The Problem With “Progress”


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     5-14

ABSTRACT:  Unanticipated problems arising from change and supposed “progress” are detailed, and an alternative way to move forward is suggested.

KEY WORDS:  progress, society, societal planning, decision-making, decision-making

Since it is a relatively liberal, open, and democratic society, our United States society is particularly open to change when compared to societies that place more value on tradition.  This country was founded in newness and change, and we believe that progress is good, since we believe that it improves our lives.  This assumption bears examination, though, because many changes that purport to be progress are essentially frivolous and do not improve lives at all.  Are our lives better off for having hula hoops, cars with fins, cars without fins, the latest smart phone, sending in tax returns electronically, or being able to deposit a check in our banks with our cell phones?  And, how much better off are we, seen in the context of the costs of these and other steps of progress?  “New” and “improved” have become required by-words in advertising, since advertisers know that most people will believe that the advertised entity must truly be “new” and “improved” and therefore lead to a better life.

Many of these new products and services are convenient, such as being able to deposit a check in one’s bank using one’s cell phone, but are they important?  The answer would seem to be “no,” since while we can imagine a few circumstances in which this ability would allow us to avoid some negative consequence, when we examine the various circumstances of such deposits, it is clear that such deposits are convenient but not important.

Many “improvements” are simply distractions that give us another alternative to boredom or to having to take a more active part in shaping our lives.  Video games and the plethora of electronic entertainments now available provide us with an amusing focus of our attention, but without them we would be forced to interact more with other people in activities (conversing, building, volunteering) that could be even more involving and could lead to a greater sense of community and a greater sense of fulfillment.

As noted above, “new” and “improved” are effective selling words, but most “new” and “improved” products and services are created to get us to part with our money, without much consideration of whether they actually improve our lives.  In our society we presume that “voting with our pocketbooks” is the proof of usefulness and desirability.  An example is advertising a “new” medicine that is actually a very slight variation on a product the protected (patent) selling time of which is expiring, is no more effective than its previous twin, and is created solely to have another period of protected selling during which others cannot create a generic version and sell it for less.

“New” and “improved” can apply not just to material things but also to ways of approaching life.  At present, many people view meditation and mindfulness as new ways to deal with life, and these things are accorded additional value because of their current cache and supposed promise.


The true costs of change are almost impossible to calculate, since they include not only the costs of a new production line or factory but also the differential living costs that result in our overall lives due to any given element of change.  It was thought that computer memories would drastically reduce the amount of paper used for business, but just the reverse has proved to be true, since printing from computers is so easy and in many circumstances both paper and electronic files are now being kept.  It is clear, though, that there are costs, that we never know them exactly (except for the cash cost of purchasing), and that they take away some amount from monies that could be used for other purposes.

Even more difficult to calculate are the psychological/ experiential costs and benefits of a given change.  We may feel better in some way because of a slightly more useful product or convenience, but we know this only within ourselves and cannot measure it.

As a non-trivial example, we can consider a family’s decision to move to a nicer, bigger, newer home.  They might analyze one such imaginary situation as follows:

more space
         delayed major maintenance costs
         higher status
more enjoyable surroundings
more pleasant entertainment set-up
the excitement of something new and better

         more time and expense for commuting
         higher mortgage payment
the stress of the move
         cost of more furniture
         greater pressure to “keep up” with the neighbors

Some of these costs and benefits are measureable in dollars, but the emotional costs and benefits cannot be measured and must be estimated internally (which is how we make most of our decisions).  Most people tend to distort their estimates of such things in the direction of the decision they want to make, sometimes even completely ignoring certain costs in that process.

It is clear that the values placed on emotions and experiences play a significant part in determining outcomes and related decisions.  The value of higher social status, for example, will be higher for some people than for others.


The values placed on progress, “new,” and “improved” are partly a cultural phenomenon.  As noted above, this country was founded recently and with a different approach to governance and public policy, and it appears that the populace is still enamored with the possibilities that continued change offers.

This focus on “new” and “improved” also demonstrates that we believe that improvement is possible, which generates a generally hopeful attitude in society, which is more pleasant in our daily lives than an attitude that is doubtful about the benefits of change.  Cultures that have been around longer have more data regarding whether change is always positive (or ever positive in the long run), and they may have different, more cautious attitudes toward change.


What we consider genuine improvement is an individual matter, then, dependent on our personalities and values.  Some will place more value on material things, some on relationships, some on religious experience, and some on one’s inner life.  Many people would agree that in our culture, there is an overemphasis on the material, so much so that those who value relationships, religious experience, or inner life are reluctant to speak up about their views because of the unpopularity of downplaying our endless economic quest for more.

There is little doubt that material advancements have made our lives easier and less taxing.  We have more leisure time now than a hundred years ago as well as more potential ways to deal with illnesses and other stressful events, and we have a greater sense of security with respect to crop failures and dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters.  However, almost all of the “new” and “improved” that are offered to us on a daily basis are for the most part different rather than new and are usually only trivially improved.  The change from one model year to the next of cars is insignificant, and a food package that opens in a different way is a trivial improvement in the lives of most of us.


We could make better decisions about our allocations of money and time and redirect more energy toward things that actually matter in life if we were more careful and conscious about evaluating the value of changes.  The following questions are worth asking yourself.

Will this change reliably decrease to any significant degree the time and effort needed for my daily tasks?

How much additional time will I be using for this new product or experience (that will have to be taken away from something else I’m doing right now)?  What will I take that time from?

Is this change going to cost me more or force me to take money from other places in my budget, and if so, is this feasible?  Will this change make me less financially secure because I’ll be stretching my paycheck even more or living even more from paycheck to paycheck?

Will this change impel me to buy additional products or experiences in the future?

         Is this change going to make my family life better?

Is this change going to increase the quality of my relationships with others (as opposed to just creating more interaction)?

Will this change increase my overall happiness over the long run?

Will this change increase the amount of pleasure in my daily life to any significant degree?

Is this change going to increase my sense of security or my self-esteem?

Is this change going to help me to make better decisions?

Will this change help me to manage my emotions better?

Is this change going to increase my sense of satisfaction, contentment, or fulfillment?

Remember when you ask yourself these questions that we tend to over-rate the value of something we want or hope for.  When comparing the present with the future, be sure to subtract the “newness factor” and compare your current ordinary, daily experience with what your ordinary, daily experience will be with the change after the thrill has worn off.