Are things getting better or worse? By some measures, now is the best time ever to be alive: people have never been healthier or wealthier or longer-lived; by other measures, it seems grim: teenagers, especially girls, have never been more depressed or suicidal, and people of all ages report fewer real friends and participation in robust communities. We're coming apart, inside and out, at a time when we might expect to be doing our best.
The worse vs. better debate cuts across the political right and left, ditto cultural progressives and conservatives. A lot of right-wingers think we need radical change to make things better; many on the left hearken to a better past. Just how they measure this is a little tough to rationalize. Many progressives seem to move the measurements a bit higher in order to justify more aggressive attempts at progress; but some on the left want institutions and conventions to be restored. On the right, there's some hand-waving at moral decline but also celebration of leaders who bust norms. The better vs. worse debate isn't really political: it's more about culture.
And where better than to find our culture than in technology. Tech has bad things measurably better: centuries ago, I'd have to write this by quill and send it on a pigeon's leg to you. But it's not all better. Whether it's the 15-year experiment of smart phones or social media, we're seeing some disturbing real world results from our rapid embrace of tech. Large language models available in chat format is the next technology that's turning progressives into cultural reactionaries. And, perhaps, rightly so.
This week's reading is an essay which I found to be a fun read and unique approach to the better/worse, progress/regress conversation. The author posits nostalgia and progress as opposing forces, each of which are unhelpful in their own right. His third path may need a little more thought, but I liked the idea of a middle way instead of doubling down on camp worse or better. I ran the essay past two longtime friends and sharp correspondents. Both raised challenges with his thinking. Directionality matters: the bad in the past undermines nostalgia; the good in the past undermines progress. And some of his assumptions might not be right: it's not obvious that everything is worse, the past is far from a pastoral ideal, and our society isn't a machine seeking some goal. But still, Paul Kingsnoth is a good writer, and this piece made me think. I hope it helps you, too. Enjoy!
Watch the Great Fall
Beyond Progress and Nostalgia is the third stance: I will meet you there. We can watch the fall together. Nothing is coming back. We are not going where we thought we were.