Straw Dogs: 5. Non-Progress

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

The chapter begins with a conciliatory tone that I would appreciate to be more widely used through the book:

Anaesthetic dentistry is an unmixed blessing. So are clean water and flush toilets. Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition.

Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does not nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. (p. 155)

wow! It is reasonable, it is understandable, Now we can begin to talk.

He tries to give us examples supporting this claim. First, he presents us with the origins of agriculture and the neolithic revolution. In some paragraphs that made me wonder if we had gone back to Diamond (one of his sources, by the way) he presents the thesis that agriculture was a forced step for humanity but it represented an unmitigated disaster in every measure of human well-being. The underlying point here is that social changes come by necessity and imposition of competing societies and almost never because they improve the situation of humans. This was, by the way, one of my comments to Diamond’s theory of the creation of states because of its ability to reduce violence.

After arguing that Neolithic was no progress, he then talks about the industrial and the information (current) revolution. And here he begins to loose his temper again.

Religious apocalysites apart, there are two kind of ideological currents that predict the near end of the world. The Malthusians, who see the depletion of resources as a cause of ecological collapse, and the ones who see the destruction of our world coming from the increased complexity that technology is creating. Two much power in the hands of apes and a synchronising of the risk worldwide. I am from the second brand and feel very uncomfortable whenever Mr Malthus comes back from the tomb. Mr Gray seems to have in his mind a confused mix of everything and every possible argument that he can use against progress is used.

So he comes to talk about economics and begins to talk about vices and virtues, I am not sure he really understand the point. Economic progress means that few people today are needed to do the things that were done before. And the ones that become free have to invent something to do. And this may be prostitution or writing a new translation of the Iliad. Drug design or video games or leading a neo-Christian sect. Does he really think that we are more depraved than previous generations? That would be progress! But unfortunately, there is no progress.

He clearly sees some things right:

The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – hough it is busier that ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless. (p. 160)

Which is a brilliant sentence. Then you have:

In Europe and Japan, bourgeois life lingers on. In Britain and America it has become the stuff of theme parks. The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford. (p. 161)

Which, again, is probably right. He then presents us with that utopian thinkers that have to tried to create a society without work from medieval centuries to the big party Paris ’68. And I don’t understand again what does that have to do with progress. I hope that there is more in these poor people than that what Gray explains about them because from his words they look like a bunch of idiots.

The final sections are about artificial intelligence and the impact that it can have on humanity. And again I don’t follow him. Is hi criticizing some people who see in the AI the final salvation of human race? I don’t see the point. Some light will be welcome.


One thought on “Straw Dogs: 5. Non-Progress

  1. Yep. Again a chapter with interesting ideas, provoking thoughts, but also some half-cooked parts. Your quote from the beginning sumarizes his main thesis quite well, and I more or less buy it.
    I deeply enjoyed the tirade against Situationism. He captures very well the general inconsistency of the movement and presented the surprising Christian roots of the movement. The criticism makes sense as they are usually presented as brilliant people that were beyond the usual schools of thought. Gray makes it clear that they are only another type of supporters of the progress myrh.
    His points on AI are difficult to follow, but yes I guess hevis addressing the techno-utopians that think that algorithms will save the world.

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