The Opposite of Progress is Fashion?

By Robert Bernstein   |   November 5, 2020

People often compliment me on my colorful shirts. Much of the credit goes to my friend Robin; she finds some of the best for me on eBay.

While I always say “thank you,” I often ask, “Do you know what is the opposite of progress?” They usually look mystified. “Fashion!” I triumphantly reply. I point out that you cannot find these cool shirts anymore in stores. You have to get them used in thrift shops.

I come from the world of math, science, and engineering. My father was a research biologist, but he had a cynical view of progress. He was a good student of history and he observed that anything that seemed to be new, you could find someone in ancient times had already made that basic discovery.

One day I challenged him. I hacked electronics before that term existed. I had a GE transistor data book from about 1960 and another one from about 1970. The 1960 one was a very slim pamphlet. The 1970 one was a thick tome. “That is progress,” I said to my father.

I had a similar realization in my freshman math course. I had a wonderful young instructor named Mark Goresky, who is now at the Institute for Advanced Studies. One day he gave us a break from calculus to give an overview of what one would learn as a math major. If you did a good undergraduate math program you would learn all the math ever invented from the dawn of history to the 1800s.

But even a solid graduate program would barely get you to the mid-1900s. After that, you would have to specialize. Because mathematics had exponentially exploded in so many different directions. Again, that is a sign of progress.

Astrophysics has expanded our world in a similar way. Not long ago the “universe” was thought to be a bunch of lights just above the mountain peaks embedded in a “celestial sphere.” Even 100 years ago the universe was just the Milky Way galaxy. Edwin Hubble discovered that we were just one of billions of galaxies in 1924.

We now understand the mechanisms of biology down to the molecular level. Yes, science has its own fashion trends, but there is always a reality check.

Yet, for all of this progress, fashion just sits and spins in cycles. Hemlines go up and down. Some claim this happens in sync with the stock market. Shirts went from psychedelic colors and patterns to a fashion of drab and grunge. Wait long enough and almost any past fashion will come back.

Even technology is driven by fashion. People are often in awe of the cool device I use to take notes at events. It is a Palm PDA with a folding keyboard. The whole thing fits in my pocket, but it allows high speed touch typing. Smart phones came along and drove PDAs out of business. But it was not “progress” for me to poke on a tiny screen instead of touch typing. And I don’t have to pay a monthly fee to use my PDA.

In 2009 my CRT television gave out from a power surge. You could no longer buy one. They were replaced by LCD flat screen TVs. No one seemed to notice that the LCD screens gave a cartoonish rendering of images. New technology often replaces older technology before it is actually as good as the old technology. People are drawn to the marketing of the latest shiny new thing and don’t notice what they lost.

I was able to get a plasma TV which was closer to the lively CRT dynamic range, but they quickly became unavailable.

People often admire my 1996 Corolla station wagon as an innovative new design. (On the rare occasion I drive at all.) They don’t realize that before there were Selfish Useless Vehicles there were versatile station wagons that got good fuel economy, could carry huge amounts of cargo, and gave a comfortable ride. And they don’t roll over in the wind or in a collision. It is amusing to watch SUV fashion evolve now to be more like my 25-year-old car.

Much computer software has gone to a subscription model where you never really own it and you never stop paying. Fashion limits our choices, costs us money, and creates untold waste.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of buying the latest fashion trend, you can actually make a conscious choice. Think about what you want instead of what is being marketed. Marketing is often directed toward maximizing profit, not toward what serves the consumer. Fight back! Let’s have real progress


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