The Progress Paradox: Revisiting Steven Pinker’s Brand of Optimism

The Progress Paradox: Revisiting Steven Pinker’s Brand of Optimism

Progress Paradox

Photo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0) Saturated from original.

Is the world a better place? Opinions vary, though the enduring Western-centric belief is that humankind has never had it better. This belief is commonly espoused by technologists who praise the information age for ushering in a new era of opportunity and prosperity. The information age, coupled with industrialization, has certainly shaped the world in ways previously thought unimaginable. Advances in technology have transformed everyday life. Facial recognition software. Artificial intelligence. Microchip implants. Renewable energy. Genetic engineering. A revolutionary mRNA vaccine designed in just two days.

Given all this progress, it’s hard not to believe in the “prosperity presumption,” the belief that the world, as a whole, is getting better. Indeed, techno-utopians who adhere to the prosperity presumption also hold the belief that any form of technological stagnation is antithetical to progress. Some of the biggest technologists fall under this category.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates believes that AI panic is overblown. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is ‘really optimistic’ about AI, calling critics ‘naysayers’ and doomsdayers. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired, agrees – the answer to our problems is better technology, not less, he stresses. Then there’s Google, who has an entire division dedicated to developing AI. Tech entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler both agree that the world is getting better, defending their statement in their 2012 book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. Not only is the world getting better, but they take it one step further, asserting that everyone’s basic needs will be met in the next 25 years. “Imagine a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.” Diamandis and Kotler approach the argument with the inherent assumption that all technologies are scalable, cost effective, and can be applied universally to all people. Of course, we’re almost a decade in since their book was published and we are nowhere near supplying every human with the basic essentials to survive. Quite the opposite, the pandemic has shown us that every country is only concerned with its own survival. As of this writing, there has been widespread concern surrounding the question of how developing countries will be able to catch up to Western societies in terms of vaccine acquisition.

Then there’s Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, who is so convinced that the world is getting better he wrote two books about it: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018)and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), the former of which is a continuation of the latter. Because of his extensive work on the topic of progress and reason, I thought it would be fitting to single out Pinker as a way to show how the prosperity presumption might fall apart.

For this piece, I will focus on Pinker’s 2018 book. In seventy-five graphs and sixteen categories, Pinker weaves together Enlightenment ideas and technological advances to prove his point.

People are living longer, war is at an all-time low, democracy is in great supply, and people are happier than ever. How could one argue with cold-hard data? At first glance, the data checks out. But upon further inspection, the progress hypothesis runs into a few hiccups. While there are many things to criticize about the book, I only include a few examples here from the lens of technology.

From the outset, Pinker dismisses anyone who disagrees with his brand of optimism. He specifically rejects criticisms of technological capitalism (technological capitalism in this instance refers to the ways in which technology renders people into atomized, materialist, consumption-driven beings), without explaining why he rejects these critiques. In the same breath, Pinker conveniently ignores concerns surrounding existential technological threats, like nuclear weapons, cyberterror, and artificial intelligence. Indeed, this is Pinker’s modus operandi – and one that echoes across Silicon Valley walls, in which tech titans unabashedly declare their work as revolutionary, liberating, and democratizing, and refuse to acknowledge any possible downsides. These technologists paint critics as unstable quacks, effectively shutting down all conversation. Indeed, those who raise concerns or criticize certain forms of technology are often viewed as being narrow-minded, pessimistic, or outdated in their views.

In one of Pinker’s examples of progress, he points to the concept of dematerialization, in which people are able to do more with less, thanks to technology. For example, the digital revolution allows us to replace consumer products, paper, music, wires, etc. with a single smartphone, which acts as a phone book, telephone, answering machine, camera, tape recorder, radio, alarm clock, calculator, etc. all on one device. Pinker adds, “Digital technology is also dematerializing the world by enabling the sharing economy, so that cars, tools, and bedrooms needn’t be made in huge numbers that sit around unused most of the time.” It’s a nice idea, but reality doesn’t reflect this belief. People are still buying cars, tools, and houses. And for many people, the sharing economy is a last-ditch effort for lower class workers to rent out their labour or assets to make a few extra bucks. It’s not a gig that people eagerly take; desperate workers often take up gig work due to stagnant wages and the loss of full-time jobs. The sharing economy is largely a failed experiment that primarily benefits the upper class and multi-billion dollar corporations that profit off of peoples’ financial insecurity. It also serves as a sweet political talking point to normalize the concept of life-long renting or leasing to the lower class, all while the 1% continues to amass even more things.

Another interesting point is Pinker’s outlook on social media. Pinker writes, “social media has encouraged younger people to show off their experiences rather than their cars and wardrobes, and hipsterization leads them to distinguish themselves by their tastes in beer, coffee, and music. The era of Beach Boys and American Graffiti is over.” This could not be further from the truth. Anyone can take a cursory look at social media and know this to be untrue. Younger people don’t feel any more inclined to show off their experiences than their older counterparts. This is especially true today since most younger people are spending more time on social media, which ironically takes away from actually having experiences. A 2019 YouGov survey found that almost a fifth of teenagers (between the ages of 13 and 17) spend 4 hours or more online every day. A separate survey by Pew Research found that about 95% of teens today own a smartphone or have access to one. With more time spent online, more people are feeling the pressure to cultivate a picture-perfect image. And doing so requires good lighting, photoshop, heavy use of filters, and a steady stream of trendy products to create that enviable online persona.

Additionally, entire channels exist for the purpose of showing off material excess, not experiences: clothing hauls, Amazon hauls, window shopping videos, sponsored videos, house tours, travel vlogs, makeup hauls – anything that can be consumed will be broadcasted online for clicks, money, and followers. There’s more pressure than ever to maintain a façade of the perfect life – especially when there’s the added possibility of becoming a household name.

The era of Beach Boys and American Graffiti isn’t over; it’s simply been remixed and re-adapted to modern times.

Pinker has high hopes for the inequality gap, too. Through a series of graphs, Pinker shows that inequality is on the decline, though he also admits that his analysis may fall flat. Even so, to underscore his argument that the inequality gap is narrowing, Pinker points to the fact that half of adults in the world own a smartphone – and air conditioners, apparently. “The rich have gotten richer, but their lives haven’t gotten that much better. Warren Buffett may have more air conditioners than most people, or better ones, but by historical standards the fact that a majority of poor Americans even have an air conditioner is astonishing.” Contrary to what Pinker may think, consolation prizes like owning a smartphone or air conditioner doesn’t mean much. Indeed, many homeless people today own a smartphone, but it would be dishonest to look at them as proof that inequality is on the decline.

To put things in perspective, ten of the richest people in the world amassed more than $400 billion combined since the global pandemic began. The group Americans for Tax estimated the collective wealth of America’s 651 billionaires has risen by $1.1 trillion over the same period. Meanwhile, desperation is growing in one of the richest countries in the world. More Americans are stealing food and other essential products to survive, including bread, pasta, and baby formula. To date, more than 20 million Americans are on some form of unemployment assistance. Oxfam reported that it could take more than 10 years for the world’s poorest people to recover from economic losses of the pandemic. These alarming trends reveal that we are nowhere near close to narrowing the inequality gap. Either Pinker is purposely feigning ignorance or he sincerely believes that owning a smartphone in the 21st century is evidence of a more equalized world. It’s a stance that says more about his own wealth than anything else.

On the topic of environmentalism, Pinker points to neo-environmentalists like Stewart Brand, a revered ‘eco-pragmatist,’ to prove that technology will reset nature to its former glory. Stewart Brand is the co-founder of Revive & Restore, an organization that uses biotechnology to advance wildlife conservation efforts. Most of the organization’s projects focus on de-extinction efforts to thwart climate change; one of their most well-known projects is the woolly mammoth de-extinction project.

Much like Pinker, Brand’s strain of environmentalism is also based on the assumption that technology will solve our environmental woes. His connection to the environment is limited to what can be produced in the lab, not to what’s actually in nature. Pinker might admire Brand, but he certainly doesn’t share the same positive sentiment about your garden variety environmentalists. He attacks ‘climate justice warriors’ for being hysterical, and goes on to describe the environmental movement as being “laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer.”

Indeed, some things are changing or are made to be more convenient – many of us can acknowledge this fact. But these improvements don’t necessarily make life better.

Pinker refuses to admit that while some things are getting better, others might be getting worse. Additionally, he doesn’t take into account how the “better” things might be creating adverse reactions. For example, global meat consumption is increasing due to rising incomes in developing countries. Viewed in isolation, this trend seems like an objective good, but the rise in meat consumption has led to more environmental devastation, disease, and accelerated climate change. Another example: Elon Musk’s electric cars, while better for the environment, are made in ‘Gigafactories,’ which requires clearing about 400 acres of land (i.e. deforestation) in order to be built. Currently there are four Gigafactories, with more to come.

Pinker’s data simply doesn’t account for these nuances. Any time we create new technologies and systems, we also run the risk of introducing new threats. Like other techno-utopians, Pinker undermines his own arguments by dismissing or outright ignoring counter-arguments, while holding himself to a higher caliber based on his own blind faith in progress.

Technology may be accelerating, but it is not necessarily evenly applied across the world, nor will it necessarily improve the world as a whole. Developing countries are falling fast behind – living longer lives doesn’t necessarily mean people are living better or meaningful lives. Does owning a smartphone equate to living a better life? Does owning an air conditioner mean someone is living the same lifestyle as Warren Buffet? If income levels are increasing across the board, what will this mean for food systems, resource extraction, climate change, biodiversity, and so on? How will these trends impact us and our planet? These are the questions that must be asked alongside data-driven analysis.

Techno-utopians like Pinker equate any technological advancements as representative of progress, but progress is an ambiguous term, and when applied in certain ways, it only tells part of the story. Pinker’s flavour of progress is rooted within the narrow constraints of capitalism. Can progress be valuably measured in this way? Is it possible to untangle this elusive concept from its capitalist framework? Despite these bold proclamations, it remains to be seen if the world really is getting better.

Rozali Telbis
I write commentary from a place of reason, humanism, and critical thought. My work has appeared in Areo, CounterPunch, Spiked, among others. You can find more of my work at Growing up Alienated, an independent commentary and analysis site. You can reach me at [email protected]

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