The Cult of Progress

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.

George Orwell,
Politics and the English Language1

There is much the same vagueness today around the word progress. Whenever something impedes progress, it is thought to be unquestionably bad, and consequently whenever something aids progress then it is deemed to be good. Like the word democracy, the meaning of progress is never interrogated, it is simply assumed to be good, and so by extension, everything related to it is colored positively or negatively depending on how it affects it.

This is the sort of thing that influences the discussion about the recent Samsung v. Apple case. Samsung was accused by Apple of copying their iPhone designs, both, the hardware and the software. Apple won the case, pocketing a hefty fine of just over a billion dollars from Samsung. Public opinion seems to be very divided. As expected, many express their anger at Apple who, in their eyes, stifled innovation, while others defend it, calling it a victory against design theft.

I’ve expressed my views on adapting the ideas of others not long ago, saying that in general people will benefit from this since it ensures a spread of good ideas. There are two exceptions to this: 1) direct copying, which is plagiarism, and 2) copying the surface rather than the essence, which always leads to a design that is worse than the one you’re copying. Plagiarism is parasitic and thus unethical. Copying the surface level implementation without the regard for the constraints of your own project is also bad because good design in the context of consumer tech products is an optimal reflection of the underlying constraints. Taking the results and applying them to your own product doesn’t work so well because your own case is slightly different. It’s like trying to fit tailored clothes on someone else – there is a chance they will fit OK, but more likely they won’t, or at least won’t be very comfortable to wear.

Apple are known for stealing ideas. Steve Jobs even said it himself, that they have “always been shameless about stealing great ideas”2. The difference in Apple’s case is that they’ve always stolen the essence and not merely copied the outer shell, leading to a better implementation of the thing they were taking. The discussion around the Samsung case would be completely different if Samsung actually managed to make a better phone, but they didn’t. They didn’t succeed in extracting the essence and making it better so what they ended up with is another me-too product. Probably good for sales, but not a product the public would see as being innovative.

The opposite of this is Apple taking the PDA with a touch-screen, and turning it into the iPhone. We’ve had touch screen phones for a long time, but they were never very good. When Apple released the iPhone it was a real breakthrough, but it wasn’t a breakthrough because they introduced some new piece of tech, it was a breakthrough because of the way they managed to bring all the existing technology together. People like to point at the old PDAs, saying that they existed forever and that Apple simply copied them. This is true, but Apple stole the idea, they didn’t copy them. They took the core idea and made it better, they implemented it and polished it in their own nuanced way, and the final result was a fair distance ahead of what we had before.

That said, I do not side with Apple in the Samsung case. Apple’s weapons don’t only lie in good design, they lie in their force of lawyers, which, as a business looking to maximize profits, they pretty much have to use. There’s nothing personal here, it’s just that if they can knock out or wound a major competitor, they will. Patents are weapons at their disposal that they have and will keep using as long as they exist and as long as the company’s primary goal is profit maximization. Being a public company, that goal is not likely to change in the near future. It’s just business.

In terms of who benefits, an argument could be made for Apple, along the lines of this: if Apple loses market share to parasitic competitors, they will have less money for research and development, so in turn we could expect less innovation from the company. On the flip side, we can make the argument for Samsung, saying that more competition in the marketplace will in turn force Apple to keep innovating if they want to stay ahead, and will also help lower prices.

Ultimately though, all such arguments hang on this vague idea of progress that I’ve started the post with. The evaluation of an action is either good or bad depending on whether it aids or impedes progress. But what is this progress, and why do you want it so much? You want better products, but better how? Nobody talks about such things, but they’re nevertheless ready to use the vague term to pass judgement.

So you get a thinner, more powerful phone, with more apps on it and the latest social widget – is that what you call progress? Progress is meaningless without a direction and without a vision of what to expect there. Consumer tech companies provide us with the goods we want, or goods that they made us think we want, but they don’t provide this direction, they merely reflect market demand. The original PC was revolutionary, and so was the original mobile phone. But now…now we’re stuck in a slow iterative state where that more potent meaning of progress – of reshaping whole industries and our way of life – is substituted for its hollow shell that nevertheless possesses that same implication of a moral good.

  1. Politics and the English Language by Orwell is one of the best essays on writing that I’ve ever read. In the essay Orwell deals with a number of traps that we fall into when we write, with the most insidious one being the use of tired phrases and metaphors that we fall back on by default without taking the time to think about what we are really trying to express, which results in the words being formed before thought. This not only makes our writing worse but also weakens our thought. Highly recommended.


August 2012