Thursday, October 29, 2015

Progress, or Civilization, As We Know It

Then what is the answer? – Not to be deluded by dreams …

I. A Narrative

Before the advent of civilization as we know it, human lives were nasty, brutish, and short. We lived, in fact, more like animals, unable to exert any control over our environment, fearing death and privation at every turn. We had only what nature supplied in its raw form, wild animals and uncultivated plants for food and clothes, caves for shelter, broken stone for tools.
In this natural state, we ourselves were brutal and violent. The strong could prey upon the weak, might made right, and there was no other law. We had no incentive to develop higher culture, because we were always consumed with protecting ourselves and anything we might produce could easily be taken away.
At some point there was a shift, and we decided to settle in one place. We took control of our food by managing it through agriculture and domestication, and we took control of ourselves through laws and social contracts. This made us safer and more willing to cooperate, and so we were able to innovate in art, technology, and society. We multiplied. We began to dream of grander edifices than the small buildings we had made. And certain men among us rose up as talented leaders around which we could organize ourselves.
Of course there was still danger from less civilized persons. So we built walls to surround our living space, and we built massive buildings to house the people, and to demonstrate that we could.
We had created the first city, and in it there bustled all the activity expected from cities. We made further laws to govern it, we divided up our labor to be more efficient and masterful, we brought the fruits of our agricultural labors into the city to trade. We invented writing to keep track of our possessions and who owed what to whom. Soon, in the natural course of things, we created money, debt, and taxes. We had the time and space to develop high art, to further refine our architecture, to deepen our studies of the mysteries of religion.
We prospered. We were safer, better fed, more productive, happier. Seeing how we lived, the less civilized began to emulate our way of life. In this way, civilization spread, out of the fertile crescent, around the Mediterranean, into Europe and Asia.
As more of us joined the ranks of the civilized, we developed higher and higher technology. We sailed around the globe, began the project of exploring every dark corner. We often encountered people living in squalor, naked, as animals essentially, like the stone age people we once had been. Though they had to give up some of the older ways to which they were accustomed, it was clear that our high technology was the wave of the future rolling in. Though there were sacrifices to be made surely, in the broader flow of history they were necessary to allow for forward progress.
Over a few centuries, technology and social systems developed apace. The inherent value of every human life became apparent, and we worked to bring the products of modern culture to everyone. We began to conquer war, disease, and famine. Around the world, people were living longer, healthier, happier lives. We performed incredible feats of science and engineering, gaining insight into the unseen building blocks of the universe, its vast expanses. We began to dream of taking our civilization to other worlds.
And here we are. We are the height of the human project. There have certainly been some hiccups along the way, some engineering problems, some steps backward. But technology has advanced so quickly in recent times, we have things now that would have been unimaginable fifty, twenty, even ten years ago. That technology will surely permeate every part of life, and iron out any kinks.
We’re on the cusp: all this time, civilization has been steadily advancing, making life safer, happier, more just. If we can just stick it out over this hump, everything will be perfect.