Is there Progress?

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 posting, 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.

Case Study Scenario – conflict, change and point-of-view

The following scenario is fiction but draws on my own experience in different working contexts. It contains elements of situations of conflict, change and point-of-view so that it may be used as a basis for discussion of these topics.

The Boundary

A man called Fred who is a bricklayer obtains a contract for work where he is to build a boundary which is quite long. He is not good at project management so he asks another man called Ted to go halves with him on the project so that it runs smoothly. Ted is experienced in managing projects so there is a good fit though he has not managed a project exactly like this one before. The payment for the work will all be made at the end of the project so each of them has to put an equal amount of capital into the project and the agreement is that the profit left over at the end will be split equally between them. They expect that they will have to spend about the same amount of time working on the project.

Fred begins work with a small team of juniors working under his direction.

Ted is not familiar with boundary walls when the project begins so he takes the trouble to read-up on the subject and talk to anyone he meets who knows about it. In addition, he looks carefully at any boundary walls he comes across.

After a short time Ted becomes uneasy. In the contract it does not specify what sort of boundary division is to be built. He works out that there is a strong possibility that a fence could be put up instead at a much lower cost which would fulfill all the requirements of the contract. If the wall is all built in the way that Fred is doing it, there will be only a small profit to share at the end of the project and there is a possibility, if there were unforeseen difficulties, that there could be no profit at all.

When he tells Fred about this thought, Fred flies into a rage. Fred says that he has 20 year’s experience of building walls and he knows what he is doing. He says that he cannot work with someone who has such a negative attitude and refuses to discuss the matter any further.

Ted persists. After all, Ted has a half share in the profit so has an interest in maximising it. Fred becomes even more offended and refuses to speak to Ted altogether. So, Ted brings in a mediator.

The mediator first speaks to both parties separately.

Fred tells him that his part in the project is to build the wall. He has a great deal of experience in building boundary walls whereas Ted has none. He says that Ted is negative towards the project but fails to suggest a better way of building the wall.

Ted tells the mediator that his part in the project is to manage the project. He also says that he finds Fred very difficult to work with because Fred will not discuss the project with him.

The mediator calls a meeting so that the two sides can settle their differences.

The mediator says that Fred has described his job as building the wall. Everyone agrees that this is what he has been doing. The mediator goes on to say that Ted has described his job as managing the project and everyone also agrees with this. The mediator says that since both parties are in agreement about what they are doing, they have the basis for a working relationship and they should get on with their jobs.

Soon afterwards Ted leaves the contract. Fred pays him the amount of capital he has put into the project plus a very small amount in recognition of the work he has done.

Points to consider

  • Do you sympathise with Fred, Ted or both?
  • Could Ted have behaved differently? If so, how?
  • How would you analyse the mediator’s approach?
  • How would you have mediated this situation?