When is Progress Really Progress?

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When is Progress Really Progress?

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When is progress not really progress? That might seem like an odd question.

Progress is good almost by definition, right?

Perhaps. I’m not so sure.

In all living things, in systems, in societies, in technology, we see a fundamental tendency towards increasing complexity.

Think of how much more complex modern society is when compared with only a couple of decades ago.

Now, of course, progress brings wonderful things; amazing convenience, a plethora of options, vast opportunity - yet I wonder if our definition of progress is frankly a bit too broad.

Progress trap?

A few years back I tried to produce a documentary film with a tribe on an island deep in the South Pacific. I travelled there for a month with one other guy (on a shoestring budget) and lived on a tiny island with a self-sufficient tribe that had previously had almost no contact with the outside world.

It was an odd experience, to say the least. We lived on an island in a lagoon with a tribe who’d never seen a white person before and whose ancestors were headhunters and collected human skulls. I nearly drowned on the way there too, but I digress.

Of all the things that have stuck with me, one of them is this:

Before we went, we were advised, in no uncertain terms, that we must not teach the tribe certain things so as not to jeopardize their way of life...

“You must not teach them how to fish with nets, don’t even explain the concept. You mustn’t show them anything like this” - our advisor on the mainland said.

When I worked out why it really made me think.

The man who learns how to fish with a rod, weights and bait - I guess he’s made ‘real progress’.

But what if the tribe learned to string a net between two boats, weigh it and drag it along the seabed. What would that be? Would that be progress?

It would of course be a vastly more efficient way to catch a boatload of fish.

But what if you make so much ‘progress’ that you feast with more fish than you could ever eat today? What if, as a result, you starve tomorrow when you kill off your only food source?  

The tribe lived in a lagoon and didn’t at all understand the concept of fish stocks, sustainable fishing and the like. Our advisor was convinced that they would literally fish themselves to death if they knew how to…

In short: this is what we could call a ‘progress trap’.

What happens when we make so much progress we actually go backwards?

I hate to say that I think the modern world is full of this.

Monoculture is great until we find that the source gene is susceptible to a pathogen and we lose literally miles upon miles of crops...

Just in time delivery is fantastic, until there’s a blip in the supply chain.

The fact that a dishwasher can notify me on an app when the cycle is complete is no doubt useful, but not ideal when you can’t clean anything because the ‘software update failed’.

While that’s broad and philosophical and (hopefully) interesting, the same idea I think can be applied to everyday life.

When are we really making progress? When are we really making things more efficient and when are we creating the illusion of progress while risk lurks within?

This is something I try to always ask myself when creating increasing complexity in life, and in business. It may be a useful heuristic for you too.

About the author

George Cooper

George brings deep expertise in marketing, with an emphasis on building online relationships through meaningful, targeted content and messaging and innovative products. He drives Absolute Engagement's marketing and product design efforts.
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