Progress Bombs

     Easter Island; Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Over a century ago, Oxford University’s administration decided to finally do something about the rotting beams supporting the roof of their dining hall. It was on the verge of collapsing and properly spoiling a person’s supper life. Someone was dispatched to speak with Oxford’s forester about provisioning lumber for repairs. I imagine him leaning against a big, knotted old tree — arms crossed, pipe clenched by stern jaw, and all tweed-vested and what not — and then retrieving his pocket watch in expectation of this meeting, just as the administrator blustered down the path toward him. Because, as it turns out, our forester had been waiting for this moment his entire life.

Among the vast land and resources held by Oxford over which he quietly stewarded was an entire grove of oak trees planted by predecessor five hundred years before him for this very purpose, so that they’d be fully mature in time for when the original beams had held their last. How’s that for long-term planning?

Progress is something we all try to work toward, but I often wonder about the scale. If progress isn’t permanent, is it progress at all? It seems a simple question — if not an absurd one — when we apply it to our most common working timelines. After all, they’re relatively short. What were we trying to do? Did we do it? If yes, then we’ve made progress. If no, then we didn’t. But what about when we zoom out? Perhaps years out, well beyond when we started and finished our thing, perhaps further out than when we even imagined it, perhaps beyond our own lifetime. What then?

What is progress? Have we made any? The first Oxford forester understood progress — progress through deep time — but did those that came after him? Did our forester, he of the pipe and the tweed and the watch, did he plant another grove of oak for Oxford’s forester of the 23rd century?

History offers us an abundance of evidence that we, as a people, are not like the Oxford forester — that, in fact, long-term planning of even decades length is rare, not to mention centuries.

When Arms Were Heads

Take, for example, Easter Island. In your mind right now, you probably see the heads — the buried stone effigies of the islanders’ ancestry — silently watching the shore from the hills overlooking the sea. As a child, I had the impression that Easter Island’s collection of monuments was deeply ancient. Not so. Easter Island was settled a just few oak grove cycles prior to our forester’s foreforester, around the year 500 A.D. by migrants from nearby Pacific islands. They called their new home Rapa Nui. Over the next 500 years, this small group of migrants had blossomed into a large community of over 10,000 people. They were settled. They had agriculture, established villages — even with homes with stone foundations — and a complex social structure comprising elites, priests, and “peasants.” I share all this detail with you because knowing how established their society was makes what happened next all the more surprising.

Rival clans emerged out of Rapa Nui’s social structure, each creating the stone heads we know to honor their specific traced lineage. It became somewhat of an arms race — a heads race, actually — to construct the biggest, most grand monument. But constructing these heads was a pretty involved and costly project.

You needed lots of people to pull volcanic rock out of the ground, and then, of course, to carve it. You needed lots of wood to build scaffolding around it so that the carvers could do their work. You needed even more wood to build the platforms — the ahu — that were needed at the base of the heads. You needed rope. Lots and lots of rope.

The heads race quickly stripped the small island of its timber, and was helped along by a significant rat infestation that the settlers had brought with them. The rats ate all the seeds and young saplings they could get their little rat teeth around. Archaeologists mark the end of trees on Rapa Nui at around 1400 A.D. because when they look at the annual layers of the island’s crater lakes, there is abruptly no pollen in them by this time.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, which means it has some pretty steep terrain. Anyone from any of the rival clans could have easily stood atop one of the hills and seen the ever barren land. They could have thought, like Oxford’s forester, “I should plant some trees for the future.” Apparently no one did. Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress describes it rather ominously:

“The people who felled the last tree could see that it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.”

An island with no trees is a dead zone. No shade. No wood supply for homes, for tools, for fuel, for boats. No boats, no fishing. No fishing, no food. Wood — wood that had already been cut and harvested before that last tree — became gold. The rival clans warred over it. Meanwhile, they ate their dogs. And you know what? They still carved their heads. Some of the last ones made never stood upright because there was no wood for support and scaffolding.

By the time Captain Cook arrived (less than a century before our triumphant tweeded forester, by the way), the population had shrunk to around 1,000 people living in caves. Wright, again, gets to the point:

“The people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an ‘ideological pathology,’ as some anthropologists call it.”

Sound familiar?

Progress Traps

Wright goes on to define a concept he calls “progress traps” — when the form of progress elevated and pursued by a people actually cuts them off from the future. We could also just call that myopia. And there’s plenty of that to go around right now, isn’t there?

Our own form of elevated progress, given to us by Moore’s Law and the resulting arms race to build the most distracting pocket computer, is one we are intentionally shielded from properly understanding. We don’t see the expeditions to gather rare earth minerals. We don’t see the factories. We don’t live in them, like some do. We don’t die in them, like some do. We don’t see the burning fields of e-waste in Africa. Sure, we’ve seen pictures, but that’s not enough. Our “island” is the whole Earth, and we are stripping it bare just as the Rapa Nuians did.

I imagine those final islanders, starving, sunburnt, and still maniacally carving those heads. And then I imagine us, starved of focus and attention, divided into warring clans, our hatred and mistrust stoked by misleading algorithms, cradling our devices in our beds while the world burns. And yet, so many would say we are at the pinnacle of progress. Are we now.

Progress May Not Exist

Human progress, defined materially and by what we accept in citations as “history,” has been short and straight. We’ve gone from hunting and gathering to farming to refrigeration in pretty short order, and thanks to the “freedom” we’ve achieved from tilling the land by hand, we can sit in chairs and stare at screens all day. But human progress, as evidenced by the fits and starts of humanity — the giant leaps forward and back — may not really exist.

With the nuclear armageddon clock closer to midnight than ever before — and really, this is just a form of pessimistic dataviz, but hey, it works — the most giant leap backward we could ever know is seeming much more likely. Surely we wouldn’t let that happen, right? Well, when I examine our culture for progress traps, I suddenly feel stranded in a vast minefield of them, where any step in any direction is sure to land me in trouble.

Our progress traps are far more ominous. They’re less like traps and more like bombs — surprises waiting to blow up in our faces. A pessimistic view, perhaps. But is it unrealistic?

What we need now are not just people who think like our forester’s foreforester — yes, we need them, we do — but also technicians who know how to dismantle our progress bombs. Who know which cord to cut.

Which one are you? Are you a forester? Or are you on the bomb squad? Let’s get together, unplug, and start building a world where progress is defined by the future’s ability to exist.





As you know, I’ve written several long screeds against Facebook. There’s probably little more I have to say about them at this point that hasn’t already been said — by me or others. But I would like to share the words of Doug Rushkoff, who, in a recent episode of his podcast, nailed the anti-Facebook argument and the anti-anti-Facebook argument:

“Every minute off Facebook is a minute you can choose to spend with another person, forging psychologically healthy relationships instead of submitting to a company ;that is actively trying to undermine them. And best of all, you get to live life free of the constant psychological abuse inflicted by companies who mean to undermine your social relationships and governments who mean to undermine your faith in democracy, in our government, in human nature. You get to leave the dark place and step back into the light of day. A number of my peers have been arguing in the New York Times and elsewhere that this is an elitist argument — that there are people in developing nations for whom Facebook is their main connection with the internet. It’s their access. So by leaving Facebook, we leave them behind in a space even more dominated by those that would do them harm. But to me, that’s a bit like arguing we should stay in a crackhouse because once we leave, the other addicts will be subjected to even worse abuse by the people who run the crackhouse. By spending time on Facebook, though, we surrender our cognitive processes to the company’s psy-ops engineers. We don’t become more empathetic to the concerns of those less fortunate than ourselves. We become more fearful, less responsive, and more impulsive. No, the elitist argument is one I heard come from a graduate student last week. She asked our panel of professors, ‘Why should I care if Facebook has my data? I’ve got nothing to hide?  Why do we have to care about privacy at all?’ Well, good for you if you don’t care about Facebook’s algorithms knowing about your sex life or health history. But that’s not the real threat here, anyway. No one’s mining for details about you in order to blackmail you into submission. That’s the great fiction of social media: that you matter as a person. You don’t. The platform doesn’t care about you. It only cares about your data-points from which they can construct a psychological profile and then manipulate your behavior. They’ve been using and selling even the stuff you thought you were sharing confidentially with your friends in order to identify your neuroses and points of psychological vulnerability and then leverage those against you. To ask ‘why should I even care?’ is the true luxury of privilege.”

— Doug Ruskhoff, Team Human, Ep. 80

Heavy Rotation

Mark, Erik, Pat, and Pops, if any of you are reading this, check out The Messthetics’s self-titled record. You’ll like it because you like Fugazi and this features Joe Lally and Brendan Canty collaborating with an experimental jazz guitarist to make cool sounds.

Also in if-you-liked-stuff-from-these-people-you’ll-like-the-new-thing-they’re-doing, former Stereolab folks are making music (with some other new people) under the name Cavern of Anti-Matter. Their latest record, Hormone Lemonade, is pretty fun. Track #9 is totally my bag.

Dave, check out The Mansion, by Brett Naucke. On headphones.

On Screen

It’s with a heavy but unburdened heart that I report to you that Season 11 of The X-Files is among the most catastrophically bad television I have ever seen. I share this with you not to gripe, really, but to save you the heartache: If you are considering watching it, don’t. With perhaps, one exception, which is the single episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” written by Darin Morgan, who also wrote several of the series’ most excellent and thoughtful episodes like “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” Like his previous episodes, “Forehead Sweat” is a loving meta-commentary on the show’s tropes, gracefully riding the line between elevating all that the show is and straight-up, Muldur-hating satire. It’s ironic — though certainly in keeping with Morgan’s style — that among this episode’s commentary-rich script is a moment that seems to question the propriety of an X-Files-aissance in the first place. In a closing scene, Mulder and Scully sit down to sample a jello-like treat that Scully recalls fondly from her childhood and hasn’t tasted since. Just as she lifts the spoon to her mouth, she pauses and says, “No, I want to remember it how it was.” Same here. Nothing about Season 11, not even Darin Morgan, recaptures or builds upon what made The X-Files great in its first run. I concluded this after naively watching the entirety of Season 10, which was also quite bad. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well, you know. The X-Files is chasing the dragon of how it was, but it need not bother. That’s why we have blu ray players (which, incidentally, is the best way to rewatch this show, in my opinion).

Meanwhile, my wife and I have finally gotten to Counterpart, which basically has everything I like. Slow, technical spycraft? Check. Oddly timeless and technologically spare production design? Check. Alternate universes and dopplegangers? Check. It’s basically if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Fringe had a baby and brought it up on stiff pours of scotch. Anyway, we’re only two episodes in and taking our time (mostly because I keep pausing it and gushing, “I LOVE THIS SHOW”), but you can bet I’ll have more to say about it once we’re done. Stay tuned.

Recent Tabs

This 600-year-old clock shows the state of the universe in real time. What smartphone photography is doing to our memories. The real nightmare scenario for self-driving cars. SUPERHUMANITY. IBM unveils world’s smallest computer. “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” is a question no smart person asks. Plastigeddon. He bought the baby doll a ticket. I’m like.

Written by Christopher Butler on April 6, 2018,   In Essays

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