In the modern world progress is something you experience. Whole industries are creating new generations of products that offer more and cost less. The rate of progress is so fast that it is disturbing but it was not always like this. For most of human history, people had no concept of progress. What they saw all around them was the cycle of life, the stages of life from birth to death, and they created images to symbolise this. One of the earliest surviving dates back to 1600 BC in Ancient Egypt. It shows a serpent biting its own tail and represents the idea that the serpent must consume itself to be renewed. The same concept and variations on the image have been found in many ancient cultures: the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Norse myth. The Greeks called the image Ouroboros meaning “he who eats the tail”.
In Hinduism Shiva represents the duality of creation and destruction. She is often shown within a circle to symbolise the cycle of nature: death-rebirth, spring-winter, and the eternal dance of the cosmos. Dualism is also expressed in the ancient Chinese image of yin and yang. The Chinese developed the symbol to represent forces that appear to be opposites but are in fact connected and interdependent. Some examples are light and dark, fire and water, and male and female. In each side of duality, you find the seed of the other. As one quality reaches its peak, it starts to transform into the other. Again this echoes the cycle of life. The seed of the next generation is created when the current generation reaches maturity, and this is repeated in endless cycles.
The important point about all of these symbols is that they describe a dynamic process, but they don’t include the idea of improvement. In these images, the cycle eternally returns to the same point. The symbol I created for progress (shown at the top of this blog) builds on its ancient ancestors. It has an outer circle representing cycles and feedback. It also has two inner intersecting circles that echo yin and yang, but at its heart it is different. The two inner circles represent the world of ideas and the physical world. At the very centre of the symbol, where the circles intersect, is truth. The intersection represents the testing of ideas in the physical world. This testing is what makes the symbol different and changes it into a symbol representing progress. Testing is self-correcting and weeds out failure. New ideas are added and tested in their turn. As the cycle repeats, there is an improvement. The ideas that describe the physical world more accurately, predict more, and are more useful are judged to be more truthful. The whole process can lift itself by its own bootstraps. Ideas build on each other. They open new possibilities, and this dynamic creative process drives progress.