In Defense of Progress

I am, in general, quite the fan of Ken Liu and his (prolific) string of beautifully written and diverse science fiction. Yesterday, however, he tweeted two statements to which I take strong exception:

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 12h9:26 PM – 2 Jul 13
I don’t write scifi that tries to imagine a “better” future because I fundamentally don’t think human nature changes. There’s no “progress”.

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 9:27 PM – 2 Jul 13
The future is both better and worse because technology just magnifies our existing tendencies.

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many people, including friends and colleagues, in recent times. I’m not sure if its the hangover from post-modernism or just an extension of the disaffection of the times. I suspect it is a combination of both, perhaps mixed in with a little neo-liberal angst about the fact that the civil rights movement, while a momentous step forward, hasn’t yet actually solved the problems against which it arose.

Whatever the cause, I think the belief that we never make progress (moral, social, political, or technological) is not only ideologically self-defeatist, but also simply wrong on the facts.

Here were my responses to Liu:

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:52 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 I respectfully disagree. We have a long way to go yet, but think of what we have accomplished with civil rights, disease, & war.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:53 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 For example see: I am often saddened by the world, but believe in humanity and scifi’s role in shaping it.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:54 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 Discrimination, segregation, & misogyny remain rampant, but few would say that we are worse off than 1960. Visionary writers help.

I am a teacher in an urban public school. I will be among the last to say that we are even close to solving the problems of structural racism, ethnic/class/sex/gender segregation and discrimination, and economic and social exploitation. And anyone paying even marginal attention to the news around the world today may find little that is heartening.

But to claim that we make no progress denies the hard-won successes on so many fronts by brave people that brought us closer, step by painful step, to the day when we actually live up to our stated ideals.

The article I linked to in my reply tweet to Liu is about Stephen Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It makes several points that many disaffected contemporary citizens might find surprising. Chief among them is this one:

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

The trend holds true even accounting for the advancement of destructive technology:

Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Further, with respect to human rights:

The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)

I won’t rehash all of Pinker’s arguments and supporting points here. Read the article (and really, the book) if you are curious.

My point is threefold.

  • The advancement of scientific ideas has saved or improved the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people through medicine and medical technology, agriculture, sanitation, informatics and data, structural engineering, civil infrastructure, and countless other applied fields, all of which rely on advancements in the pure sciences as their foundation. Science has also opened up our eyes to the big picture of who and where we are in the universe, and helped us to see ourselves as one species on a pale blue dot. It has also proven 19th century philosophers wrong by showing that human nature is essentially collaborative, not brutishly selfish1.
  • The advancement of moral, philosophic, and socio-political ideas2 has liberated countless people from slavery, bondage, discrimination, persecution, superstition, and prejudice through the spread of humanism and rational thought.
  • And last but certainly not least, the advancement of cultural ideas through the production and dissemination of art has repeatedly forced people, societies, and governments to face and analyze both the beautiful and ugly sides of our nature, and served as the catalyst for change in modes of thinking, living, and treating each other.

Of course these battles are not yet won, of course we’ve sometimes taken two steps back for every one forward, and of course many of the leading people and ideas in these movements were flawed3. But to focus on these narrow aspects with the smug satisfaction of neo-liberal hindsight is missing the forest for the mushrooms at the base of the trees.

These liberating forces (Science, Philosophy, Art) are not about individuals, but ideas — of grand movements that span generations, in which the contributions of individuals join like droplets forming a river.

Let’s bring it back around. Where is science fiction in all this? I don’t mean to unfairly single out Liu, as I think this goes well beyond any individual. And as I said before, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Liu, his writing, and what he has done for science fiction. He just happened to tweet something which irked me and now here I am on an idealistic rant.

Liu is a prominent writer, and deservedly so, in the field of science fiction. As a consequence, I think his remarks, even off-the-cuff ones, can do much harm. These remarks can propagate the myth that science is somehow “equally good and bad” (or worse) in affecting human condition (see above, I think it has been unequivocally an overall force for good4. These remarks can entrench the contemporary negative trends of looking inward, to what is about ME, rather than outward, to what is about US and what we could accomplish together if we tried. And these remarks can encourage other science fiction writers to abdicate their responsibility to further social, technological, and ethical discourse about both the present and our shared future.

There is progress. Science fiction is a genre that has both the power and, I would opine, the moral obligation to help shape that progress. To quote a progressive warrior from decades past, I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.

And I think Liu welcomes it too, whether he consciously admits it or not — his fiction has arguably done more to increase diverse and progressive thought in science fiction than that of perhaps any other writer of which I am aware, at least in the past couple of years. Those are welcome drops in the river.

Eyes on the prize. March on.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Though I would say certain economic structures can definitely promote selfish behavior.
  2. For the western world, this means most particularly the Enlightenment. However, there are analogs of this idealogical reformation in the history of many cultures around the globe.
  3. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and was by many measures a hypocrite; he also helped craft the very documents and ideas that the civil rights movement used to justify emancipation and desegregation, and the inspiration for other progressive movements around the globe. Yes, Hemingway was a chauvinist; that doesn’t erase his damn fine prose and insight into the human struggle for meaning. Have we become so polarized even in thought that we can no longer handle these gray superpositions?
  4. See also my philosophy of science education for further discussion.

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