We’re all trying to realize our own versions of progress: making personal changes to be better people than we were yesterday, helping friends achieve their dreams, advocating for local causes we believe will make the world a better place.
Our constant striving can be simultaneously invigorating and painful, but more than that it’s inexorably human. It emanates from a deep need for meaning and purpose.
Yet increasingly we find ourselves in a society where this sense of meaning and progress feels absent, or even replaced with entirely superficial desires as we take part in a constant cycle of death and rebirth as new ‘types of guys’.
The good news is these questions of meaning and progress aren’t new – they’ve filled volumes before and will probably continue to do so throughout our lifetimes. Over a century ago in Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche famously lamented the spread of nihilism as an almost apocalyptic phenomenon, and yet today the world is still standing.
The bad news is that whether real or imagined something does feel off. As we reflect on our collective ability to find direction, we find ourselves mired in disparities between our public perception of institutions and our failure to build new ones; between our recognition that specializing our skills weakens our civic resilience and our failure to reform our education; between the sentiment that there’s a crisis of meaning and our frequent substitution of that wonder with simpler needs. This feeling of stagnation might just be that, but even still it’s worth asking what we can do to exorcise it.
Individually, progress is a naturally subjective and pluralistic phenomenon. It’s the idea that we each have a path to be on, a guide to follow, and a destination to reach. While this isn’t always true, we act as though it is even in our smallest actions as we make our meals, do our laundry, and get fresh air. In isolation these rarely feel significant, but through repetition and ritual they help form a local sense of meaning and progress.
Collectively, however, we all understand a more cosmic notion of progress: our belief that we sit atop, and might possibly even direct, an arrow of time that extends far into the future. This notion of progress, though not always as accurately measured (as in our constant quest for eternal GDP growth) is almost always felt as we look back across time. It’s present in our civilizational hopes, aspirations, and our expectations that as a species we might solve the next Big Crisis™ like climate change or the eventual heat death of our solar system.
This human-scale notion of progress comes with plenty of baggage, both in its sense of certainty about the present and the hyperstituional future we might want to arrive at, and perhaps more importantly from the apparent intangibility or even intractability of the problems it identifies. Why should we expand our sights and set sail towards a future where we’re bound to be trapped like Sisyphus for all eternity? What if we’re destined to eventually succumb to an Asimovian entropy that can never be reversed?
One simple answer to these questions is that we already collectively and unconsciously try to defy entropy every moment of our lives. As Erwin Schrödinger remarked in his 1944 book What is Life, we as humans by some miracle maintain an intricate balance in the face of increasing disorder that allows us to persistently stay in motion. Our body gives us the convenient basis for building and maintaining our brain so it can continue thinking; our brain in turn gives us the capacity to create all manner of representations and models about the world around us to create new tools; and our tools allow us to encode and distil these representations – our thoughts and creativity – into artifacts that continue to leave meaningful marks over a long arc of history.
The coupling of our body and mind with the objects we create allows us to form a kind of “right-fittedness” with the world as we come to understand objects in relation to their ability to help us act. We have the ability to recognize and select a hammer when we see a nail and the ability to grasp a cup of water when we’re feeling thirsty. It should come as no surprise then (although it often does) that the representations we form work so well when they themselves stem from our physiological embodiment. Through our coupling with the world we blindly but vigorously push back against entropy, against disorder, and towards progress.
The Institutionalization of Progress
Answers to the question of progress that rely on our unconscious participation in it fail to address the increasingly popular idea in the zeitgeist that we’re almost unable to take civilizational action consciously. We tend to frame this as our loss of agency: our ability to take account of a situation, form intention, and shoulder actions and their consequences. We view agency as the activation energy that allows us to pass through the doors of passive perception and see the world as something we can take part in and make differently.
Contrary to popular belief, agency isn’t just an individual act but its own kind of coupling; it’s something we construct pluralistically through our relations with those around us. As the scale of the groups we participate in increases, especially in a post-dunbar digital age, our relations with each other tend to level off and we naturally form a reliance on abstract institutions to mediate – whether those are governments, large-scale corporations, or media conglomerates, or even social / cultural formalities. The issue then isn’t actually our lack of conscious agency at all but our conscious delegation of it. In the process of institutionalizing meaning, we’ve unintentionally normalized the idea that thinking about progress is not for us but for someone or something else.
While in theory institutions should still make our push towards progress easier, by abstracting our relationships with each other we inevitably encounter the only force more powerful than entropy: bureaucracy. As David Graeber describes in the Utopia of Rules, bureaucracy happens almost by accident. By some law of nature, almost any top down initiative intended to reduce red tape or streamline processes has the unintended effect of doubling the total amount of work. Like a hydra, the death of each bureaucrat gives birth to at least two more, and these bureaucrats continue to introduce new rules until whatever notion of progress was originally meant to be forwarded grinds to a halt.
On its own, bureaucracy isn’t always bad. Games for example are entirely defined by their rules: who are the players, when does it start, what’s a fair move? The creativity and flow of these activities are almost entirely determined by their constraints. Bureaucracy also forces things to move slowly, and that deeply matters in so many aspects of our lives (no one wants their nuclear plant moving fast and breaking things). The problem it seems comes from the runaway effect bureaucracy has, and our inability to control it once it’s in place.
The elasticity of bureaucracy means that even when we try to recollect our collective agency we’re not usually very successful. When we do reach our activation energy, it tends to take the form of messy and painful revolution or at least total reformation.
There are exceptions to this like in markets where we experience a kind of natural jubilee through the innovator’s dilemma: people form companies, small companies become bigger ones, and over time the pace of innovation slows. In turn, other participants come in to create competition that drives forward some pluralistic version of progress. In states models like Ostrom’s approach to governing the commons attempt to solve this through polycentrism, minimizing rules and respecting the natural limits on our connections in a convivial fashion.
Fork, Exit, and Extitutions
With the resurgence of interest around the social, economic, and political effects of technology in web3, we might be able to actually take new approaches to becoming unstuck from bureaucracy. Rather than violent revolution, we can introduce the choice not just to exit systems but to fork and aim to replace them entirely. We see this in the ways people interact with new models like DAOs all the time.
Alternatively, reformation can become more extitutional, relying less on the explicit restructuring of bureaucracy but instead the same frog-boiling method to reduce internal guardrails that arise over time. Extitutions rely on the idea that we can use the same trappings of institutions to maintain our interactions with them while fundamentally operating more flexibly and effectively.
All of these models allow us to change direction, reset our metrics, and avoid Goodhart’s Law or similar legibility problems that cause us to overfit or restrict our modes of coordination to the point that we end up moving backwards. Critically, to get here we do still need to increase our agency and reach the (albeit lesser) activation energy required to get there.
Where are the flying cars? We need to make them.