After more than a year of work, I finally completed and turned in my senior essay, entitled “Hijacked Dreams: Technological Determinism and the Idea of Progress.” You can download all 100 pages here (Sorry – web version coming soon). I am also very proud to say that my essay was named this year’s recipient of the Philo S. Bennett award for the best political science senior essay in political philosophy.
This paper traces the evolution of the Enlightenment idea of progress, exploring the manner in which this unique idea of progress – of the universal advance of man, delivered by reason into a brighter future – was usurped by what I identify as a ‘technocratic’ or technologically deterministic idea of progress. The issues are presented analytically, rather than historically, the better to reveal the political implications of this shift and the institutions and effects it created. Inspired originally by the question of whether or not technological progress could be expected to produce social change, I have learned much.
Perhaps it is simplest merely to present the introduction in its entirety.
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What can mankind expect from the future? For the better part of the last 300 years, the answer to this question has been “progress.” The modern idea of progress was born of the Enlightenment, and it is a belief that advances in reason will empower changes in the human moral, political, and material condition: these changes were believed to come in effect concurrently, driven by the broad impact of scientific reason upon disparate aspects of life.
This powerful idea faced serious criticisms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and ultimately ran aground on the shoals of the 20th century. In the present era this idea of progress is a suspect figure, popularly doubted and seen as a vestigial naiveté in many intellectual circles. Is this modern ambivalence a repudiation of the very idea of progress, or just a temporary setback? Its promises unfulfilled, the universal notion of progress is today broken down into constituent ideals – among them, political progress, social progress, and economic progress.
Essential faith in technology, science, and reason was formerly the dynamo at the center of this universal ideal, but the enlightenment idea of progress has been discredited for its broken promises, unfulfilled utopias, and misguided adherents. It has been reduced to a narrower thesis which privileges technology, rather than reason, as the key arbiter of human advancement. This reduction took place for political reasons essential to understanding present civilization.
In this paper I examine the constitutive elements of the Enlightenment ideal of progress, highlight certain historical antecedents, describe its later transformation into the technocratic or technologically deterministic idea of progress, and explain its subsequent fall from grace. Finally, I address the question of whether or not certain elements of this idea can or should be salvaged, and if so, how. The changing nature of the idea of progress is a function not only of changing technical and industrial circumstances, but of shifting social priorities and changes in the institutions of political power. The subject is important, but too often ignored, for if, as Charles Beard writes, “The world is largely ruled by ideas, true and false,” there have been few more influential than the idea of progress.
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I once again invite you to read the full paper: I welcome all questions, comments, concerns, etc. Thank you for your interest!