If Everything is Progressing Like the Idea of Progress Suggests It Should Be, Why Does It Feel Like Things Are Going Well for Only A Few?

This past week, I chanced upon two mostly forgotten books, and probably would not have spent much time with either had not both mentioned—on the very first page—an event that itself has been mostly long forgotten: the Century of Progress Exposition that the city of Chicago staged in 1933-34 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

In The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science, Yale University chemical engineer professor C.C. Furnas lost no time in pointing out how disappointing and overblown the Hall of Science at the Chicago event was to many astute visitors.

Among his observations:

“They [visitors] found most of the loudspeakers on the grounds sadly out of adjustment and the television exhibitions to be more imagination than vision. They saw the latest, swiftest and safest airplanes on display, but during the Fair one sightseeing and one regular passenger plane fell in the vicinity of Chicago killing an even score of men and women.

“They saw exhibit after exhibit featuring the advance of modern medicine but were faced with a preventable and inexcusable outbreak of amebic dysentery, entering in two of the city’s leading hotels, which claimed 41 lives out of 721 cases….They saw a motor car assembly line in operation but, if they investigated carefully, they found that as mechanism for converting the potential energy of fuel into mechanical work the average motor car is only about 8 per cent efficient.

“They marveled at the lighting effects at night but, in talking the matter over with experts, they found that most of the lights were operating with an efficiency of less than 2 per cent.” There was much more—several more paragraphs, in fact—in the way of observations and cautions and laments from Professor Furnas based on his visit to the Century of Progress Exposition.

Bottom line to The Next Hundred Years: the Century of Progress wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Then I opened a copy of J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress and learned on the first page that the Century of Progress Exposition was partly why the Macmillan publishing house decided in 1932 to bring out an American edition of Cambridge historian Bury’s 1920 masterpiece of historical/economic analysis.

In it, Bury sought to pooh-pooh the idea that “the idea of progress” was a john-come-lately concept crystallized by self-promoting business people and thus was a rather superficial invention. He traced the roots of the idea back at least as far as St. Augustine in the Middle Ages (not that Augustine was a father of the idea of progress but rather that he and other Christian Fathers booted out the Greek theory of cycles and other ideas that stood in the way of a theory of progress) and charactered the idea as one of those rare world-makers.

But even so, after 300 pages of trenchant, sometimes breath-taking reporting and analysis, Bury—on the final page of his book—cautioned that the Idea of Progress might not be all it was cracked up to be. After all, he argued, the most devastating arrow in the idea’s quiver was the assertion that finality is an illusion, that the truth is that what comes, eventually goes.

Bury wrote, “Must not it (the dogma of progress), too, submit to its own negation of finality? Will not that process of change, for which Progress is the optimistic name, compel ‘Progress’ too to fall from the commanding position in which it is now, with apparent security, enthroned?…In other words, does not Progress itself suggest that its value as a doctrine is only relative, corresponding to a certain not very advanced stage of civilization; just as Providence, in its day, was an idea of relative value, corresponding to a stage somewhat less advanced?”

Bury thought it might be centuries in the future before the Idea of Progress was dethroned and replaced.

But looking at an exceedingly rough start for the 21st Century, especially in America, it can be suspected that a persistent undercurrent of change may already be underway less than one century after Bury raised the question of whether the Idea of Progress was going to prove insufficient and undesirable as “the directing idea of humanity.”

Never in history have the shibboleths and ideals of the Idea of Progress been praised and promoted to the extent that they have in the U.S. in the past five years. And with each passing day, the conclusion seems to be more and more unavoidable: they are only working for a tiny part of our population, the very rich and powerful.

It is becoming more and more obvious that the highly stylized, sound-bite-polished, PowerPoint-presentation-perfected, U.S. flag-draped version of the Idea of Progress isn’t all that is was cracked up to be.

Which leaves us to wonder if the time isn’t much riper than we could have imagined a few short years ago for if not the emergence of a new directing idea of humanity, at least the beginning of the disintegration of the current one.

For as the late Peter Drucker argued in a book published in the 1960s that perhaps should be considered the third in a triology of works on this whole subject of progress, it appears that we may already be much deeper into an “age of discontinuity” that we had realized.

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