Progress is a relatively recent concept and reality, closely linked to the Enlightenment, and especially to industrial revolutions. It has come to an end. What will replace it is unclear, but what it is is that developed economies and societies, and those that are developing, have to think about something else, because they will have to live differently. We are facing a crisis of civilization, of course, although not only, Western.
Naturally, many things are progressing, as Hans Rosling has very well collected (Factfulness)Life expectancy has increased almost everywhere (although with great differences, even by neighborhoods in large developed cities). Billions have emerged from poverty – and the absolute has been reduced – in the world, especially by China. A global middle class has been generated, which in part is now in crisis in the face of the dissociation between economic growth and the welfare of societies, with a crisis of expectations that leads to generational conflicts. Illiteracy is down. Women are emancipating themselves, at different speeds, in almost all societies. The medicine advances. There are less wars and violence (Steven Pinker). We have communication skills among human beings with whom we had never dreamed of before (although it also fosters high levels of control – by governments and companies – of isolation, solitude, and living in ideological bubbles). And the technological revolution, both digital and robotics and biotechnology, are allowing not only to do things that were previously done with human effort, but others that had never been achieved, even to change the human race. Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari calls it, although we may end up not becoming but creating new types of gods.
The idea that the distinction between humans, nature and machines has blurred is rapidly penetrated
But we don’t talk about that kind of progress. But the foundations of what we had called “progress,” upon which modernity was built, are being broken. Which were? We will limit ourselves to two. The first was that we believed that nature was inexhaustible and that we could transform it, disrupt it and squeeze it without limits. For progress was in terms of mastery over nature. But we have exhausted it with a growth model that now has to come to an end because it has harmful effects of many different kinds. One, perhaps the main one, is global warming and climate change that is causing disastrous consequences. It is the first global risk, according to this year’s analysis of the World Economic Forum (WEF). It also responds to the previous paradigm of separation between human, machine and nature on which the idea of progress and modernity had been based, on which the central places were the factory (meeting point of the human and the machine, with an impact on the nature) and the office, but they are emptying, as now those places that are the shopping centers are being emptied of meaning.
Except in some sectors, the idea that this distinction between humans, nature and machines has blurred is rapidly and effectively penetrating. This latest edition of the Davos Economic Forum, except for Donald Trump with the opposite message, has been an example of a change of perspective and mentality in this regard, although it remains to be seen how it will really translate into practice. Not only must we recognize that being human, nature and machines are no longer separated, but to link our destinies again we have to change the way we live, and not only in the developed world. This change entails personal and social costs, some of which, for example, have been reflected in the protests of the yellow vests in France, perhaps the first against an ecological transition that led to raising the price of diesel with costly effects in rural environments where the car seems indispensable.
It will mean a change of model, of growth without consideration for the nature on which the concept of progress was based, and of the way of life, even of food, that we have lived. With two additives. The first, without reaching the questioned singularity, is that the machines will overcome us in some important aspects, again disrupting the idea of progress that focused on the human, although we are also already going to augmented beings and transhumans. That has little to do with the idea of progress in which we have lived. In addition, advances in biotechnology will allow us to directly manipulate genetic loads, which can lead us (to ourselves and to machines) to change nature, general and human, from its most basic interior, something for which we are not prepared ethically, socially or politically. Science advances, without a doubt, also technology, and perhaps it helps us to correct that destruction of nature – can we continue talking about Natural Sciences? – to which the old idea of progress has led us.
Globalization may have hit a ceiling, to make way for the planetary
The second rupture of the traditional idea of progress responds to the revolution in communications and data, and in general to digitalization. The progress was closely linked to the explosion of the media (press, first, radio and television). Now we are in a situation of end of separation not only between information and misinformation (old issue, although now exacerbated by hypercommunication), but between the real and the virtual, an issue that includes the Onlife Manifesto by Luciano Floridi and others (2015). This line of separation, which in part Plato already raised with the myth of the cave, and with the arrival of the Internet before social networks, is being erased quickly, with consequences for our social, personal, intellectual and political life. Of course, for the functioning of democracies and non-democracies to change, to disappear, this difference between the real and the virtual, and between the truth – or the search for truth – and non-truth, in a situation of superabundance of information that, however, does not let us know more, and leads us to a society populated by loners, despite hypercommunication. The moral questions that arise are not separated and jump from the real to the virtual sphere, and vice versa, generating confusion.
It is not that the end of progress leads to a new conservatism, because it is not about conserving, preserving, going back even in terms of nature, but about creating a new future for which we still do not really have concepts and words to think about it For this change we need what H. G. Wells, always anticipating, called “universal education”, in the double sense of for all and for everything, that is, centered on the “unifying facts of the world.” Well, globalization may have hit a ceiling to make way for the planetary.
Andrés Ortega He is an associate senior researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute and director of the Ideas Observatory.
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