Essays, Analyses and Meditations

Back to my essays | Back to the Philosophy pages | Author


  • Change is the oldest of all philosophical topics
  • Today "change" is often interpreted as "evolution".
  • The discussions on evolution have tended to shift from understanding the past to understanding the future. The reason is that evolution has been recognized as a general principle that applies to all levels of organization in the universe (societies, economies, languages, ideas, galaxies). Therefore we are tempted to apply the paradigm of Physics: if we understand how it works, we can predict the future.
  • The difference between change and evolution should be that evolution applies to populations over a period of time that is greater than the lifetime of any of its individuals. Therefore the growth of an individual is not "evolution" but merely "change", and the transformation of a nation is not "evolution" but merely "change", and the refining of somebody's idea is merely change and not evolution. The word "evolution" should apply to the changes that occur between one generation and another of individuals, or when nations rise and fall, or when ideas move from one mind to another.
  • Alas, the definition of "individual" is not trivial. I am a body. But i am also a super-organism of limbs, which are super-organisms of cells, which are super-organisms of molecules, which are... At the same time i am also a part in a super-organism that is in turn part of a super-organism and so forth (society, the Earth, the Solar System and so forth).
  • The word "evolution" (compared with "change") also carries the implicit notion that there is a "direction" in change, which most people like to identify with "progress". For example, most people think of "evolution" (in biology, society, technology, etc) as an increase both in rate of change and in complexity.
  • However, this perception that we live in an age of rapid change and increasing complexity (and, generally speaking, of progress) is debatable, and mostly based on the fact that we know the present much better than we know the past.
  • One century ago in a relatively short time the world adopted the car, the airplane, the telephone, the radio and the record, while at the same time the visual arts went through Impressionism, Cubism and Expressionism, while at the same time Quantum Mechanics and Relativity happened in science, while at the same time office machines (cash registers, adding machines, typewriters) and appliances (dishwasher, refrigerator, air conditioning) dramatically changed the way people worked and lived. The years since World War II have witnessed a lot of innovation, but most of it has been gradual and incremental. We still drive cars and make phone calls. Cars still have four wheels and planes still have two wings. We still listen to the radio and watch television. While the Computer and Genetics have introduced powerful new concepts, and computers have certainly changed lifestyles, i wonder if any of these "changes" compare with the notion of humans flying in the sky and of humans located in different cities talking to each other. Every generation believes that they live in a unique era, but our era might be a lot less unique than some previous eras. There has been rapid and dramatic change before.
  • The acceleration in complexity that we perceive might also be somewhat illusory, and therefore the "progress" that we take for granted might not be so true. One can argue that there is a lot of "regress", not "progress".
  • In fact, the whole history of human civilization is a history of trying to reduce the complexity of the world. Civilization is about creating stable and simple lives in a stable and simple environment. By definition, what we call "progress" is a reduction in complexity, although to each generation it appears as an increase in complexity. Overall, living has become simpler (not more complicated) than it was in the stone age.
  • At all levels of organization one can find evidence of regress. Bacteria seem to be more resilient than humans and much more likely to survive an environmental or nuclear catastrophe. Several authoritarian regimes are doing better than democracies. Social networking software can hardly be called "progress" over traditional face-to-face friendship. Does typing sentences create stronger friendship than hanging out together at the pub every other evening? Do on-line dating systems lead to stronger relationships than traditional multi-year courtships? Has the complexity increased or decreased for the man who will have 20 girlfriends over a lifetime instead of raising a family of five as he would have done a few generations ago? We listen to lo-fi music on computers and digital music players, as opposed to the expensive hi-fi stereos that were commonplace a generation ago. Mobile phone conversations are frequently of poor quality compared with the old land lines. Emails are mostly written in poor English compared with the old-fashioned letters on paper. You can potentially send a message to thousands of people, but very few of them will actually see it (and even fewer will read it) because they are flooded with messages from everybody to everybody. Economies have become wildly unstable and opaque. Companies and governments have automated their customer-support services, but the result (the fact that we have to keep "pressing" digits in order to get to the information we need) is hardly "progress" over the old-fashioned operator who would give us the answer in a second. There are technological innovations that are puzzling at best: now that software requires a "mouse", we basically need three hands to work on a computer. Digital cameras allow us to take thousands of pictures that we don't need, but the high number of pictures is precisely the reason why nobody looks at other people's pictures anymore. There are actually fewer long-term pictures. The automation of cash registers has resulted in longer lines to pay: it basically takes longer to pay than to find the item you want to buy (and you cannot buy it at all if there is a power outage). You can find all sorts of information on the Web and therefore customer support has become a process of self-discovery: "go and look for the answer to your question" (as opposed to "call this number and an expert will assist you"). And of course the colossal supermarket that sells you generic food hardly compares in quality with the old-fashioned family-run specialty shop that was handpicking the best food (food stores routinely complain that people can't tell good quality from bad quality anymore, i.e. the consumer has been literally de-trained by supermarkets).
  • The word "progress" is ambiguous, and it doesn't necessarily relate to technological progress. For example, women now have a lot more sexual partners than ever in history. That qualifies as progress from a strictly numerical point of view. Whether this also gives them the same quality of relationships as in the past is not clear.
  • The "regress" in quality is also due to the level of sophistication reached by marketing techniques. Marketing is a scary human invention: it consists in erasing the memory of good things so that people will buy bad things. There would be no market for new films or books if everybody knew about the thousands of good films and books of the past: people would spend their entire life watching and reading the (far superior) classics instead of the new films and books, most of which are mediocre copies. In order to have people watch a new film or read a new book, the marketing strategists have to make sure that people will never know about old films and books. It is often ignorance that makes people think they just witnessed "progress" in any publicized event. Often people call "progress" the fact that a company is getting rich by selling poor quality. The "progress" is in the marketing, not in the goods.
  • What we are witnessing is a general regression in quality. The "acceleration" of complexity is in reality an acceleration of low quality. The complexity has not changed much. Having 200 friends on a social networking software is not necessarily more "complex" than having two really good friends: in fact, it is a simplification because we feel very little obligation towards those 200 "friends". Downloading 2,000 songs on a digital music player is hardly an increase in complexity if people have even less time than before to listen to that music, and if the music is crap. And i fail to see the acceleration in complexity in a biological world where the number of species is decreasing and the vast majority of big animals are domesticated or trapped in natural reserves, and smaller animals are routinely exterminated.
  • In the early days of the Internet (1980s) it was not easy to use the available tools but any piece of information on the Internet was written by very competent people. Basically, the Internet only contained reliable information written by experts. Today there might be a lot more data available, but the vast majority of what travels on the internet is: a) disinformation, b) "spam" and c) commerce. It is not true that in the age of search engines it has become easier to search for information. Just the opposite: the huge amount of irrelevant and misleading data is making it more difficult to find the one webpage that has been written by the one great expert on the topic. In the old days his webpage was the only one that existed.
  • It is not only the complexity of the "dataverse" that has increased: what has certainly increased and is accelerating is the noise.
  • Every generation thinks that change is "progress". This must be a genetic predisposition to changing the world that we inherit from previous generations. But change for the sake of change is not necessarily "progress" (most changes in my software applications have negative, not positive effects, and we all know what it means when our bank announces "changes" in policies). If i randomly change all the cells in your body, i may boast of "very rapid and dramatic change" but not necessarily of "very rapid progress". Assuming that any change equates with progress is not only optimism: it's the recipe for ending up with exactly the opposite of progress.
  • At every level or organization (biological, social, technological, political, economic) one can find evidence of "regress", although it is frequently marketed as "progress".

See A timeline of Scientific and Technological Progress for examples of fields in which progress has fallen short.

See also the chapter on "Progress" in my article Automation and Jobs in the Age of Intelligent Machines

Bibliography on the debate on the stagnation of innovation:

(If you didn't even know that there is a debate about the stagnation of innovation, you just proved my point).