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The Regression of Progress


Derb, Stanley: Forget that New Scientist guy and the Philip Longman book. How about this?

“In the first half of this century, the pattern of our days altered drastically: we began to move about by cars, and airplanes, and to converse by telephone; the invention of the elevator spurred the invention of the skyscraper; electric lighting and refrigerators made the old lamp-lighter and the iceman redundant; self-raising flour and washing machines helped eliminate domestic servants; the outhouse moved indoors. A young man propelled by an HG Wells time machine from 1897 to 1947 would be flummoxed at every turn. By contrast, a young man catapulted from 1947 to 1997 would on the surface feel instantly at home. In the second half of the century, hardly anything has changed: our bathrooms, our washers, our kitchens, our high-rises, our cars and planes have barely altered.”

That’s from an essay in the 1997 New Criterion collection The Future Of The European Past by, er, me. It’s not just that the rate of progress has slowed, but that even the jeremiads about the slowing of progress have been stagnant for eight years.

First lesson of punditry: It’s never any use being right too soon. I go on to say in that piece that in the western world “change itself has changed”. It’s now “not technological so much as psychological” – which is why technology can’t save Europe from demography.


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