Progress

Progress is a funny concept. For instance, here are some things that have undoubtedly progressed in human history:

  1. Math
  2. Physics
  3. Biology
  4. Chemistry
  5. Engineering

Nobody disagrees, right?

Here are some more things:

  1. 100m dash
  2. High Jump

Still with me, no doubt. It’s difficult to deny that the greatest sprinter in history is Usain Bolt (after all, we can see everyone’s times).

But what if I said that Aristotle would have been no more than a moderately successful professor at a decent college if he were alive today? Think of it this way: he was the smartest guy in a city-state of, what, 500,000 people (most of whom were slaves)?  Let’s say this total civilization had about 1,000,000 people in it.

What if I said that no tennis player in history could compete with today’s players? Tennis, like swimming, is a tricky example because technology is difficult to disentangle from ability, but is it not safe to say that if sprinters are better, so should tennis players be?

I once ran into Jonathon Power at a party in Toronto and shamelessly geeked out for a few minutes. He said something interesting: each generation of athletes is demonstrably better than the preceding generation. That is to say that if Power jumped into a time machine to the 50s, he’d have absolutely crushed everyone he faced. He’s a pretty confident guy and literally said as much.

The corollary, of course, is that he’d himself get crushed by today’s best. He wasn’t about to admit that, though.

So progress exists in bodies of knowledge, which makes sense, and in sports, which is easily measured, but what about something creative like music?

I’d say it’s probably uncontroversial that musicians today are much better technically than in years past, but are writers more creative?

My head starts hurting pretty quickly when thinking about this. Tyler Cowen is persuaded by this:

It’s glaringly obvious that all the astounding, time-space rearranging developments in the dissemination, storing and accessing of audio data have not spawned a single new form of music.

Which is ballsy coming from a guy that loves classical music. If you judged by his tastes, you’d have to conclude that stagnation is impossible, there has never been any progress!

Surely musical relativism can be taken to an extreme and appreciation of music is an intensely personal affair. I’m reminded a bit of Adam Smith’s speculation on the sympathy of sentiments, where he said that the goal of much of human interaction is to come to a common feeling on some topic (it’s raining out: man, don’t we just hate the rain!? Yeah!!).

Music seems to me to be something that we have a feeling that we should agree on but often don’t.

Anyway, I’d argue that cultural output cannot be immune from progress and therefore older music would be in some fashion demonstrably worse than newer music.

Here’s the thought experiment: if you tossed Mozart into a time machine and played a Britney album for him, or whatever, would he be blown away?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.