1/ The world is more materially abundant than ever, we’ve eliminated several diseases and lifted millions out of poverty.
Yet, people aren’t reporting higher levels of meaning or happiness.
2/ Why is this happening? Rising income or material abundance does not automatically lead to higher satisfaction. And not just at a global level, but also at a personal level. Why?
3/ What’s happening is nothing new. Humanity has always sold to itself the idea of progress. Any idea of progress, because it comes from our linear thinking, is always unidimensional but life is incomprehensibly multidimensional.
4/ When religions emerged, we were told that progress was in being moral and going to heaven. It’s as if nothing else mattered but devotion to God. Masses were convinced to hope for a better life in heaven after death.
5/ Science saw through this and gave hope of a better life within this life, before dying. After killing God, scientific progress gave rise to various isms: liberalism, feminism, capitalism, communism, fascism, patriotism, environmentalism, consumerism, and humanitarianism.
6/ These visions for a better world are nothing but religions in disguise.
Adherents of any ideology – including science – hope that the world will finally be a better place to live, only if everyone followed their ideology. Just like religions, the ones who disagree are ignorant.
7/ Actually, all ideas to improve the world are usually earnest. They start with pure intentions of fixing a specific flaw with the world.
8/ Capitalism started with freedom of choice. Environmentalism is all about care for nature. Feminism is about equality of both sexes.
These are good ideas, coming out of a pure intention to improve the world.
9/ The adherents to a particular set of ideas genuinely believe that they hold the keys to a utopia.
But as we’ve seen in the horrors of Soviet Russia, the dropping of nuclear bombs by the freedom-loving America, and marketing of lung-cancer including cigarettes, utopia is far from what humanity got when it adopted any such progressive vision.
10/ What went wrong? What got fucked up during the implementation of pure, well-intentioned, progressive ideas?
11/ The short answer is that progress is linear while reality is emergent.
As we collectively pursue progress, what we become angry about is the loss that we’re incapable of anticipating at the time of conceiving our progressive visions.
12/ For example, we may have bought into the idea of greatness and set ourselves to pursue it in our profession. In retrospect, it’s obvious that such career growth comes at a cost of social bonding with family but in anticipation of the future, all we see is a singular vision of greatness.
13/ What happens at an individual level also happens at the society level. Capitalism has given us all the riches, but it has taken away our closeness to the family, nature, and virtues.
14/ Because our brains love good stories, and good stories are about a few simple ideas, we buy into the idea that a particular worldview is better than another worldview.
Every time we think that if only we fix this specific problem, all will be well.
15/ Today we believe that only if there was a world government, everything would be sorted. Only if we stopped polluting, everything would be great. Or only if we implement universal basic income, we can finally declare Earth a utopia.
16/ However, all these visions will result in losses of things we cherish today which cannot be imagined or articulated. Same-day deliveries were great, but they took away social interaction. Science is great, but it created a void of meaning.
17/ Because of our limited cognitive capacity, we always underestimate the richness of our current interactions with the environment and with each other.
The loss of that richness is only obvious in retrospect.
18/ What’s interesting is that identification of a particular loss gives rise to another ideology. It’s as if things will finally get better only if humanity adopts a new philosophy in response to an old philosophy.
19/ Secular democracies were once great, but they lead to a loss of ethnic pride. Today, right-wing and populist movements are rising in response to it. If and when such philosophies succeed, something else will be lost and new philosophies will be proposed in response to those losses.
20/ If history is any guide, this cycle of hope never stops.
Our salvation is always just around the corner. From Christianity to communism to democratic, free-market society – everyone has promised a better world but what they’ve delivered is an underwhelming reality.
21/ The truth is that any singular intervention into the universe, human society, or even a single human nature always results in that singular metric improving while other aspects of reality rearrange themselves to accommodate that improvement.
22/ Did I mention we always underestimate the amount of details that reality has?
We want to go to the moon? It’ll come with carbon emissions. We want democracy? It’ll come with the forced acceptance of toxic views that we don’t agree with. We want fiercely independent men and women? It’ll come with a loss of benefits that marriages provide.
23/ So hope – which is a linear projection of our vision onto a complex, emergent reality – always disappoints.
Hope is like the Venice vacation that promised romantic Gandola rides but delivered it along with a million, sweating tourists.
24/ But what is life without hope? If you know that whatever you’re hoping for will disappoint, how do you really live your life? Without hope, isn’t life drab?
If you don’t know tomorrow will be better than today, why live at all?
25/ It’s true that without recognising something as better or worse, we risk falling into nihilism where everything is valueless and since nothing improves anyway, there’s no point in doing anything in life.
So does this mean we’re either delusional about hope or nihilistic about lack of it?
26/ No. This dichotomy arises only if we’ve bought into the gospel of progress.
We need to question whether progress is an appropriate word to describe the trajectory of humanity as a whole and a human life in particular.
27/ For hundreds of thousands of years in human evolution, things changed very little. People rarely saw any new invention, technology, or idea during their lifetimes.
28/ Gradually, the pace of change picked up. The steam engine came along, then computers, and today, we have hundreds of new apps uploaded on the App Store daily.
29/ What has picked up is the pace of change, and not the pace of progress. We’re evolved to be always dissatisfied and mourn the loss of things we had before.
So we notice things we lose when we ‘progress’. We notice the loss of our friends as we ‘progress’ professionally. We notice a loss of nature as we ‘progress’ materially.
30/ This is why I feel the word progress is so misleading.
To describe what really happens in complex, emergent systems such as humans or human societies, I’ve started preferring the term ‘unfolding’.
31/ So rather than saying career progress, I’d say career unfolding. Instead of demanding progress in life, I’d simply observe the unfolding of my life.
Adopting this term, we could finally be honest about what has happened in history and simply say that society unfolds from one idea to another.
32/ This unfolding of life or human society is not automatic but requires deliberate steering.
Steering is not automatic, blind or random. Rather it is a response to empathy for whatever the present moment is and whatever future gets unfolded.
33/ My suggestion of having empathy with the present moment might sound similar to the common suggestion of living in the present or accepting the present moment. However, empathy is different.
34/ Acceptance of the present moment means giving up on personal responsibility. Empathy with the present moment requires understanding that whatever is happening is emergent and is beyond good or bad.
35/ Empathy is recognising that things will never get better because they were never bad.
36/ Empathy is adopting a belief system not because it brings benefits to you or the world, but because it seems the right thing to do even when it brings you personal pain or harm.
37/ Empathy is acting in the world without an expectation of a better future for yourself or others.
38/ Empathy is following Gita when it recommends to never shirk action, but not lament bad outcomes and neither attribute good ones to yourself.
39/ Empathy is recognising that life is a multiplayer game where gameplay is emergent, nonlinear, and continuously shifting.
Just like Minecraft, there’s no winning in it, only doing. And that, as a player, all you can hope for is to put in an honest effort and have fun doing so.
40/ This essay was inspired by a new #book that I finished reading. It’s called Everything is Fucked. by Mark Manson. It’s a good book with many interesting ideas but I disagree with the last chapter on how AI will finally solve everything for humanity.
41/ Like all designed products our brain, AI will not capture the complex, emergent reality of humans. (See my previous essay on this).
That’s it for now. It’s high time we abandon the idea of progress and accept that humanity unfolds over time and all efforts of improvement come with a corresponding, unanticipated loss.Follow @paraschopra
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