Most people think progress is a good thing and benign. It is easy to forget that it is a process of change and conflict. There are winners and losers. Some people will benefit immediately, some later on and others will lose out. There is a tension between the two sides. It is also important to remember that change is not the same things as progress. However, progress does require change. It needs flexibility and space for change to develop. The symbol above tries to portray the impression movement. There is a dynamic range from the fixed rigid structures to the completely chaotic and formless. Rigidity does not allow any change, and at the other end of the spectrum, chaos destroys progress. Christopher Langton captured this idea well when he said “Innovative systems constantly veer toward the 'edge of chaos,' to those environments that are neither fully predictable nor fully anarchic. We need structure or everything falls apart. But we also need spaces that surprise us. Because it is the change we don't expect, with the people we just met, that will change the way we think about everything.” He developed the metaphor of the different phases of matter. The spectrum transitions from solid to liquid and then gas with the molecules behaving differently in each. In a solid, the structure is set. Each molecule is locked into its position. In a liquid, they can move and connect with other molecules. Sometimes the connections will be stable, and new molecules are formed. However, in a gas, there is more energy. New molecules form but are immediately destroyed. The energy breaks the connections and stops the new molecule from being stable.
Conflict is at the heart of progress. Ancient Chinese and Indian philosophy identify dualities. The Hindu god Shiva is both the destroyer and the creator. This tension is a necessary part of change and progress. The same can be seen in modern economics. A better product replaces its competitors. Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” which expresses the conflict and tension. In his book "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy" (1942) he describes the tension as a "process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." Inevitably in progress, there will be winners and losers. Sometimes initially the number of people losing out will outweigh those benefiting. As a result, progress is often fragile, and it takes time to develop and strengthen. It needs space, protection, and tolerance of change.
Psychologically change is threatening, and we crave certainty. Mothers around the world universally counsel their children to tell the truth. We find the truth and absolute truth very attractive. People talk about eternal, unchanging truth. For over two thousand years the geometry of Euclid’s Elements was taught as an absolute truth. It fascinated people to consider that geometrical proofs created millennia ago are as true today as when they were when first created. Here was something that did not age and was truly eternal. The problem with absolute truth is that once you believe you have it, there is no flexibility or space left for progress. Behavior changes from searching for truth to defending the truth your believe. You are no longer open to new ideas. Instead, they become challenges to be resisted and suppressed. At this stage, it is only a small step to wanting to impose your belief. The shift is away from open inquiry and innovation to rigid belief and authority.
History has many examples of leaders and groups who claimed absolute truth. Their rhetoric is clear, strong and appeals to people's desire for certainty. But these leaders or groups tend to be autocratic. The absolute truths that defined and attracted people to them also constrain them. Paradoxically totalitarian regimes can achieve progress if they implement the right policies. They don’t have to wait for public agreement but can drive ahead. The fascist dictator, Mussolini, is credited with getting the Italian trains to run on time. However, there are many problems. Firstly they typically are not very interested in universal social progress. Their interests and goals are more narrowly focused. Secondly, they are unlikely to have the right policies for all of the problems they will face. Following the example of other countries’ development will provide many but not all of the answers. Consequently, their own country’s progress will tend to be less balanced. Finally, they face the problem of succession. Handing over dictatorial power is fraught with problems. Often contenders challenge for power and civil war breaks. All of the progress made can be quickly lost again in a civil war. Totalitarian bureaucracies including theocracies have mostly solved the succession problem. Leadership roles can transfer from one individual to another with relatively little strife if individuals accept their subordination to the bureaucracy’s articles of faith. However, these types of organization again are rigid and authoritarian because, at their heart, they believe they have unchanging, eternal truths. They demand their citizen’s obedience and instinctively distrust change and discourage innovation. This does not provide a favorable environment for progress.
Fundamentally progress is a process of creative destruction. It is dynamic and requires the correct environment to deliver. Both rigid authoritarian and structureless anarchy curtail and destroy progress. It is difficult but vital to get the right balance. Progress needs a liquid environment, not a solid or gas. There needs to be a little chaos. Grit in the ouster for the pearl to form. There needs to be space and motion to enable creative destruction.