popular culture. TV shows like Goodnight Sweetheart and Life on Mars have, as their central trope, the superiority of the current culture over the crude stupidity of the 1940s and 1970s respectively. So, we can laugh at our parents and grandparents because it seems that, without making any effort ourselves, we are better than they were.
People innovate. It is one of the characteristics of our species. This is why archaeologists are able to date pottery by its style over periods of thousands of years. It is because people make fashions. Everyone wants the latest thing because it reflects who we are and where we belong and we don’t want the old way which has been left behind. This is change for the sake of change but there is also improvement. We are equipped with the means of passing the results of our experience from one generation to the next so that we can collectively learn from our collective experience.
But, innovation is not just improvement, it is also destruction. Older people may complain that things have become worse rather than better. The purpose of something they think is important has been forgotten. It solved a problem so now the problem itself has been forgotten and with it the need for the solution. It may be that the problem will recur, or it may not. Some societies value stability over innovation because, in some circumstances, the destructive power of innovation is not worth it and it is just a reflection of a power struggle between two factions, perhaps of young and old.
The question, which is the title of this post, as it is usually asked conceals a more important one. It is one of values. If values change, how is it possible to judge if things have improved? If you believe that people should have equal power and equal wealth or if you believe in a code of conduct arising in a literal form from one of the great religions, you would probably say that there has been no progress. If, on the other hand, you believe that things like life expectancy, education and opportunity are important, you will probably say that there has been progress and it is a good thing.
People like to believe that there are absolute, timeless values, which just happen to be theirs, and that people elsewhere, geographically or historically, who have different values are misguided and wrong. But, there are no absolute values. The values of our group, our nation, our time in history are just ours. According to those values there can be progress. So the answer to our question is that there can be, but it depends how you look at it.