I doubt anyone will be able to relate to this, but I just read a mind-blowing essay by Karol Berger from Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity that I need to write about. The basic idea is that in the 18th century, the structure of music changed to reflect changes in how modernity viewed time. I just read the interlude, and it doesn’t mention music at all, but is strictly about that teleological shift, roughly from Augustine, who believed in God and an eternal, external end, and Rousseau, who didn’t see God as necessary and believed in a normative idea of progress in this world. It’s only about 40 pages but it’s a fascinating, broad, sweeping essay that blew my mind, and I’m only touching on what it discussed.
What’s sticking with me in the end is his discussion of progress. He mentions a theory that in premodernity, societies didn’t believe that history reflected linear progress. Instead, they viewed history as cyclical. This is reflected in premodern rituals and religions, in which cycles are prominent, in particular connecting with the cycles of seasons. But ideas of reincarnation was also common, the idea that even every life is a cycle. Messiaism and Christianity actually broke with these ideas, presenting a view of history that moved to some end. But even then, the idea that such a thing as progress exists and that history reflects that didn’t really take off until the modern age, and Berger rightly notes that it was likely related to the rapid changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. With the changes it brought, it was not difficult to see history as being a gradual but certain march towards something better. And I’d say it’s virtually taken for granted that time brings forth progress.
Here’s the thought I had – what if that’s not true? What if the rapid rate of change in the time since the Industrial Revolution are not indicative of a permanent shift, but a one-time only time period? What if at some point, most progress will end? That might sound crazy. But for the vast majority of human history, global GDP growth was essentially 0. Over many, many years, life didn’t get better overall, it just changed. There was shifting, but no “progress”. What if that were to happen again? What if there are actually limits to scientific and economic progress? Everyone assumes there isn’t, but is there any way to know?
Part of why I think this is because of a fascinating talk I heard a few years back from Tom Standage (editor at the Economist) where he said that the death of mass-media in favor of social media is actually a restoration, not a new thing. For almost all of human history, most media was social media. Mass-media was a historical anomaly that occurred only over the past 150 years. It might have been easy to assume that mass-media was a permanent artifact of the Industrial Revolution, but that may not be true.
So what if other things we assume to be permanent also aren’t? Despite the massive changes in technology, economic productivity is actually slowing. What if there’s an end to it, and society returns to a state where productivity mostly doesn’t change with time?
Honestly, I doubt that’s the case. But it’s interesting to think about, simply because the idea of historical progress is so ingrained in people. I’m curious how people would view history if it no longer matched the world view of progression.