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The Illusion of Progress - are we truly accelerating, or heading towards extinction?

Posted: Thu, January 24, 2013 | By: Reeve Armstrong

If we follow the media Zeitgeist: Make sure we keep up-to-date with technology; read Wired and New Scientist; follow the twitter accounts of Reuters Science News and Discovery Magazine; own the Blu-ray, 25th Anniversary, Final Cut of Blade Runner and read Iain M Banks’ books – maybe even have a blog on Technorati; It seems easy to see that the world is updating at high-speed. 

Technology gets more efficient all of the time, and more pervasive. Science illuminating the darkness of ignorance with revelation becomes a chore. And any day now we’ll be connecting to the Internet with our augmented minds. Once we are immersed in such an ethos it seems realistic to announce to the world your fantasies about “any day now.” An exercise in stating the obvious even. Ray Kurzweil tells us that our Xbox, that we play Deus Ex on, will rival the capabilities of the human brain by 2020, and we say “Well obviously” because it doesn’t sound like a revolutionary forecast; it sounds trivial. After all look at history: There’s a clear trend. Exponential progress. Fifty years ago, communications satellites were only just coming out and before that: stone tools. Now look at where we are. You’re reading this.

And so it is we believe, similar to Adam Smith, in a kind of “invisible hand” guiding the course of civilisation. Where the actual passage of time is synonymous with the advance of technology. In the same way that we could foretell the coming of dawn tomorrow, we foretell that things get better over the years. All we have to do is pull up a seat, sit back and watch and wait. And “any day now” Santa Claus will show up on his hoverboard and give us our cyberpunk toys. (A good song that encapsulates this idea is “The Future Soon” by Jonathan Coulton.)

Except this is just an illusion.

It is no law of the universe that technology should get better over time. There’s no reason why there ought to be progress. Unfortunately for us, reality does not favour the latter half of Hume’s is-ought problem. Consider: it’s perfectly possible that, at some point in humanity’s history, such as when Galileo was working out that Copernicus was right, some virus could have got lucky and killed everyone. Or perhaps we could’ve been out competed thousands of years by another species. Turning our heads in the other time direction: Perhaps the ignorant will get themselves to the top of the hierarchy and enforce stagnation. Perhaps we’ll discover at the last moment that we’re in for another extinction event.

The point is: Progress does not just happen. And it won’t be “any day now.” Reflect on how we’ve got this far. How did society reach this apex? It is not thanks to some invisible hand making computers and antibiotics spring out of the ground. Technology is this good entirely because of the work of individuals. At some time, someone, somewhere decided that they were going to spend the time that they had investigating or inventing. You are able to navigate to this page precisely because Tim Burners Lee realised that hypertext would make everything easier. You can visit the world’s first website and web server at 

Indeed the Internet only exists because some physicists were interested in light. We must realise that the only reason why society changes or advances is because real, individual people decide to do something constructive with there time in the real world. And like the proverbial butterfly beating its wings, a few people may bring on the Singularity.

So it depresses me ever so slightly when I visit transhumanist themed websites and find people fantasizing about all the cool stuff we’ll be able to do “any day now” and telling everyone about their fantasy. If we just fantasize then there will be no progress. Our fantasies will remain only fantasies. Therefore it is not good enough to tell people about “any day now.” We don’t just need to be like people that advance technology. We need to be the people that advance technology. If we want progress – if we want bionic eyes, bulletproof skin and designer babies - we will have to make progress. If that is the reality that you want; make that reality. You have time. You’re using some of that time reading this. What else could you be doing? Are there still things that you don’t know or understand? Do you want to stay ignorant? Do you have unrealised ideas that have been in your head for years? Why haven’t they been realised? Could you realise them? Have you tried? Are you going to try? When?

Too often I suspect that those of us who like to think they are “pro-future” are really only engaging ritualistically as though this is a fashion trend. Fashion trends die out. You can compare it to the the person who thinks that they are a kind person but ultimately they heartlessly pass the beggar by, like everybody else. That person isn’t going to be taking up the “good Samaritan” role any time soon. And like that person, it is no good just thinking about the march of science and technology. The only person your thoughts affect is yourself. You need to act. It is physical action in the real world that actually changes things.

The day is not going to come where you are rewarded by some messiah for making a show of support. Unless you are actually contributing your time in a substantive way, you are just another person using resources and spending time. Perhaps you think of yourself as an activist. If this is the case, when were you last advocating? What did you do? Hand out flyers? Cosplay at a convention? The question is always: Can I do more? Remember that if you don’t take the opportunity now – in the present - “any day” might never come.

It is said that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. It is giants that have brought us all of this progress.

Well, it is time to grow up.    


Love the exhortation to action . . . . but as for direction of the universe . . . .

By Mark Waser on Jan 24, 2013 at 7:21am

You have reached wisdom beyond your years, young man. You’ve seen a lot earlier in life than I did the utter futility of this whole transhumanist fantasy in the absence of feasible goals.

As Robert Ettinger wrote late in his pre-cryosuspension life, “If wishing doesn’t work, try working.”

Well, get off your asses, then, and DO SOMETHING. Kim Suozzi rests in liquid nitrogen now, thanks in part to my efforts. What have any of you done lately of practical consequence? Or do you just intend to waste the rest of your youth playing transhumanist versions of Halloween?

By Mark Plus on Jan 24, 2013 at 8:40am

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By Jherok Teijeiro on Jan 24, 2013 at 8:50am

I appreciate the positive comments, thank you.

By Reeve Armstrong on Jan 24, 2013 at 9:54am

Yeah, great article.  I agree, we need to actually be taking practical steps to push change and technological development.

Just for starters, we need to be more politically active, to push the govenrment to put more resources into science and technology, into education and research, and to push the government to get out of the way of progress by pushing through patent reform and streamlining the FDA approval process.  In order to do that, we need to convince more people to understand how important technology is.  We also need to fight against anti-science political movements, like the creationists trying to get science out of our schools, or the anti-vaccine people, ect.  That kind of movement taking control of the political system is one of the few things that could really stifle progress.

We need to work towards the elimination of poverty; the “rising billion” will do more to push technological growth as they become more connected and more educated.

We need to keep developing the internet, the global brain, to be more then a social networking tool, useful as that is; something like the Wikipedia project has done more to aid the dissemination of human information then anything since the printing press, and that was (and is) almost all unpaid volunteers.

As for what I personally am doing to push forward human progress; I’m currently working to become a high school math teacher. smile

By Yosarian on Jan 24, 2013 at 4:18pm

In case the ‘70s was before your time, back then it was realised by many that progress wasn’t, and isn’t, automatic—btw it would seem v. few at a site such as would have ever thought progress was automatic.
I’m merely going to be a 2nd rate writer, but perhaps a first class activist. We shall see. Don’t any of you concern yourselves with the Life Trajectories of others, only with your own goals and your families’ and friends’ goals; those whom you have little regard for are none of your concern.

By Alan Brooks on Jan 24, 2013 at 9:48pm

Calls to action are all well and good, but I can’t help but wonder if a part of the problem is simply that the average transhumanist simply doesn’t know “what” to do.
Actual, practical ways to forward transhumanist goals are simply absent, beyond “get a degree”.
I’m more than willing to, say, distribute pamphlets, or join a protest, or sign a petition… but these things need to exist first.

By Harry Dishman on Jan 25, 2013 at 4:47am

Reeve fantastical transhumanists are being confronted with the views or realist transhmanists like you, myself and others. We are making their heads spin. This is progress in the dialectic of what is becoming of ‘transhumanism’ as a social movement. Without a transition towards more reality based thinking about where the future is going, transhumanism will eventially die off or ghettoize itself as one of many social movement consigned to occultism in the dustbin of social. History.

With transitional thinking transhumanism may thrive. Zeev

By zeev on Jan 25, 2013 at 9:52am

Good news—for radicals at any rate—- is that irrespective of transhumanism things can be changed (for better and worse). In the ‘60s- ‘70s, many changed things by merely doing what they wanted to: the hedonic imperative. The zeitgeist wasn’t changed much by those protesting, but, rather, those who lived more authentic lives (three days at Woodstock perhaps changed the era more than the years of radicalism from 1965- ‘71). Naturally it was rather superficial and had little or nothing to do with progress however did demonstrate how one can change Life merely by living the life one wants to and encouraging others.
In other words, there’s no promise—yet there is encouragement.

By Alan Brooks on Jan 25, 2013 at 10:06pm

While I agree with the general end message, that is “work your butt off and contribute to make the world a better place”, I don’t think the situation is so dire as described here.
Complex systems can be very robust. Think about the phenomenon of life. The Earth underwent very dramatic changes in the last 4 billion years and there time when the entire life on Earth could have been wiped out (snowball Earth events for example). But it didn’t it, and it was not just luck.
In fact, life didn’t just thrive but it evolved in more sophisticated and complex forms.
Consciousness, civilization, technology are all expressions of these advanced form of life that have their own independent trajectories.
They are robust, adaptive, evolving and while individual contribute to their development if an Einstein, Tesla or Steve Jobs don’t come up with a particular innovation or invention somebody else eventually would, maybe few years later but it will happen anyway.
Also fantasies are important, the enthusiasm for science and what the promises the future held in the years after the war was a fundamental cultural milieu that supported and allowed space exploration. Even dreaming by school children is a driver for innovation, in fact, I think, it is more important than the single discoveries and innovations themselves.

By Giovanni Santostasi on Jan 27, 2013 at 9:50am

Giovanni, you Got It- there’s nothing to add to what you wrote above save to repeat there’s no promises, only encouragement. Religions can promise, not us. As Churchill, we promise blood sweat toil and tears—the rest are options.

By Alan Brooks on Jan 27, 2013 at 7:11pm

“It is physical action in the real world that actually changes things.”

The illusion is to ‘think therefore I am.”  The reality is to ‘act therefore I am.”
The future will require knowing the difference!

By robert landbeck on Feb 16, 2013 at 3:30am

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