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I am losing faith in progress

March 2007

I am losing faith in progress. This was sparked, I think, by the realisation that my day-job is writing software for companies who work for other companies who try to sell people things they probably don't need. That's a mighty precarious place to be, right at the top of the house of cards.

I mean, most of the trappings of my day-to-day life have the purpose of either (a) helping me forget how boring my life is or (b) helping me fit in with what society expects me to do. A car? Occasionally useful, but I use it about twice a week, and don't really travel distances walking couldn't get me (apart from Timaru.) Nintendo Wii? If my life was more interesting/exciting/closer to the survival line, I doubt I'd have much desire for video games. TV? Ditto. Work? Surely, given the right environment, a few hours a day would allow me to collect enough food to survive on, after which time I could do whatever the hell I felt like. Even half of the books I read are just ‘simulations' of less civilised and less comfortable lives.

I think I might be an Anarcho-primitivist, or maybe a (neo-) Luddite.

What benefits does progress actually have? Is there any purpose beyond short-term competitive advantage?

Jim Bier commented:

Giving you the computer to post these thoughts perhaps?

Ironically, if your "life was more interesting/exciting/closer to the survival line," you would probably wouldn't while away time pondering these questions either...

eonsim commented:

"Surely, given the right environment, a few hours a day would allow me to collect enough food to survive on, after which time I could do whatever the hell I felt like."

What environment might this be? Not one that's ever existed on earth. And you need more than food, even at a very primitive level you need tools to collect the food and prepare it. Tools and materials to producing clothing and shelter. First lot of seriously bad weather and your most likely dead unless your part of a community or have made major preparations, even so a single accident, such as tripping and breaking a leg would quite potentially be fatal. Living on the "survival line" is not safe nor easy make a single mistake and your over the line and quickly out of the world.

Admittedly progress doesn't bring as many benefits as we think it does and the associated stress and problems certainly can reduce quality of life. What it does do though is significantly increase the length of that life.

Angus commented:

Hmm. Sure, you could work a couple of hours a day. If your idea caught on amongst everyone else though, your laid-back life would suddenly be a lot less comfy :). At a societal level we really need trinkets to keep the majority happy and working, Orwellian style, to maintain our level of... well... civilisation. Comfort directly correlates with GDP per capita assuming reasonable societal equality (I've got nothing to back this up citation-wise, but I'd be surprised if it weren't true).

Plus, it's a lot easier living a luddite existence while knowing your car's in the garage, the Wii's by the telly,the laptop's on wifi, and you can pop back whenever you want...

Ruth commented:

Seeing as your not really using your car.....can I have it? ;)

Nato commented:

I don't blame progress for such issues. I think such things are inherent in life. To quote the princess bride. "Life is pain - anyone who tells you anything else is trying to sell you something". Ever since we emerged from primodial ooze, or we grabbed fruit from the wrong tree (whichever one believes), we've been struggling to survive and have a meaningful existance. Early on, all we cared about was survival. But that was because we had to devote all our energy to surviving (see chad's comment). Nowadays we've mostly managed to solve that problem (in the west), but we've discovered we've got more needs than merely physical needs.

Maslow's hierachery of needs is a useful framework here - we have some basic needs, and more complicated psychological and spiritual needs. If you aren't meeting basic needs, you don't notice more advanced needs (e.g if you're fighting for air, it doesn't really matter that you're hungry, or even less that you're feeling unloved that day). So, the reason why hunter gathers would not be concerned about their meaningless existance was because they were so busy meeting their physical needs, that their psychological needs were ignored.

I see progress as part of the struggle to meet our needs. It's only an iterative process, which means that the current situation is only a partial solution to fulfiling our needs. We've intitially struggled to survive, and perhaps this is why we've gone a little overboard on materialism (a few generations ago we would be worried about not eating enough, now we worry about eating too much). So perhaps we need to back track a little? But I don't think back tracking in and of itself is the solution - we may end up just going back to another less than satisfactory solution. I think we need to focus on our psychological needs, and the needs of society as a whole, and let that guide what we do.

era commented:

The idea that the lives of hunter-gathers were, as Hobbes puts it, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" is a little out of date. See The Original Affluent Society or a summary on wiki that also has links to more recent work. If you'd prefer some lighter reading then perhaps you will find some inspiration in Thoreau's A Life Without Principle. Excuse my lazy linking. If I gather some thoughts of my own I'll post them later.

KT commented:

Curious that several of us have been coming to these kinds of conclusions somewhat independently in recent months. (At least I think it's been largely independent.) Maybe it's the natural outworkings of the theological (etc) ideas we've been discussing over the last few years, the logical consequences of which are just taking a bit of time to unfold. I'm still not quite brave enough to say out loud what I think/fear will be the next realisation to unfold... (sigh) But I rather like this particular realisation so no need for gloom just yet :)

Anyways, you really need to read Ishmael. (Is that a bit of Quinn's influence I detect in this post? :) I now own the first book and would value your insights into its merits or otherwise.

KT commented:

Or maybe it's just coz it's fashionable right now to be concerned about sustainable living... (which doesn't of course make the concern invalid)

Jim Bier commented:

"Curious that several of us have been coming to these kinds of conclusions somewhat independently in recent months. (At least I think it's been largely independent.)"

— or maybe it's because we are all at a similarish stage of life... winning independance from it being our parents who work for our living, and us now having to start working for it ourselves; And that our generation (or at least our part of it) has largely been spoilt by having relatively wealthy parents in a relatively prosperous time of human history, and hence we're used to having most of our necessities and a large chunk of our wants provided for us; And as we come out of of studenthood, many taking a chunk of time off between finishing study and finding a job, we've gotten used to the idea and lifestyle of having lots of free time. And now, we are faced with the realisation that we are probably going to have to work 40 odd hours a week, 5 days a week for the next 40 -50 years or so (with 4 weeks paid annual leave a year), and we don't want to. Even though our parents did, and their parents did... and most of humankind, other than this seemingly utopian ideal of a few thousand hunter gatherers with a whole world to feed off, has had to.

Matt commented:

Jim: I suggest you read some of era's links before attempting to write this off as 'a utopian ideal' and 'a phase.' Yes, there would have to be compromises; I don't think I'll ever be living as a hunter-gatherer bushman. However, I think I can far better balance my material needs and my time—the reality is, I don't need to work 40 hours a week (I may need to later in life, but if I can plan well enough now I may be able to avoid that…)

KT commented:

Jim: I acknowledge your point and you're probably right that there's an element of not wanting to knuckle down and do some work because we've been spoiled. However, I would think alongside that there's a significant degree of disillusionment amongst our generation with our parents' generation and their whole lifestyle. We've watched our parents come home worn out at the end of each day, never having enough time in the weekends to do anything but keep the garden presentable and go to meetings, and we are wondering what it's all in aid of. Possibly too we even realise that we've grown up spoilt, and wonder if we might not have been better off with less toys and less comfort and more grass-roots skills. That's some of the things that have been going through my mind anyhow.

So maybe it's not just a matter of not wanting to do work, but not wanting to do work that we perceive as pointless.
Whether we'll have the drive necessary to adequately do the work that we do perceive as valuable remains to be seen.