The Roots of Progress

The spiritual benefits of material progress

The Industrial Revolution gave us abundance and comfort—but what did it do to our souls?

Recently my progress colleague Alec Stapp responded to a Twitter thread disparaging the Industrial Revolution for what it “did to humanity.” Alec’s response was basically that abundance is good, and I agree. But a few people (e.g., Michael Curzi, Jon Stokes) criticized this response for basically reasserting the material benefits and seeming to ignore the non-materialistic concerns in the original thread.

So, let’s talk about spiritual values—that is, emotional, intellectual, social, and other psychological values—and what industrial progress has done for or to them.

The charges

The original thread, from a pseudonymous account, was a cris de coeur. Let me extract its core arguments. It charges that the Industrial Revolution:

  1. “stole vocation and purpose” from those doing hand crafts and put them on assembly lines making things they are “disconnected” from and “probably can’t afford”
  2. took people from rural areas and centralized them in cities, “in ugly buildings”
  3. affected education, “standardizing young minds” and “attempting uniformity”

Summing up, she acknowledges that raising living standards was good, but laments that “no one thought to apply the brakes” and that our lives are now “framed by consumerism and commerce.”

Note, this is not from a left-wing environmentalist or a degrowther: she goes on to say that “the unmooring of humanity from its eternal purpose” is “anti-Christ.” This is a religious conservative criticism of progress.

First I’ll address the specific charges, and then I will step back to consider the wider question of how industrialization has affected our spiritual life.

Vocation and purpose

The first charge is against the transition from cottage industry to the factory system. To steelman this, it’s true that this transition took away a certain style of working, and that many people were unhappy about it. Workers in general disliked being supervised by a foreman and thus losing their autonomy to do their work when and how they liked, being required to work longer hours with fewer breaks, and having to commute to a factory rather than work from home. Master craftsmen in particular felt their skills were devalued, as the manufacture of goods was split into incremental steps that began to be performed by unskilled workers and/or by machines. This was only exacerbated by “scientific management” in the 20th century.

But most workers were not skilled craftsmen—the “cobblers and furniture makers and silversmiths” referred to in that thread. Far more representative would be, say, women spinning yarn at home to bring in extra household income. This was a routine, tedious chore, and most women did it not because they found “vocation and purpose” in the work, but because they didn’t have much choice.

Instead of looking narrowly at the immediate transition from cottage industry to factories, let’s ask more broadly: what has been the effect of industrialization and economic growth on vocation and purpose? I think the effect has clearly been to give much more opportunity for vocation and purpose to almost everyone.

In the pre-industrial world, you had very little choice in how to spend your life. A majority of the workforce had to be farmers—if they weren’t, society would starve. Many more worked in rote manual labor: in mining and forestry, on ships or on the docks, in domestic service, etc. Those skilled crafts that are romanticized by reactionaries, the silversmiths and so forth, were a minority of jobs (and they were hard to break into, thanks to the guild system). Intellectual jobs, such as in law or the church, were rare, only available to a privileged few. Scientists and artists mostly relied on patronage, an even greater privilege.

Today, there is comparatively an enormous variety of choices for jobs and careers—created both by the greater sophistication and specialization of our economy, and by greater levels of education that prepare people for a wider variety of roles. There are jobs in design and fashion, accounting and finance, engineering and manufacturing, science and the humanities, education and child care, art and entertainment, and many more. (For statistics on this, see my recent post on why we didn’t get shorter working hours.) And of course, there are still jobs in farming, in factories, on the docks, etc. for those who want them.

In fact, it is even quite possible today to work as a master craftsman! Thanks to the incredible affluence provided by global capitalism, we can still afford the luxury of handcrafted furniture, clothes, pottery, knives, leather goods, baskets, quilts, jewelry, and toys, to give just a few examples. If this is your vocation and your purpose, there is nothing keeping you from it.

To compare a world in which most people were essentially forced into a small number of rote, manual jobs against the world of today, and to think that we suffered a net loss of vocation and purpose, is either historical ignorance or blindness induced by romanticization of the past.

(Incidentally, the complaint that assembly line workers “probably can’t afford” what they produce is I think mostly false? The vast majority of industrial production is devoted to mass-market consumer goods that are affordable to the average worker, ever since Henry Ford reduced prices and increased wages enough that his own employees could buy his cars.)


The second charge is that people were concentrated in cities.

I am a bit confused by this claim, because cities are excellent for social, emotional, and intellectual life. They put you close to museums, theaters, and other art and entertainment; to libraries, bookstores, and music stores; to workshops where you can try crafts; to tutors and classes where you can learn singing, yoga, tennis, ballet, or anything you like. By putting you in more contact with more people, they make it more likely for you to find people who share your hobbies, interests, and values—your niche, your community, your people—the perfect friend, business partner, comrade, or soulmate.

(Are the buildings ugly? Some of them are certainly ugly, and most are at best plain and boring. I don’t fully know how we got here—see discussion here and here, which I find interesting but not fully satisfying. In any case, I see this as less the fault of the Industrial Revolution, which gave us the ability to create gorgeous buildings such as Fallingwater or the Sydney Opera House, and more the fault of modern architectural and aesthetic leaders, who largely failed to realize that potential.)

Of course, cities are not for everyone. But if you’re happier in the countryside, or halfway between in the suburbs, those options are open to you also. In fact, thanks to the Internet, you can now have the best of both worlds: the open spaces, closeness to nature, and small communities of rural areas, and also immediate access to the best that the world has to offer for intellectual, artistic, and social stimulation.

Standardized minds

The last charge, regarding education, is more vague. My best guess is that this is an allusion to the “factory model” of education. An article on the history of this term says that its original meaning was “the tendency towards middle-class credentialism, which seemed to spit out identical widgets like a 20th-century factory assembly line,” but that the term was later used for the idea that “the system had been built by industrialists to create model factory workers: compliant, conformist workers who knew how to do little but memorize and follow instructions.”

Does modern education “standardize” young minds in an attempt to create “uniformity”? Maybe so, but as far as I can tell not more so than pre-industrial education, which consisted of a lot of rote memorization. The one-room schoolhouse of 19th-century America didn’t exactly encourage individuality or personal expression.

But again, let’s step back from looking at one particular transition and ask: what was the impact of industrial and economic progress on education? The biggest impact was that more parents sent their children to school instead of putting them to work. The more incomes increased, the more families could afford to do this. Average length of schooling in the UK, for instance, rose from less than one year in 1870 to twelve years by 2003. And here are world literacy rates since 1800:

In terms of an intellectual and emotional life, this seems to me like an enormous benefit. Literacy opens up a world of novels and plays, the ability to correspond with other people for business or pleasure, the ability to connect with society through journalism, and the opportunity for unlimited self-education, enrichment, and improvement. Education opens up the mind to new ways of thinking and seeing the world, and provides the incomparable joy and thrill of grasping abstract concepts that explain the universe. As Steven Pinker put it in Enlightenment Now:

The supernova of knowledge continuously redefines what it means to be human. Our understanding of who we are, where we came from, how the world works, and what matters in life depends on partaking of the vast and ever-expanding store of knowledge. Though unlettered hunters, herders, and peasants are fully human, anthropologists often comment on their orientation to the present, the local, the physical. To be aware of one’s country and its history, of the diversity of customs and beliefs across the globe and through the ages, of the blunders and triumphs of past civilizations, of the microcosms of cells and atoms and the macrocosms of planets and galaxies, of the ethereal reality of number and logic and pattern—such awareness truly lifts us to a higher plane of consciousness.

The spiritual boon of material abundance

As a jury of one, then, I find the defendant not guilty on all charges. But as lawyer for the defense, I do not yet rest my case.

What does it mean to have a rich intellectual, emotional, and social life? Here are some things I’d put under that heading:

Technological, industrial, and economic progress supports and enables every single one of those values.

Information technology allows us to learn, to communicate, to access art and knowledge; it connects us with other people, with the past, with the intellectual achievements of humanity. Transportation systems give us mobility to travel for recreation and to move wherever we find the best jobs, homes, friends, and spouses. Medicine gives us the health to enjoy all of this throughout a long and fulfilling life. And general affluence makes all of it affordable, and gives us leisure time to pursue it.

My conclusion is that material progress, far from degrading our spiritual life, has elevated it—at least, for those who choose to take the most advantage of the opportunities it affords.

Why would anyone think otherwise?

When I hear claims about material progress being bad for us in some non-material way, I suspect that one or more of the following is going on:

But with a human standard of value, no need or desire to control others, and a clear-eyed view of the past, I think we can see material and spiritual life as complementing and reinforcing each other, rather than being in opposition.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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