Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Assumption of Progress

Say that things aren't as good as they used to be and you'll immediately be dismissed as a nostalgic geezer.

There is an assumption that, with occasional blips, matters improve, people get wiser, and the world moves forward. In one of Paul Mann's novels about India, he surfaces the thought that people consider the Third World as our past when it may be our future.

I'm not that pessimistic and yet it does little good to smile past some of the real problems that face us nor does it help if we gloss over how hard it can be to maintain progress. We face macro-challenges that could dramatically damage civilization overnight. There are well-financed groups of fanatics that would love nothing better than to explode a nuclear or dirty bomb in places such as New York, London, or Washington, DC and then watch the aftermath. The human toll would be devastating. So too would be the impact on civil liberties and the economy.

[One of the odd aspects of today's world is that fantastic technological progress is unfolding at the same time forces that would destroy such progress are rising. We have globalization in one corner and tribalism in another. Terrorists who would love the 13th century use cell phones to detonate their bombs.]

When considering the micro-level, however, most of the threats to progress come from within. We see this in companies. A key leader or two departs and, through a lack of integrity, courage, and competence, the level of management slowly erodes. People who would barely be considered for managerial jobs ten years ago wind up as vice presidents. Standards are quietly abandoned. Matters become politicized. Factions are placated. Pragmatism trumps principle. The organization's outside appearance may still be the same but strip away the gloss and you'll find a very different interior.

We gauge progress far better than we measure decline. [If you want to know why, just imagine how proposing the latter might affect your career.] Having a grasp of where we are not propelling forward and indeed may be sliding back is crucial if we are to avoid sudden disaster or gradual erosion.

Crucial, but not popular.


Eclecticity said...


One for the book.

Michael Wade said...