More and More Machines
“It seems like we’re stuck in this trap for the past 200 years, where we think progress is more of the same, that we should make our machines better and make more machines.” As Ronald Wright speaks, you see time-lapse images of machines and traffic and construction, machines in motion.
Even as these machines move, it’s not completely clear where they’re going or what effects they may have. And this is a primary question in Surviving Progress, a documentary inspired by Wright’s book, A Short History of Progress (itself based on a 2004 lecture series): how has the idea of progress become its own sort of machine? Wright goes on to describe another idea, the “progress trap.” In this configuration, new technologies—new machines—lead to more (if not precisely new) problems, having to do with diminishing resources and increasing greed concerning those resources. Unable to think beyond present conditions, those in power focus instead on maintaining present conditions and consolidating their power, to the end of undermining the very notion of “progress” they believe they’re pursuing.
It’s an understandable delusion, perhaps. Certainly, as Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ film submits, it’s self-serving. Those who develop machines—whether these be literal and material devices or more notional, like credit default swaps—tend to tell themselves and others that what they’re doing is expanding particular fields—usually in ways that contribute to their own short-term profits. In part, this limited thinking is a function of limited “hardware,” that is, human biology. Gary Marcus, author of The Birth of the Mind, points out that today’s humans are equipped with minds that “are not that fundamentally different from the mind of a chimpanzee.”
Here the film adds a potential wrench in the argument: chimps are fundamentally unlike humans, says David Povinelli, in that chimps will repeat tasks even when unseen troubles affect their outcomes (when a block is misshaped, for instance, and so will no longer stand up the way it has before) and human children will look for what they can’t see (they will ask “why,” Povinelli says). Still, this capacity for asking why is limited, or at least might be obscured by what appears to be self-interest. As Jane Goodall puts it, the human is “arguably… the most intellectual creature that has ever walked on the planet earth.” At the same time, she says, that creature is “destroying its only home.”
If the point of these chimp stories is to show the limit of human understanding, the film does its best to expand same. Margaret Atwood begins with another point about limits: “The world is this big finite sum,” she says. And if “we don’t conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any ‘the economy.’” To illustrate, the film provides this analogy, that civilizations, so-called, are “like forest fires,” cropping up and burning out natural resources until they’re depleted, and then “another fire breaks out somewhere else.” The very concept of civilization, Wright concludes, “is in fact a progress trap.”
As Wright and Atwood propose here, consumption is one of the primary measures of civilization and progress too. The film notes that this measure is a function (and rationale) of today’s predominant economic model, the one that produced and is still used to defend “Wall Street”—as this term is put into play here by Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. “A small group of people has a lot of political power based on their economic power,” Johnson says. Their money allows them to buy more power, by influencing government to deregulate and so help add to their wealth, and so, political power.
Eventually, Johnson submits, this system becomes unsustainable, as it did in the Roman Empire and in some more recent examples, say African dictatorships. What’s different now, perhaps, is that the system is global. The film brings up the example—without much context or detail—of the Congo’s Joseph Mobutu, propped up by the U.S. until he wasn’t. This example—complete with news footage of Mobutu celebrated by Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth and François Mitterrand—illustrates how the system adapts and inflates.
Human rights activist Kambale Musavuli points out that the monies loaned or granted to Mobutu for use toward improving his nation’s economy were in fact stolen; and after Mobutu’s ouster, the moneys remained in Western banks, and never made their way to the populations or infrastructures they were supposed to help in the first place—that is, if you assumed that the system failed rather than perpetuated itself. The film argues, along with Musavuli, that funding for third world nations is typically designed to return to the seeming lenders, that the debts owed by third world nations are set up to keep these nations impoverished and enrich the global entities—the banks.
None of this information or analysis is precisely news, though Surviving Progress does present it so as to link biology and economics. As that might link explain how “Wall Street” persists despite its abuses and public condemnations and exposures of those abuses, the film also makes a case for a “moral” progress, one that will curtail the machines. It’s one of those “pretty to think so” arguments, but it’s also pretty convincing.