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Courage and Progress: Proceeding Boldly into the Unknown

By: Contributor - May 26, 2014, 12:01 pm

EspañolBy Ángel Soto and Rafael Rincón

progressProgress, perhaps one of the most powerful ideas in Western culture, has accompanied us for centuries. First, with the introduction of agriculture thousands of years ago. Later came the industrial revolution, an explosion of technological ingenuity and high performance that bent the long and straight line standard of the human living upwards, increasing people’s income and life expectancy in just a few decades.

Today, at lighting speed, globalization moves us; technology increases our life expectancy, makes our lives easier, and connects us to a network of countless lines of light, each of them conductors of infinite information that knows no borders. There is no doubt that we live in a better world.

In this third wave, as Alvin Toffler would say, of the post-industrial and knowledge-based society, the cogs and mechanical arms are not fundamental, but instead the human mind is. Today we do not accuse inventors and scientists of heresy and witchcraft — let alone even burn them at the stake. On the contrary, we want more patents.

We marvel in and are fascinated by advances in technology and health, but each time we are surprised less due to how accustomed we are to change. We believe that almost nothing is impossible, because we have finally fulfilled the vision of Da Vinci and the lunar dream of Julius Verne. Science Fiction does not surprise us as much as in the past, since the famous work by Karel Čapek, R.U.R (1920) — who for the first time employed the word robot in the way that we commonly understand it — only draws our attention due to the audacious idea of robots being introduced at such an early period during the last century.

Therefore, we demand that Hollywood make more imaginative and daring content, as opposed to focusing its attention on bringing better special effects. In short, we no longer “fantasize,” because the blurry limit between fantasy and reality seems much less difficult to cross. Even then, there are those who fear our creative capacity and envision — at times with apocalyptic pessimism — our very own destruction.

So far, it could be believed that we have only advanced material, but it is not like that. The expansion of knowledge and the quality of life have increased to such a point that today we look for happiness and significance in other things. We want new experiences, and we support causes that centuries or decades ago did not merit attention, such as protection of the environment and of animals.

But we have advanced because we have overcome enormous challenges. Progress is not a linear path of continuous successes and the elimination of problems. Two world wars, in the 20th century alone, when we obtained the most surprising achievements of mankind, are enough to understand the aforementioned path of progress.

So, do we celebrate and continue moving forward? Or do we stop, fearful of our very own ingenuity? Six approaches on the idea of progress clarify the matter.

Fist and foremost, progress is living better. Higher life expectancy and more happiness thanks to goods and services that are increasingly more beneficial for our health, education, and entertainment. Progress is having better jobs, income, and technologies that make our lives easier; likewise, it is seeing that we are better than our fathers and grandfathers. Finally, it is being hopeful, knowing that our children will have even higher standards of living.

Second, progress is the intelligent change and positive consequence of trial and error, but it is not the change itself nor does all change lead to progress. We progress when we identify failures and correct them, when we make adjustments and recognize what works and what doesn’t. This is human intelligence in action.

Third, it is the free transfer of knowledge. It is when the lesser-developed societies learn from the most advanced ones, acquiring their advancements. We should not see globalization as domination and backwardness, but as the most impressive historical opportunity for the circulation of ideas and knowledge.

Fourth, it is pluralism and liberty. “Are we witnessing the homogenization of the world?” Johan Norberg asks in his book In Defense of Global Capitalism. Are we more uniform and culturally more poor? No. We are more increasingly more pluralistic!

On a daily basis, diversity and variety are expanding like never before in history; it is much easier to have in our reach an immense range of alternative cultures. Our cities are multicolored, and there are more opportunities so that diverse options, no matter how small or unknown they be, can be expressed and shown for thousands of kilometers.

Could we find Peruvian, Thai, or Japanese food in Santiago 30 or 40 years ago? Did we have the current cultural variety, for example, in movies and theaters? Did we see our streets full of people from all over the world? Was our culture known of abroad? To see a chef on television recommend merkén, so typical of Chilean cuisine, is significant.

Fifth, progress stimulates personal fulfillment and provides a world of opportunities; it is material but it is also filled with intangible satisfactions and benefits. We are happier when we enjoy liberty and achieve goals with our means and efforts. We live it when we feel what truly is dignity and hope; we see it in the migratory movements that attract people towards progress, while failure and stagnation drives them away. Chile is a good example of this.

Sixth, the opportunities reveal an open future and one that is yet to be built. Unlike development, which could be “more of the same,” progress confronts the unknown and the possibility of something different. It does not limit itself to the growth of what already exists, but it deals with the appearance of mysterious things and the opening of new paths and options.

We cannot foretell what has yet to come with precision, because chance and human action can produce tremendous inflections. New problems and challenges appear, but so do new benefits and opportunities. Here, mainly the preferences, desires, and projects of millions of diverse people and carriers of incalculable amounts of information come into play.

To progress thus implies persevering courageously in the face of the world to come, that is not set in stone, that is not condemned to an unbending fate. It will depend on what we do with our minds and hands, our decisions and actions. Hence, to continue, it is vital to have clarity with respect to the ideas and institutions that have worked in our favor. Recognizing them is part of “human intelligence in action.”

Angel Soto is a historian, member of the Mont Pelerin Society. Professor at the Universidad de los Andes (Chile) and the PhD Program in History of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (Guatemala). He currently works as program director at Foundation for Progress.

Rafael Rincón-Urdaneta Z. has a degree in business administration and a Master of International Studies and PhD in American Studies. He currently works as a researcher for Foundation for Progress.

This article first appeared on La Tercera.