The Myth of Progress

By Eric Giannella, originally published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.

The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The idea that technology will bring about a better world for everyone can be traced back to the Enlightenment aspiration to “master all things by calculation” in the words of Max Weber.1 The successes of science and technology give rise to a faith among some that rationality itself tends to be a force for good.2 This faith makes business easier because companies can claim to be contributing to progress while skirting the moral views of the various groups affected by their products and services. Most investors would rather not see their firms get mired in the fraught issue of defining what is morally better according to various groups; they prefer objective benefits, measured via return on investment (ROI) or other metrics. Yet, the fact that business goals and cultural sentiments go hand in hand so well ought to give us pause.

The idea of progress is popular because it ends up negating itself, and as a result, makes almost no demands upon us. In Silicon Valley, progress gets us thinking about objectively better, which suggests that we come up with some rational way to define better (e.g., ROI). But the only way to say that something is better in the sense we associate with progress is to first ask whether it is moral. Morality is inherently subjective and a-rational. Suggesting that a technology represents progress in any meaningful, moral sense would require understanding the values of the people affected by the technology. Few businesses and investors would be willing to claim they contributed to progress if held to account by this standard. If people are concerned with assessing whether specific technologies are helpful or harmful in a moral sense, they should abandon the progress narrative. Progress, as we think of it, invites us to cannibalize our initial moral aspirations with rationality, thus leaving us out of touch with moral intuitions. It leads us to rely on efficiency as a proxy for morality and makes moral discourse seem superfluous.

Why progress and rationality are so closely linked in our imagination

We need to look to our cultural history to see why our understanding of progress is so bound up with rationality. Silicon Valley’s faith in progress is the purest distillation of Enlightenment ideas that Max Weber saw embodied in early Americans like Ben Franklin.3 Weber was interested in the rapidly growing role of rationality in changing how people lived and experienced life.4 People like Ben Franklin not only thrived on a pragmatic, rational approach to life, they celebrated it. They took the rational and calculating style of thought that made the sciences so successful and applied it to every aspect of life. Because worldly success demonstrated one’s grace (in Protestant America), productivity became a moral issue and rationality was its engine. This allowed early Americans to view a purely means-ends approach to life as praiseworthy rather than shallow.

Once this means-ends approach to life was introduced, Weber thought that there was no going back. Rationally designed and managed firms would spread because they would outcompete firms that were run on more traditional bases – such as a mixture of family obligation and devotion to craft. Henry Ford’s manufacturing system for the Model-T would beat any other system for producing cars. Yet it was not just businesses that saw rationality applied in greater measure. In the German city-states of the late 19th century, professional administrators following explicit rational procedures allowed the government to attain a previously unimaginable level of speed, coordination and power. The rapidly expanding use of rationality in planning and running human affairs could also be seen in religion, the law, and even the university.

While it had innumerable practical benefits, applying more rationality to more of life took an existential toll. Combined with scientific explanations of the natural world, the observation that so much of life could be controlled through systematization reduced, for some, the power of traditional sources of meaning – superstition, religion, as well as pre-modern ethics like honor. With science being able to explain so much, and technology able to control so much, the world had become disenchanted.

Why progress became a source of meaning

Weber knew that people need narratives to provide coherence between their lives and their understanding of the world. He wondered what new beliefs modern people would invent to find meaning in their lives. Ironically, with no common ground left but the tools of disenchantment, we have enchanted those tools. John Gray describes the general pattern

Modern myths are myths of salvation stated in secular terms. What both kinds of myths have in common is that they answer to a need for meaning that cannot be denied. In order to survive, humans have invented science. Pursued consistently, scientific inquiry acts to undermine myth. But life without myth is impossible, so science has become a channel for myths – chief among them, a myth of salvation through science.5

To put it another way, progress is the only myth left when rationality has eviscerated other sources of meaning. Because of our faith in progress we have granted rationality itself a positive moral valence.

  1. Weber, Max. 1958 [1919]. “Science as a Vocation.” Daedalus 87, no. 1: 117 

  2. For example: Weber, Max. 1949. Pp. 34-47 of “The Meaning of Ethical Neutrality in Sociology and Economics” in The Methodology of the Social Sciences edited by Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. Free Press.” 

  3. Weber, Max. 2012 [1905]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Dover. 

  4. Brubaker, Rogers. 1984. The Limits of Rationality: An Essay on the Social and Moral Thought of Max Weber. HarperCollins; Schluchter, Wolfgang. 1985. The Rise of Western Rationalism: Max Weber’s Developmental History. University of California Press. 

  5. Gray, John. 2013. The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. P. 82 

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