Thursday, August 8, 2013

Unwinding Progress


A dragonfly studies me from the clothesline

The conversation about Progress as a civil religion continues at the Archdruid Report.

In the spirit of his critique that Progress is falling, I'll no longer refer to Progress as a grand narrative, civil religion, or ideology.  Instead I'll start calling it a "tradition." As in, 

"traditions of progress are being increasingly called into question by young people, who want more practical and up to date ways of dealing with the world." 

"steeped in the time-worn traditions of Progress, nation-states were woefully unprepared to deal with a changing world."

There's something elegant about using a tradition’s own most insidious insinuations against it.

This week, the Archdruid continued his lecture about the difficulties of unwinding our traditions of Progress, making a target of scientists, who are arguably some of its high priests and beneficiaries.  As the broken promises about jetpacks and flying cars become an iconic refrain for an anxious population, he argues that big, institutional science is liable to go down with its church.

This was my rejoinder:

A couple of years ago I was research director for a project that looked into to how to build support for the arts as a public good. One of the striking findings was that the old narrative of the arts as central to “culture” (in its original sense of something that grows and progresses) had vanished from the public consciousness almost without a trace (in the Midwestern US in any case). This formerly widely held idea that arts could lead to a kind of moral or other kind of “elevation” survived only among a small stratum of the elite. For the rest, the arts might be interesting or entertaining or a chance for people to show off a skill, but it wasn’t a public matter and certainly not important to the “development” of your city or your nation. In effect, “Progress”, had died out in this realm practically without the public noticing.

In order to rebuild a sense of arts as a public good, we found that talking about the “ripple effect” of arts in a community brought people back on board. That is, art events – whether you cared to be there or not – made your community a better place to live, knit people together and enriched a shared conversation, and so on. It is a pivot that will warm an art booster’s heart, but it no longer has anything to do with Progress.

My point with this tangent, is that I strongly suspect that Progress is going to slip away from science as well, perhaps similarly unremarked by the public at large. And to the extent it persists, science, practical, useful science will be valued not as the heroic engine of Progress, but as a practice, and a method, and a toolkit that can make that community and that place that you value, better.

I’m a bad gardener, because I’m a bit too much of an experimenter, and tend to value a lesson learned more than a full basket of cucumbers -- but I’m sure if I had to buckle down I could use some science to create some more constructive ripples in my gardening community.