Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836
Oil on canvas, 95x160cm
The Case Against Perpetual Progress
For so many in the techno-elite, even those who don’t entirely subscribe to the unlimited optimism of the Singularity, the notion of perpetual progress is somehow taken for granted. As a former classicist turned technologist, I’ve always lived with the shadow of the fall of Rome, the failure of its intellectual culture, and the stasis that gripped the Western world for the better part of a thousand years…
History teaches us that conservative, backward-looking movements often arise under conditions of economic stress. As the world faces problems ranging from climate change to the demographic cliff of ageing populations, it’s wise to image widely divergent futures.
Yes, we may find technological solutions that propel us into new golden age of robots, collective intelligence, and an economy built around ‘the creative class’. But it’s at least as probable that as we fail to find those solutions quickly enough, the world falls into apathy, disbelief in science and progress, and after a melancholy decline, a new dark age.
Civilisations do fail. We have never yet seen one that hasn’t. The difference is that the torch of the past has always passed to another region of the world. But we’ve now for the first time, got a single global civilisation. If it fails, we all fail together.”
This is from ‘The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress’, a response to Edge.org’s 2013 question 'What Should We Be Worried About?'
This year’s question is a bit less grim