Surviving Progress: Does social technology hold the key?

The Toronto International Film Festival finished last week, and I was lucky enough to win a pair of tickets to the Canadian made documentary “Surviving Progress” courtesy of the new Longo’s Markets in Maple Leaf Gardens, during the festival.

The movie was adapted from the 2002 Massey lecture series and subsequent book  “A short history of progress“, by Ronald Wright, and it opens with the fundamental question, “what is progress?”

Coming from a background in Development Studies, it’s a question that juxtaposes our understanding of Development. From the development studies perspective, progress is simply the change or progression of something along a particular path. Differentiated from progress, development is the normative determination of what constitutes positive change and the manipulation of the direction of progress along that path – there is a difference between good and bad progress as the movie notes.

The argument made in opening the documentary, is that the fundamental differentiator between Humans and our next closest species Apes, is our ability to ask “why”. It is this approach to the world around us that leads us to explore the complexities that confront us and solve problems, and which ultimately leads to some form of progress.

The problem however is that the solutions we create through being able to solve the “why” and then the “how” questions are bigger than our ability to comprehend the implications of our own progress.

As a society, we create progress traps by advancing down a path, that may potentially lead to our own destruction. What on a small scale may have seemed like progress, when expanded to larger society can have potentially devastating consequences.

When the first cave man figured out how to kill a mammoth more efficiently, that was progress. When the next cave man figured out how to kill two mammoths at once, that was progress. The cave man that figured out how to kill 200 mammoths at once by running them over a cliff, had created a progress trap that would eventually eliminate the food source.

As one of the interviewees notes, “we are essentially running 21st software, our knowledge, on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50, 000 years.” Our brains are wired to solve immediate problems and embed certain characteristics in us, like consumptive habits, and relativistic social perceptions, that lead us to plot a course of progress that is unsustainable. We have lived with scarcity for the entire existence of our species – our

The film makes the point that we believe we can “think our way out” of the potential problems that the complexity of society presents us with; using technology to solve our problems. Of course the catch is that this simply involves adding further layers to an already complex social system, and ignores the fundamental problem which is our behaviour. One the points emphasized is that technology can’t change the problems we have created through our actions, we have to fundamentally change the way we live together in the world.

While this may be true, it seems to ignore the point raised at the beginning of the film -that we are wired to act and think in certain ways. Most significantly, in ways that make it extremely difficult to extrapolate the implications of our individual actions at a societal scale, that bears weight on our immediate motivations for action.

I agree then, that technological solutions, a new way of producing oil or energy,  will likely not be the solution to the risks we have generated by the way we have structured society (our economic system is yet another challenging issue I won’t get into here). But what it discounts is the potential of social technology to change the way we act and the incentive structures we respond to.

“Social technology”, of which social media is only the tip of the iceberg,  is capable of bringing people together in massive scales, around incentive structures that appeal to our immediate self-interest and primary or fundamental characteristics, yet generate actions at the local level that can have positive social impact at a broader scale.

We traditionally think that it is the politicians and the laws that need to change to save our planet or our society. That we need better rules around the ways that companies are allowed to act, higher taxes on emissions, more regulation etc. And to a degree these seek in some way to create incentive for us to change our behaviour.

The problem is that for the most part, they are measures to try and create disincentive. It would be politically impossible however, or even rational to create a disincentive of the appropriate magnitude at the individual level to match the severity of our collective actions at the grand broader societal level. (India went there recently threatening to put people in jail for using plastic bags – their problems had become so bad.)

Unfortunately, we create small disincentives for acting in certain ways, which fail to collectively change our actions. A five cent fee on our plastic bags may make some people adjust their behaviour, but in the grand scale a minor inconvenience to the broader implications of the impact that continued use of things like plastic bags are having on our environment. Our brains can’t overcome the immediate convenience because we can’t measure it in relation to the long-term problems that the single action will have on our lives.

The trick, I believe will be to create social technologies that allow us to decentralize the complexity of global society, and order us around the hardware, (our brains) we are designed to run on. Essentially, social technology has the potential to create incentive systems that do not require us to understand or internalize the implications of our individual actions at a societal level – something we lack a strong ability to do anyway. And instead create, localized incentives for action that appeal to the way our brains have hardwired us to function.

We can see the beginning of such potential in programs like Kiva, that appeals to our personal connection with people thousands of miles away, or Groupon that appeals to our relativist consumptive habits, or Wikipedia, or Zipcar.

These are all examples of technology aggregating individual actions through positive incentive for some form of positive action. Social technology has the potential to channel the collective, potentially self-interest actions of millions of individuals in society into something more than individual actions. It essentially has the potential to harness progress and steer it toward positive development.

Can social technology aggregate our selfish actions for greater good?



Pragmatist, Student, Humanitarian, Rights Advocate, Runner, Reader, Brother, Sleeper

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Posted in Development, Life, Social Media
One comment on “Surviving Progress: Does social technology hold the key?
  1. […] an addendum to my last post, I want to provide an example of what I mean by our society becoming too complex for us to […]

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