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Debate!: Is Progress Inherently Violent? Pt. 1

Today, we’ve got something a bit different: an Oxford-style debate between Eric C and Matty P. Look for the conclusion next week.

Motion for debate: Progress Is Inherently Violent.

Arguing for the motion, Matty P:

"What is so great about discovery? It is a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world." - Dr. Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park.

Humanity's advancements are marked by suffering. We wander through time celebrating the power of our innovations like a child wielding a plastic lightsaber; considering application before consequence. Rather than weighing the moral and practical costs of a new technology, we package, process and market it into a world ready to consume it.

Consider our greatest revelations. The knowledge of how the solar system rotates is met by threat of death and excommunication. The discovery of a new continent leads to centuries of displacement and slavery. The power to harness the atom comes at the cost of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once completed, the father of said creation, Julius Robert Oppenheimer referred to himself as “Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And our feat of landing on the moon was little more than a fear inspired arms race.

Consider the field of prosthetics. A noble pursuit (and one I am not attempting to disparage) tied inexorably to war. But with such advancements come moral conundrums. Consider the controversy with the South African runner Oscar Pistorious and the 2008 Olympics. As a double amputee, Oscar wears specialty bladed prosthetics that act to augment his natural ability. Some say his artificial legs are actually an unnatural advantage akin to steroids while others say disallowing him to compete implies his humanity is in question. It’s an example of creation before truly understanding the effect of our innovation. As technology progresses, where do we draw the line? Pneumatic arms for weightlifting or advanced optic implants for archery?

While it may appear that this is an attempt to disparage our attempts to quantify and qualify our universe, it is not. Merely, it is a statement of clarification. In learning to walk a child does much the same thing. Falling repeatedly before standing to take its first steps. In much the same way, Humanity must fall repeatedly to progress and grow and reach it potential.

Arguing against the motion, Eric C:

No, progress isn’t inherently violent.

My first piece of evidence is something we’ve argued a number of times at On Violence (here and here): society is getting less violent. To refresh, Stephen Pinker pretty definitively proves--using statistics and logic--that the world is less violent than it was before, both in the short term--the last few centuries or even decades--and the long term--milleniums of evolution.

My second piece of evidence is that technology is much more advanced than before.

Now, this could be a logical fallacy of false correlation, that technology happened to get better, and people happened to get less violent.

Again, that’s not the case. Pinker’s reasoning for why society is less violent now than before is dependent on interconnection. In short, as society gets more connected, we expand the social circles to which we belong. Where before I would be a guy who belonged to a group of people who lived on a hill--so I wouldn’t kill or attack them--now I am a man living in a nation--so I don’t attack my countrymen. We divide the world less and less according to tribe, family, race and religion.

Why do we do this? Technology. The technological inventions of communications and transportation mainly, and the technologies of urbanization secondarily.

What explains the violent side effects of new technologies? Well, the improvement isn’t linear, and nothing is perfect. The path to perfection will be paved with missteps, errors and violence, but the end result is a net positive.

Take Jurassic Park. In the movie, the dinosaurs escape. In reality, zoos are virtually fail safe. If we ever did clone dinosaurs--and in reality someday soon we will clone wholly mammoth--they won’t run amok; instead, we’ll have years of fruitful, enlightening study, saving a species North Americans hunted into extinction 10,000 years ago.

And those North Americans didn’t have our technology.

five comments

I’m not sure either of your metaphors of progress are fair representations, but the discussion reminds me Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” One passage reads, “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” I am not sure I agree with this characterization either, but when progress becomes tied to a notion of foreign intervention, it does ring true.

I think this debate fails from the point of defintion. Violence and destruction are not synonyms. So all progress, all creation, involves destruction of something. Often, this increases complexity.

Violence has a motivation to it. Does progress increase the violent tendencies of humanity? I think not, again violence is lowering. Has humanities destructive capabilities increased? Yes, and conceivably this could cause greater violence.

Further, not all progress is linked to violence. Violence, again, requires motivation. Too many great technologies have emerged from outside of a war concept.

Erich, amazing passage, I’m going to look up the painting when I get home.

Michael, I agree completely. The intention is to follow the sentiment of the quote above in demonstrating that innovation is as costly as it is beneficial. It’s paradoxical. Just like the increase in interconnectivity can lead to a loss of cultural identity and heritage.

Progress itself may not be violent, but the results of progress and the application of technological progress can be incredibly violent. And yes, overall we are less violent today than at any other time in history. Outside of tribalism, however, the other big motivation for violence is competition. So far we haven’t outstripped our resources and for the most part, violence stemming from resource competition touches few of us. We have the capability to continue staving off such violent competition through technological progress, but we aren’t doing so quickly enough.

Interestingly, though technological progress is certainly still speeding up, a lot of technological breakthroughs, especially in the application of basic science do occur during warfare, especially in existential conflicts of technologically advanced states. The Civil War, WWII, and the Cold War are all prime examples here. Outside of wars, governments simply don’t put the same amount of resources behind the applications of basic science, though the rise of global corporations of the last 50 years has changed that somewhat.

I sincerely hope we can avoid the violent dues of our technological progress in the coming years, but I’m not too optimistic.