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On Progress

Each and every time I pick up and read a newspaper or magazine, there is inevitably some story involving progress or development. “London fails to makes progress in blah blah” “BRICS pioneering development” etc.. The two concepts of progress and development, although different (the former relating to a goal while the latter is a mere process) seem unavoidably intimately bound up. What is interesting is the way in which these terms are used and understood.

In a majority of cases, they seem to be synonymous with ‘Good’ and represent an end in themselves. Hence progress is the implied end of science - and because progress is good, so too is science and vice versa. By a similar nexus of synonyms, society is led to believe that science, thus technology, is progress, which are all in all ‘Good’. Never for a moment pausing to notice that science (and technology) are mere instruments at our disposal, the ‘goodness’ of which resides a great deal in the intention behind their use.

Thus it seems odd that the notion of progress is predominantly associated with the realms of science, development, economics and modernity - and not that of morality for example. No doubt development has dominated economists’ jargon ever since the process of decolonization began in the 20th century. After being informed of the plight of the Third World we started hearing about ‘developing countries’ slowly gaining more and more economic and political clout in the international sphere - a sign of progress if there ever was any, surely!

Yet this is where our intuitions might be wrong. Not that such development - the advancement of living standards across the world and the relative rise to prominence of a handful of countries - shouldn’t be considered “good”. The qualms I have are with the narrow boundaries which define the notion of what development aims to achieve: ‘Western’ living standards. Newly decolonized nations often found themselves torn between wanting to emulate their former masters’ economic and technological prowess and valuing their own history and culture. More often than not they pursued the former to the expense of the latter.

The 20th century Bengali philosopher Rabindranath Tagore was saluted by Isaiah Berlin for ‘choosing the difficult middle path’ resisting the easy options of an enthusiastic embrace of modernity or the uncritical return to tradition. In Tagore’s own words “True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste”. The newly freed nations should form their own curriculum, “not [follow] tutelage under European schoolmasters”.

Today, it is painful to see countries such as India and China treading the same treacherous path of vane materialism Tagore judiciously warned against. Having just been to India I question the value of millions of cars and motorcycles currently saturating the streets. It is equally dispiriting to see the burgeoning middle class dressed in jeans and polo shirts, relegating the traditional kurta shirt and sari to the realm of unfashionable relics of a past few are keen to commemorate. In a nation of 1 billion the trend doesn’t look promising either. And while the boy from the Chinese province of Anhui who sold one of his kidneys to buy an iPhone and iPad may be a one off occurrence, it reminds us that ‘slavery of taste’ can truly have a nasty grasp on our lives.

For all the technological advances of science and raising living standards across the world, things such as mental and physical health, wellbeing and insecurity have in fact risen in the West. Just as Tagore imaginatively affirmed a century ago, “the lumbering structure of modern progress, riveted by the iron bolts of efficiency, which runs upon the wheels of ambition, cannot hold together for long.” So long as it ignores morality and the human spirit, such a project is doomed to fail. And the signs are apparent.

In an age where neither religious nor ideological grand narratives captivate and give meaning, the soporific bell of progress takes its toll. It wouldn’t be unwise to start redefining what we’d like progress to mean. As Tagore astutely replied to the man criticizing his country’s lack of progress - “You have to judge progress according to its aim.” So far both East and West have misfired. We can however take solace in the knowledge that there exist many Tagores in the world today. It’s simply a matter of refusing to let history repeat itself and instead opting to applaud and amplify such voices so that they may rise above the cacophony of modern life – and indeed, over the more familiar, single-minded, views of 'progress'.


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