On the Origins of Progress

What do we mean when we use the word “progress”? How do we track progress? What drives progress? What is it that actually progresses? We all know what the word means, but I challenge you to answer these questions to your own satisfaction, let alone anyone else’s. Our collective inability to do so demonstrates the problem lying at the core of the term “progress”: It means different things to everyone, even though we are all taught about it in much the same way.

Most of us have been told the same basic story. In this narrative, progress is the advancement of humankind and human society from a primitive state to a sophisticated, civilized existence. We are also taught that we have advanced as a species through technological innovations,
 which have helped us move incrementally from banging rocks together to checking Facebook while flying over the Pacific. Finally, we are taught that this technological advancement is what has driven human progress and that the divisions of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age, and Information Age sufficiently capture the nature of our progress as a whole.

However, this thinking all depends on
 the idea that we can trace our development as a species and the evolution of our societies and culture through the advancement of our technologies. This idea,
 which gained popularity in the 19th century, may be wrong. Only by understanding 
the inadequacy of this concept, and 
its recent history, can we begin to answer the many questions that exist around progress.

Progress: A History

Progress is a concept that we use to define ourselves and understand who we are.
 By looking to the past to see how far we have come, and looking to the future to see where we want to be, we feel that we can better understand ourselves.
 The present is just one point on a historical line of progress – it leads us bravely into an unknown future of bigger and better things. Progress, then, has become such a strong concept that we reverentially hold it as a core feature of our collective identity. We even like to think that progress is an inherently positive thing, and that any change that moves us to a brighter future is at least good – if not inevitable.

But the notion of progress has not remained constant, and it has meant many different things in the past. Our current concept of progress was crafted in the same crucible that forged the Industrial Age – 
that is, it was informed by the philosophies and actions of a society moving from an agrarian lifestyle to industrialization at the breakneck speed of a steam locomotive. 
For the industrializing countries, technology represented power and money. Progress was understood as being intimately connected to the reach of a country’s navy and military – a reach that could be extended through the application of technology. This expansion was understood through the lens of “conquering nature,” subduing ignorance, and pacifying the savage, and this worldview is echoed in the archeological records, economic models, and even colonial wars of the time. Progress thus became inextricably tied to technology, a connection that persists today.

This notion of progress has the potential to become a corrosive trope that actually damages our collective humanity; in reality, technological progress reveals only one small area of human endeavor. The idea of technological progress is something that we often use to explain away a number of changes to our environment and cultures, as well as to justify our ever-expanding economies and overuse of natural resources. Importantly, as the means of production became increasingly mechanized, our model of the universe began to rely on the metaphor of the machine. We began to understand progress as being driven by the universal application of the scientific method to society, as well as by the mechanization of activities previously left to more informal devices.

These changes corresponded to a few important intellectual developments. 
And it is these models of human behavior, science, and economics that contributed
 to the development of our current notion of progress. Here are just a few of the contributing factors that helped us build a technological view of progress.


Before the Enlightenment, people believed that the world was ordered by divine will. The idea of an objective world that is real and available to all through scientific exploration developed as the figure of God became less of a focus in the search for truth. During the Renaissance, the development of humanism set the stage for human-centered study, where we looked at the world through our own eyes and became less interested in seeing it through God’s. As the rediscovered logic of the ancient Greeks took hold, thinkers like Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, and eventually Kant, Bentham, Hume, Mill, and a host of others pioneered new ways of understanding the world and human activity. We learned to see the “natural” world as one that was free of human intervention and open to our exploration. Science became a human-centered activity that was focused on learning the secrets of the natural world through experimentation and observation. We no longer had to discern God’s will; instead, we aimed to understand the objective essence of things in order to learn about the world around us.


As our understanding of the “natural world” expanded and yielded discoveries in chemistry, physics, and geology, we began to look at the human world – including human behavior, human activity, politics, and desire – in the same way. Now the “real world” of human behavior was open to the same kind of scientific explorations. Because the Western world was increasingly interconnected with the indigenous peoples of a growing list of colonies, we needed an explanation for our differences. Civilization was the answer: a seemingly objective explanation of the differences in social organization, technological capacity, beliefs, and attitudes. The “civilized” person was someone who had more power, technology, and social cohesion. This belief was 
held despite the fact that none of these things were objective qualities.


Beginning roughly in the latter half
 of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution was arguably the result of our study of the objective natural world. We learned to harness and apply our new knowledge to the development of machines and compounds that allowed us to produce more food, fight disease, build higher buildings, travel faster, and grow our populations. Coupled with changes in our political and economic systems, the age of machines allowed us to transform our societies and populations in unprecedented ways. The most obvious products of these efforts were machines, which became a convenient metaphor for the changes as a whole. The Industrial Revolution became increasingly described as the product of those hulking, steaming iron monsters that produced goods and altered the landscape forever. Our
 new ability to scale our activities, make more things at a faster rate, and send those things farther away changed the scope of human activity. A global reach was now within our grasp.


In 1859, Charles Darwin, a naturalist, codified a set of ideas that many individuals were working on, most notably Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin popularized the idea that the development of all life on earth had a clearly explainable mechanism for its development, with the implication being that all species currently living on the planet were related to older species and developed through a process of mutation and sexual selection. Evolution, the product of these drivers, subsequently became a very important metaphor during the latter half of the 19th century. Darwin’s theory explained many differences and similarities in all areas of human endeavor, and almost immediately, scholars and naturalists seized the idea that human society could be explained in the same way. Suddenly, the gap between the civilized person and the colonized savage could be described in terms of a linear evolution, with the savage on one end and the Westerner at the other. The idea of progress now 
had a clear set of mechanisms – and technological development was one way of explaining movement across the continuum.

At the same time, archaeologists began finding early hominid species, the ancestors of modern apes and humans. The bones and stone tools they found put biological and technological evolution at the forefront of our study of human development. 
In this way, technology became the centerpiece of human development. It did not take long before we were looking to the future and measuring our development into the unknown 
in technological terms.


From the middle of the 19th century into the 20th century, we began to seek new ways to explain the impact of our newfound global reach and technological advancement. Early economic thinkers like Karl Marx codified the ideas of progress that explained how the industrialized world had come into being. Marx especially articulated the economic development of the West through the lens of its material production, which he located at the center of political, economic, and social development. His historical view of evolutionary development explained how the exploitative nature of business and technology arose and subjugated vast populations of 
the globe. Marx’s version of economics explained the rise of much of the
 West’s civilization in terms of material production and technological advancement. Because his economic theories still ground much of our understanding of economics as a whole, his historical materialism became, and remains, the dominant explanation of social advancement.

The Advancement of Progress

Combined, these concepts have made 
it easy for us to see technology as the driver of human progress. Because we still believe most of these ideas to some degree, we see progress as something that is technological. However, it is very important to remember these are just ideas – they are ways of looking at the world around us, but they are not the only ways. Each has strengths
 and weaknesses, and each can be applied correctly or incorrectly. Social Darwinism, for instance, has caused a great deal
 of hatred, racism, exploitation, and misery throughout history. If we just take these ideas as absolute truths and do not investigate them or seek alternatives, our notion of progress will not advance.

The concept of technological progress 
is a very old idea. In a very real way, we still live with a 19th-century understanding
 of progress. Perhaps it is time we began to explore alternatives and find a better
 way to explain how we progress as people, societies, users, and humans.

the author

Paul Hartley

Paul Hartley is a former resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.

the author

Sam Venis

Sam Venis is a previous member of the foresight studio at Idea Couture Inc. He is based in Toronto, Canada.