Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Progress is neither linear nor exponential

There are two progress lines to track for our society:

1. Finite implementations: technology, medicine, economics. This progress line is non-linear. However, it's not really exponential per se, either; it's more like a tree with divergent branches, some increasing, others decreasing, others still remaining unchanged.

For example, technological progress has been, on the whole, exponential, but with this 'progress' has come nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, and social malaise. Radiation poisoning, the bubonic plague, asbestos, slavery, coercion, and eye strain are problems that hunter-gatherers never had to contend with. Likewise, we generally don't have to worry about many of the ills of hunter-gatherers, like ticks or living with fractures. Cause and effect is nowhere near as simple as most make it out to be, and there is always the possibility that a new finite problem will come to occupy the niche of a previous finite problem that has since been solved.

2. Continuous problems: the human brain as it generates bad ideas/memes, cultural preconceptions, and genetically motivated desires and preferences. This progress line is actually the parent of the former, but has hardly changed in over fifty thousand years. We may now understand that slavery is a bad idea, but most of us have a long way to go before we realize that life is an intrinsically negative phenomenon with no purpose or mediator. For the most part, the 'problems' described by the former progress line deal with means to an end, while this progress line deals more with our actual values, reasons for existing, and other ends. If we fix these -- and somehow have absolute knowledge that they are fixed for good -- then we'll have fixed everything.

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