While in Arizona, my sister graciously let me borrow her book, enabling me to avoid finishing my own before the plane ride to Oregon. She is reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Unfortunately it is less a book about history, something which I find quite interesting, and more a book about teaching history, something which I find less interesting, but it still had nuggets of interest which kept me reading through the first half of the book. And, as is my wont, I got to thinking.
One of the author's, James Loewen, theses is that history is edited to portray advances through time as an inexorable development. Supporting this point he mentions the suppression of oceanic crossings prior to Columbus, which would indicate that reaching the "New" World was, in fact, old news. He also argues that portrayals of Native Americans as primitive peoples stems from urge to portray history as directed toward continual advancement, otherwise known as a teleological interpretation of history.
If the native peoples were uncivilized, then their eradication and assimilation into European culture can be explained as progress towards increasingly civilized society. However, if there were already societies as complex and, in some ways, more advanced than European societies then one runs into dual problems of justification. Without appealing to a notion of "advancement," how can one justify the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans, and how valid is the notion of "advancement"?
It is interesting to note that one can examine these questions separately. Consider the "noble savage" narrative, whose attraction we can observe in the popularity of the movie Avatar, the one about the blue Indians, not the one about the final airbender. Although such interpretations condemn European aggression, they still portray Europeans as more technologically advanced. This seems to send the message that European victory was barbaric and unjustified, but technically predetermined, still in keeping with a teleological interpretation of history.
So then, one might ask how accurate a linear perception of human achievement truly is. Arguing against this notion are things like the pre-Columbian landings which did not lead to colonization, indicating that some factor other than technical know-how spurred European aggression in the late 1400's. One might also remark on the tragic losses of knowledge and local "dark ages" which seem to counter-indicate a linear growth of human civilization. One might remark how common life remained for the most part unchanging over vast stretches of human history.
The modern person has strong motivation to interpret history as linear advancement, not only are we the, current, culmination of said advance, we are always being told of steadily advancing technology. However, one might give some consideration to how true this steady advance is. Certainly advertising agencies have motivation to convince us that technology is improving, whether or not it is even changing. Take, for example, the e-Reader; whenever airlines announce that all portable devices, readers, et al. need to be shut off, I simply smile into my book and continue reading. While an e-Reader is certainly a "high-tech" (notice the way that term alone implies the continual improvement of technology) form of book, one can certainly ask if it is superior. It's very electronic nature places limitations on its usage, on planes, in places without electricity, that do not constrain books. Furthermore, producing e-Readers is more resource and technique intensive than producing printed books. The first first point leads one to question whether the e-Reader is actually technology worse suited to modern realities than the printed book. The second raises issues of privilege, what societies can produce e-Readers and which people can employ them.
Another interesting place to consider "progress" is computer/video games. Although graphics have gotten "better" without question, where "better" simply means that they have become more accurate portrayals of what we actually perceive and one lesson we may learn from art is that more accurate portrayals aren't necessarily better, one can question whether games themselves are improving. Insofar as games are intended to provide an alternate reality plagued with problems possessing obvious solutions into which we may escape to avoid dealing with the problems without obvious solutions plaguing our current reality, I suppose better graphics do lead to a better game. However, if one takes the somewhat less cynical view that games are intended to provide fun, I would like to see evidence as to improvement in current games. Of course, since new games need to be bought, and "better" graphics require "better" hardware to be purchased, there is a large incentive for new games to be touted as ever improving, so we may find older games disappointing now, the right question to ask is whether we were having any less fun when they were "cutting edge" (again implying continual advancement) than we are now with current new releases. And, of course, the continual consumption of new games and hardware presents the same resource and technique requirement questions as the e-Reader.
I am not pretending to present answers in this post. I just wish to highlight the, I believe, interesting question of whether our modern lifestyle does constitute an actual improvement over historical lifestyles and, if so, for what reasons? Furthermore, if one discards the notion of historical advancement then practices and beliefs from historical societies become sources for suggestions of ways we could improve our current society back to lost standards, a curious notion for a progressive like me to be espousing, I know.