The future of progress

Reading the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, as usual I browsed the letters to the editor. At the top of the page was one from Stephen Asprey of St Ives, bemoaning changes from the good ol’ days. He hit on the standard rhetoric about the lack of respect nowadays, and how retirees do it tough. Those complaints are generally true, from what I can gather (except the belly-aching that retirees aren’t suitably supported after paying “high taxes all their working lives” – as if they got nothing for their taxes that whole time).

However, there was another facet Mr Asprey thought was worse than that elusive Golden Age – the composition of the economy, specifically how much is made up of services. I am truly at a loss to understand this one.

Consider a timeline of economic change rendered in broad strokes.* First there is a natural resources-based society. Economic development makes it easier to grow crops, tend animals, quarry and mine, so fewer people need to spend all day breaking their backs in the field. Instead, they start making other things that they want (that are a lesser priority than food or wood or fibres). Thus the manufacturing of goods goes mainstream (‘industrial’, if you like) instead of being the province of artisans and part-timers.

Technological and institutional progress continues, so the range and quantity of products made increases, and the human resources required to make them decreases. That same dynamic is still at work in the agricultural sector too, enabling the flow of effort from agriculture to manufacture to continue. The slow accumulation of surpluses at all levels allows ever-greater steps in getting more from less, to the point where manufacturing becomes less of a priority for human effort than services.

Here, human capital comes into its own. Abundance brings specialisation, which spurs education, which drives the division of labour to greater levels, in turn reinforcing specialisation. This not only constitutes the provision of direct services – like teachers, lawyers, chefs, reporters, mechanics, researchers, doctors in all their variety – but hugely increases the amount of human capital embedded in physical goods as well, which means vastly improved sophistication.

The outcome of all this? The unprecedented, astonishingly high standard of living in ‘industrialised’ countries, and the prospect of spreading that good fortune to everyone** (and seeing it increase and improve into the future).

This course of events, commonly called ‘progress’, is what Mr Asprey laments. For the love of all that’s holy, can someone tell me why?

As idle amusement, today I briefly pondered the implications of extending the trend I have just described. It would mean services themselves would become increasingly efficient and automated and easy to provide, while the primary and secondary sectors of the economy dwindle further. The focus would shift again, moving a majority of people to a sort of work that requires tremendous amounts of capital – human, physical, and fiscal. I thought, what would come next? My tentative answer was, to put it simply, culture.

What is the least necessary of human endeavours to sustain life? Those behaviours we call culture. What are the human needs most removed from the basics? Creativity, philosophy, art, music, spirituality, ritual, happiness. What is least amenable to repetition, division, codification? Culture. What needs humans to exist, what cannot be automated? Culture.

I felt very pleased with my answer. Until I had cause to Google ‘primary sector’ to verify some things for this post and found I was… well, a bit late to the party, shall we say.

Consistent with my unfortunate record of being completely unoriginal, it turns out plenty of people have put a lot of thought into this long before I came along with my fumbling hypothesis. My supposed insight was to identify a part what is provisionally called the quaternary (or quinary – there is some disagreement over terms) sector of the economy. But let’s move on.

My extrapolation is, unsurprisingly, not what many critics of capitalism and the accumulation of capital believe is the path our society is taking. In their eyes, a ‘culture industry’ is well-established, comprising low-grade cultural goods and serving the interests of the ruling class rather than providing an avenue for the full flowering of human creativity. When I look around and see the popularity of Big Brother: The Boobs Episode, or Neighbours, Danielle Steel novels, the Spice Girls, Rob Schneider films… I can see why they’d say that.

Yet I still hold to my optimism. Why? The increase in literacy and education that comes with wealth, the increased spending on culture, the diversification of culture and counter-cultures, the rise of amateur-made cultural goods, the successes of bringing high art to the masses (like the Sydney Festival), and the perceptible increase in complexity in film and TV (I read a study about it that I can’t find right now, but just compare I Love Lucy to The Sopranos and you’ll get my drift).

Besides, I’m just an optimist at heart. So turn off that soap opera and go see some real opera. After all, you don’t want to dash an optimist’s hopes, do you?

* Forgive the brutal simplifications, I’m no Abramovitz.
** Provided reactionary paleo-conservatives like some Greens and most socialists don’t stuff it up for the rest of humanity!

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