June 20th, 2020

The paradox of progress

It occurs to me that people's whole idea of "progress" is somewhat backwards. Intuitively, people think that if you keep focusing on the idea of "progress" or "moving forward", if you consistently strive to move on from where you are now, you'll keep making forward progress and become somehow better, or at least better situated, than you are now. But this isn't really true. In fact, very often the opposite is true.

There are many reasons for this. One is the fact that what many people consider "progress" is very often not progress of any kind, but simply change. An example I've often used from the world of software design is the way that software designers insist on arbitrarily changing long-standing facets of the software for absolutely no valid reason, then claim that they've "improved" the software by "revamping" it. "We updated the software to make it easier to use! Now instead of having to click on "Programs" to see what programs are installed, you can click on "Apps" instead! Thanks to this change we've made in the user interface, users have a better experience with the software overall". No, they don't. What software developers have actually done with changes like this is require that existing documentation be changed to reflect changes that didn't have to be made, and users have to re-learn how to use the software which they've used the same way for many years and which didn't need to be changed. They've created more work and more wasted time for everyone, for an "upgrade" which doesn't actually help anyone or make anything better.

A lot of what people do in their lives is like this. They change something, then somehow convince themselves that what they've done will make themselves healthier, happier, or otherwise better able to function in life. "I changed my hair color! This will improve my quality of life". So one major reason why change doesn't improve things is because that change isn't really change, or if it is real change, it is simply swapping one thing for another which works the same way.

Another reason why progress doesn't work the way people think it does is that people see progress as permanent and infinite. Here I often use the example of characters in computer role-playing games, whose basic statistics like strength, dexterity, intelligence, and so on are expressed as simple numbers. In many role-playing games, you can simply keep developing these attributes infinitely, because numbers go on forever. If your strength rating is 10, then you can increase it to 11, or 20, or 100, or 1,000,000 if you play the game enough. People have the idea that real life works this same way: If you just keep adding something to a list, that list can just keep getting infinitely bigger. In reality, there are limits to how big something or someone can get. A person who is already at their peak of physical attainment is not going to become stronger or faster if they exercise more. You can graduate from lifting 10-kilogram weights to lifting 20-kilogram weights, but you will never lift 10,000-kilogram weights, no matter how long or hard you train. Information is the same: People have the idea that a human being can just keep learning more and more by reading more, but actually, if you do this, you will find after 20 years that you have forgotten most of what you read 20 years ago. Some key points may remain vaguely in your memory, but most of the details will have faded away. If you try to cram too much into a finite space, eventually some of what you put in there will just fall out again.

The above points are, I think, very intuitive if you think about them for a short while. Everyone knows that human beings have finite capacities of physical and mental strength, and all people (except, perhaps, software designers) understand that changing something for no reason is not actually an "improvement", but simply change for the sake of change. But there are more subtle reasons why focusing too much on "progress" is actually counterproductive to that progress.

Psychologically, obsession tends to be a weakness. The more you fixate on something, the more difficult it becomes to think about anything else. If you remain extremely focused on a particular task or goal, you can never move on from it; you will never be able to make real progress if you remain focused on one thing, because you will just remain focused on that one thing for as long as you focus on it. And even if your goals change, if all you're thinking about is achieving goals, then you're still not really making any progress; you can focus on doing different things, but if all you're focused on is getting things done, then you lose the big picture: You lose sight of how those goals fit into a larger framework, meaning you forget why you wanted to achieve those goals in the first place. "Goal-oriented thinking" tends to be self-defeating, because it favors the short-term over the long-term, focusing on producing easily-visible results rather than considering what the future implications of achieving goals would be.

People intuitively think that repetition is the enemy of progress, but the way that real progress is made is, paradoxically, by doing the same thing over and over. In physical tasks, this is very obvious: If you're digging a hole, you can only achieve this by repeating the same action of picking up a shovelful of dirt and tossing it somewhere else. But repetition also creates progress in other ways. If you want to remember something, you need to repeat that information to yourself several times, because the memory tends to forget things it only experiences once. By repeatedly re-exposing your memory to the same information over and over, the memory takes notice and says, in effect: "Hmm, I've seen this information somewhere before. The fact that I keep seeing it suggests that it's important and I should remember it". You can only learn anything through repetition. Progress is made by going in circles, doing the same thing over and over.

All infrastructure of any kind requires maintenance. If anything at all has been built, it needs to be maintained. Structures like bridges, buildings, and roads will slowly degrade over time if they are not kept in good shape, and machines will eventually break down if someone does not maintain them. The same is true of human beings themselves, as well as the intangible structures they create like relationships, societies, and cultures. If there is to be any kind of reliable, long-term infrastructure in the world, you cannot just build it once and say "There! We're done!", you have to constantly and regularly attend to it to ensure that it is going to remain intact for the foreseeable future. If anything at all is to be built, it has to be built on some kind of stable foundation, and stability only comes through repetition and routine. If all you focus on is new construction and new plans, the old construction and plans will fall apart behind you, and you'll have lost whatever progress you thought you'd made. Focusing too much on "progress" erodes any existing foundation because it forces you to constantly restart from zero again.

Obviously, this is a general principle to keep in mind rather than a fixed rule. Don't take this idea to ridiculous extremes. Obviously, you won't make any progress in your life if you just repeat the task of touching a rock with your finger for the rest of your life. What I'm saying is that you need to understand how creation and change interact with destruction and stability. The act of creation is inherently a destructive act, because anything that you build or create exists only because of the disassembly and displacement of whatever existed there before, and yet, in order to exist in a stable state, that new construction needs to rest upon something which was there before. This is a paradox that needs to be understood by anyone who would seek to create change: You cannot remove things from the world or create things in the world, you can only take what is already there and change it, but change is not "good" or "bad", it's just change.