Human Progress: What ‘it’ is and Where it’s Going



Human progress is not measured by good enough, but by those who strive (with great sacrifice) for a more perfect misunderstanding. Versions of this thought have been part of my conversations with Peter Tunjic for the better part of twenty years. It goes in the same category with

“those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Consider an example of this concept in a comment about corporate governance Peter posted on a LinkedIn Group ten years ago. Here's what he said (insert your pet theory in place of governance, and it still works):

Believe it or not the current state of corporate governance looks a lot like the crisis in planetary astronomy that took place in 1543.

In what may sound familiar to many of you confronting the challenges of corporate governance, in the time before Nicholas Copernicus:

“Astronomy’s complexity was increasing far more rapidly than its accuracy and that a discrepancy corrected in one place was likely to show up in another.”

As you all know, Copernicus proposed to increase the accuracy and simplicity of astronomy by positioning the sun at the centre of the known universe.

According to Copernicus the science and practice of astronomy had become monstrous. In the preface to his most famous book he (though there is some argument whether he said this or the publisher) comments of his contemporaries:

“Nor have they been able thereby to discern or deduce the principal thing – namely the shape of the universe, and the unchangeable symmetry of its parts. Within them it is though an artist were to gather the hands and feet head and other members for his images from diverse models, each part excellently drawn, but not related to a single body, and since they in no way match each other, the result would be a monster and not a man.”

Again the same comment (with a bit of imagination) can be made of corporate governance codes and guidelines than share no common theoretical foundation.

Copernicus thought that an honest appraisal of contemporary astronomy shows the earth centered approach to the problem of the planets is hopeless. Traditional techniques have and will not solve the problem; instead they have produced a monster.

Corporate Governance bares the marks of the same monster – diffuseness and inaccuracy. A discipline afflicted by anomalies and disagreement at its core because it insists on positioning the shareholder at the centre of the boardroom.

Ironically, Copernicus' contemporaries papered over the flaws in their approaches with things called epicycles. Patches (that look a lot like piecemeal reforms) that worked but were fundamentally wrong.

Now, I could understand disagreeing. Though I'm reminded that disagreeing is often just another way of saying: “I don’t understand and I lack the grace to accept that others do.” But lacking the grace to accept that others do understand something you may not is morphing into deleting it, burning it, or canceling the person.

Is the comment above still be difficult for boards and advisors ten years later? I guess we shall see.


Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?

It depends on what progress actually means.

As the late Neil Postman taught his students and readers, a definition is an instrument of purpose; it's valuable to know the question that led to it. Definitions are sneaky that way. And how you ask a question determines the answer you get. Which is how the lie ends up being in the question.

I'm heartened that it's a group of people who is working on the definition of progress and the question that underscores it. Via the BBC, “A growing and influential intellectual movement aims to understand why human progress happens – and how to speed it up. Garrison Lovely investigates.”

Jason Crawford has been writing about progress since 2017. His premises: 1./ progress is real; 2./ the good from progress is defined in humanistic terms: “that which helps us lead better lives: longer, healthier, happier lives; lives of more choice and opportunity; lives in which we can thrive and flourish;” 3./ societies have the capacity to speed it up or slow it down: “continued progress is possible, but not guaranteed.”

The group focuses mostly on material progress. But I do wonder: Are boosting, growth, accelerating, improving, and increasing positive concepts without a proper definition of the question in their support? Imagine, for example, if instead of tweaking the homes and expanding the infrastructure we have, we'd spent the last 100 years building to ready for the post-fossil fuel age. 

When we do work on infrastructure and buildings, it’ll be useful to keep in mind that the opposite is not the solution. “The opposite” is the worst kind of reasoning because it’s based on the perceived problem, rather than possibilities. So much of what is possible is unimaginable in the current narrative.

Recognizing the nature of the challenge is often the most frequently skipped step in favor to getting to approach and tactics. Instead, what 'it' is and where it's going are fundamental steps. They should come before how to steer it. Which in the case of corporate governance involves boards and directors.

About tech progress Crawford says, “We should not accelerate until we can steer better, and maybe we should even slow down in order to avoid crashing.” Steering comes after having a better sense of the nature of the challenge and understanding how it gets direction.

Action has pros, but it also has cons(equences) or epicycles.#


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