Progress: The sources utilized for various definitions in this effort have failed to provide one that seemed powerful enough to use for this topic. The question is, can we describe “progress” in a truly meaningful way?
If we compare the conditions involving human well-being in Biblical times, say those at the year 0001 A.D. to those at the year 2001 A.D., we could say that the human race has progressed. That would be true in just about all aspects of human existence. Life expectancy and health in general, for example, certainly would qualify. In this exercise, we are talking about just two thousand years, out of hundreds of thousands of years, of human history.
If we could show progress graphically for this particular period, it would be almost a straight horizontal line for the first 1700 years, or 85 percent, of the total. For those countries that we classify as industrialized, the Industrial Revolution, starting around 1700, began that curve on a more serious upward slope. Even considering that, through the late 1800s, or about 95 percent of the total, it would still be a very flat curve.
Can you imagine what that curve must look like after the late 1800s to get us where we are? It is five percent of the total time being discussed and involves only five of the 100 human generations of that period. The contributions of people like Pasteur, Edison, Ford, the Wrights, Einstein, Carver, Knudsen, VonBraun, Salk, Dell, Case, and Gates have given us progress in that short time that is hard to put into perspective. There are countless others like you and I whose life’s work contributions may not show up on the same scale as those people, but nonetheless, the contributions that have been made toward human progress are priceless when added to theirs.
The impact of the American Revolution on all human progress cannot be overstated. It achieved liberty and self-determination as well as democracy for its people. That achievement, in turn, created an environment that inspired and energized the culture of Yankee ingenuity. The democratization of much of the world that has followed has compounded the advances made possible by that achievement. The global free market was subsequently born, however limited in its scope in the beginning, with its potential energy soon becoming apparent.
That imaginary progress curve for a number of countries, especially those that are sometimes referred to as Third World countries, has been well below that of the industrialized countries. However, those curves will come closer together sooner or later meaning an even steeper curve for them as they catch up.
If we visualize that curve, we will see that it is rising dramatically and we will see that it involves all of us. It is a dynamic curve as progress for the human well-being is accelerating. It is a composite of the human well-being and represents what is normal in relation to our endeavors, our enterprises, and ourselves. If, in the things that we are associated with, we are somewhere near that curve, our report card would be marked with a “C” even though we may seem to have made dramatic progress.
The message, of course, is that we must progress in what we do at the rate of the curve or better or we will fall behind since the curve represents what is normal. By the same token, if we progress faster than the curve we have an advantage over those with whom we compete.
The progress curves for individual industries vary from the composite human progress curve based on their maturity in terms of their industry. Agriculture, which was just as important in Biblical times as now, must be very close to the composite human progress curve. In the early days, if a farmer fell behind in the way he did things it was not a big deal. He could easily catch up, if he wanted, as the curve over a few years did not move vertically very much. If he didn’t make the effort he would simply remain at the lower level of existence.
Today that same delay in reacting to market changes or technology advances could be deadly for an enterprise or even an industry. The distance to the curve in just a short time could be nearly an impossible objective to meet. It is like falling off a train at 5 mph, versus falling off at 100 mph. Progress waits for no one.
The curves for industries that came into being along the way, like the auto industry in the late 1800s, have progress curves which differ from the base curve as initial progress is typically fairly dramatic. By 1914, there were 300 American car companies, few of which could manage the pace and stay close to the curve being established by aggressive competitor companies. Today there are two such companies, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation. As evolving industries mature, their progress curves will basically coincide with the composite human progress curve.
The American auto industry, relatively mature by the 1960s, had become complacent and drifted below the progress curve for the global industry. As an entire industry, it was overtaken in product quality, manufacturing effectiveness, application of technology, and in its speed of new product to market. Transplanted Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan, and Honda led the way and others followed. Almost overnight the domestic industry was at a competitive disadvantage even in its own home market. Those competitors exceeded the progress curve and gained a serious competitive advantage and a substantial and still growing advantageous market share position.
The American industry has struggled greatly to recover its position on that curve. It can never fully recover from that lapse in its vigilance without beating its competition to the other side of that curve. At present, the competition defines the curve.