The sanctity of 'progress' needs puncturing

What does the availability of mind-numbing gadgets have to do with enlightened thinking?
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FM Mayor's novel The Rector's Daughter (1924) harbours an all-too symbolic scene, in which the heroine's ancient clerical father finds himself involved in an argument with a family friend, many years his junior, over the vexed question of "progress". "We mustn't let ourselves be groovy, Canon Jocelyn," this young lady briskly informs him (note the authentic 1920s usage of "groovy", meaning "stuck in a groove".) "I mean, however much you object to it, we can't go back. We must be progressive. Eppur si muove." Quietly furious, but at the same time darkly conscious of the need to maintain a reputation for exquisite courtesy, Canon Jocelyn pulls his punch and observes merely that "it is possible that by progress we may mean different things".

The memory of this pattern example of the old world politely rebuking some of the extravagances of the new, rose back into consciousness at the moment I read about last week's German court judgment on the car-sharing app Uber. The device, as the technologically au fait among you are doubtless aware, allows passengers to order cars from private drivers using their mobile phones, and calculates the fare along the way, while also providentially undercutting ordinary taxi prices. Undeterred by the Frankfurt judgment, which threatens the owners with a £199,000 fine or six months' imprisonment if they fail to comply, UberPop, as the German franchise is known, has announced its intention to appeal, with a company spokesperson remarking: "You cannot put the brakes on progress."

And so, all at once, what began life as a commercial dispute – abetted, naturally, by the lively hand of technology – is transformed into a figurative stand-off between the armies of the bright and irreversible future, and the collection of hidebound Luddites here represented by the filers of the Frankfurt lawsuit, Taxi Deutschland. Who, the subtext implies, could not be in favour of UberPop and its fleet of private hire vehicles – sleek, sophisticated and gadget-garnished – when set against the reactionary and over-charging denizens of the average German cab rank? Naturally, the dispute is being closely followed here in London, where Steve Wright, chairman of the Licensed Private Hire Car Association has declared that the banning of Uber in Germany strengthens his members' case for the reform of Transport for London's Taxi and Private Hire Directorate.

All this raises several interesting questions – not only how one ought to regulate the hiring of taxis in the modern urban environment, but also what exactly we mean by the "progress" whose forward march the UberPop press man is so anxious not to disrupt. Clearly, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition of continuous advancement, usually in the beneficial sense, first minted as long ago as 1603, won't do at all. In fact, close inspection suggests that "progress", rather like "democracy", "liberalism" or "freedom" is one of those abstract nouns which in the course of the past 70 years or so has taken a 180-degree turn from its original meanings, while at the same time assuming a veneer of sanctity that only the very courageous would dispute. Few modern politicians, for example, are brave enough to declare that they are hopeless reactionaries, and even Nigel Farage probably consoles himself with the thought that he is "forward looking".

Inevitably, these confusions are at their most pronounced in the world of politics. The "progressive" left-of-centre politicians and social reformers who sat hunched over the cradle of the 1945 Labour government would have defined progress in terms of the common good, fair shares for all, equality of opportunity and an end to hereditary privilege. Come 1964, on the other hand, by which time consumer materialism had swept in with a vengeance, the definition would have been much more narrowly scientific. "Progress", to the first Wilson cabinet, meant enlightened social legislation on such topics as abortion and homosexuality, but it was also indissolubly bound up with prime ministerial slogans about "the white heat" of the technological revolution. There was a hint that, in some obscure way, the former might be dependent on the latter but the details remained tantalisingly sketchy.

Half a century later, no word in the lexicon seems quite as contested. Only the other day, Nick Clegg could be found praising the free school meals for primary schools initiative as an example of "progressive politics", only to be rebuked by letters to newspapers alleging that, on the contrary, all free school meals would do was to encourage dependency on the state. It is the same with Uber and the technology that allows it to maintain a private taxi fleet. What exactly is "progressive" about a scheme that is essentially unregulated and enables its members to undercut the competition by sidestepping a series of rules which most objective observers insist are necessary, both for the safety of the travelling public and the efficient management of the industry? The same point might be made about the "progress" that shops and supermarkets fondly imagine they have assisted by introducing customer-operated pay-points – advertised as promoting convenience but, in reality, designed to put shop assistants out of work.

A reasonable 21st-century definition of progress would, consequently, have hardly anything to do with equality, fraternity and good fellowship – all those highly desirable improvements in the specimen human being's ability to live his, or her, life – and be narrowly confined to the extension of technology for technology's sake. In other words, it means more machines, more roving around cyberspace, more shiny toys and more gadgets supposedly conceived to enable and empower but in most cases encouraging the people seduced by them to conform and acquiesce. None of which is necessarily a bad thing in itself – after all, large numbers of us want nothing more than to do what everybody else does and to be seen doing it – but I never look at one of those techno-explosions, with which every television ad break is stuffed, without thinking that here is something which, if not closely monitored, has the capacity to constrain and subdue the people it is apparently liberating.

Which brings us back to Uber and the idea – a very sound one, historically speaking – that you cannot put a brake on progress, that every new idea will eventually come to pass, no matter the initial hostility to it, by means of a kind of unwritten natural law. On the other hand, technology is not quite the same as enlightened social legislation. For gender equality, homosexuality and a woman's right to choose involve people, whereas technology tends, rather like pornography (with which it is intimately linked), to be about only itself. And, of course, money. So how can one resist such incursions of the modern techno-scrum as Uber's depredations on the taxi industry, short of (as one or two taxi operators have apparently been doing) beating up Uber drivers? Well, we can start by ceasing to call it progress.