Against Progress

Provocative stuff from Robin Hanson: Social norms are slavery. Factory work is worse than farming is worse than foraging. “School, propaganda, mass media, and who knows what else have greatly changed human nature, enabling a system of industrial submission and control that proud farmers and foragers simply would not tolerate – they would (and did) starve first.”

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9 thoughts on “Against Progress

  1. okay i’ll admit that certain types of essay just bug me. This piece is one of those. Now people may find the conclusions interesting or provocative or true and that is fine. But the thing is so many of the facts used to make this argument are vapor. They are overwrought assumptions about past times or highly questionable interpretations. There is simply not nearly enough information about cultures that first developed agriculture to make the assumptions that are made. Then the next two points are plantation slavery and work in the industrial revolution. There is huge bit of distance between the development of agriculture and the many societies that have practiced it and the other two points. The writer is trying to generalize across all sorts of cultures and beliefs across thousands of years of history.

    There really is no, or little to be generous, factual basis to the quickie archeology/anthropology in this piece.

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  2. Will I didn’t take away from his article what you did. It sounded much more neutrally worded in my reading, not so much an indictment of modernity as a comparison of economic norms then to now. Perhaps it’s just the use of the word “proud”. You could easily have substituted “undisciplined” and the premise wouldn’t sound so negative but would have been the same.

    Certainly the rise of industry and modernity has introduced more order into our work lives than scraping the dirt with a twig or wrestling with squirrels over nuts in the woods did. So on that level sure one could say we’re not as “proud” or at least as autonomous as our hunter/gatherer predecessors were. But we’re smarter, more compassionate, more thoughtful and happier than our predecessors. The fruits of modernity offer freedoms and dignities for the ordinary person that our ancestors’ chieftains and Kings would have gaped at in awestruck wonder.

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  3. I found the piece interesting. We must have gone beyond this model. It seems today that people put long grueling hours into hobbies or jobs that interest them that are quite separate from pay or pressure. This blog would be a great example.

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  4. You might want to read the post again, Hanson makes no normative claims.
    Furthermore the post is just one in a series of loosely related recent posts on education and how members of industrial societies are dominated in ways that that would likely not have been tolerated in pre-industrial societies. You really need to read the posts together to get a sense of the theory. I very much doubt Hanson wants to return to a hunter gatherer society. My reading of his goal it to point out an underreported theory of how industrial societies work (or alternately that the primary function of some of our most cherished institutions may not be what we assume).

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