Friday, June 3, 2016

Progress: is it inevitable?

If you are a student of human history, you know that out path has not been easy.

There were long periods of time where progress was lost.  Technology and political progress were created then lost to the mists of time.

Whether we are talking about the western greco-roman culture that technically invented the steam engine just after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (only to have it forgotten for 1500 years) or the Qin Dynasty's near total destruction all science and knowledge in China, 221 BC, technical and political history has had long periods where we regressed rather than progressed.

The question is, is progress fundamental and if so why did we have these lost periods.

First, let's define progress.   Progress is at hear an increase in efficiency.   Whether we are talking about a way to get 11 bushels of grain from a given land instead of 10 bushels, or simply a form of government that has 10% unhappy citizens instead of 11%, if it works better, that is what we call progress.

Next we have why we would ever regress - go back to the old, less efficient ways.  Well, there are several possibilities.  1) We forgot how to do something better, 2) Someone is extorting/blackmailing/forcing us to use the worst method.  3)  People are lying about how efficient something is - either denigrating the best method or promoting a faulty method.   Those are the three main reasons progress isn't smooth and we sometimes regress.

The first possibilities is no longer a real problem.  The much higher world population, along with the incredible gains we have made with information storage and transmission make the danger of forgetting a better method almost nil.   We aren't going to forget how to make titanium now that we know how - even if few people actually posses that information.

The second is still a real issue, particularly in politics.  Entire countries are forced to use inefficient methods (North Korea) for politics, patents prevent the wide spread use of superior technological methods, and religion still pushes itself into politics.   But such methods are not perfect, and if they were to spread worldwide, the fractious nature of politics ensures that at least one country would violate the spread, keeping the more effective methods alive - if only for the advantage they offer.

The last has become the real threat - the only way to stop progress is to convince enough people that it isn't progress.   Often done for political reasons (global warming deniers, Trump-ism, etc.) it is the last real danger.

But can it be overcome?   The honest truth is that over time, the liars tend to lose.   All humans are NOT sheeple, despite the fears caused by public stupidity and success in small scale cases.  The real advantages of progress - the greater efficiency - can be tested and once done, people fight the lies.

Thousands of years ago, information storage and transfer was so limited that you could kill everyone that knows how to do something by accident (usually via wars).  Hundreds of years ago, you could use a combination of wars, and politics to prevent progress.  Now we are stuck using lies.   Communication, storage, and education have progressed to the point where we are no longer in danger of forgetting how to do something.

Barring an extinction level event, (asteroid/nuclear/biological weapons of mass destruction)  Progress is now inevitable.   No political party - whether it is the Communist party, the Republican party, or the Democratic party can stop it.

That does not mean that the latest and best will always be taken up.  China has proven that they can take "free market", but still retain their ancient bureaucratic government.  This doesn't mean their government is better, just that it is good enough. Similarly, the US has proven we can refuse to take up certain science facts, as our current system is good enough.

But it does mean that the better systems will continue to survive somewhere - and that that somewhere will gain a clear advantage over those that done. 

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