What is Progress?

Before I left New York I had wanted to see Tino Seghale’s piece “This Progress” at the Guggenheim – the show (and his work) sounded intriguing but I ran out of time before we left. But the question as described from reviews of the show – “What is progress?” – has stayed with me, and I’ve been wondering how I would have responded to it. For me it depends on what day you’d ask me about it. And it’s been rolling around in my head as we’ve been in Singapore. The more time I spend here the more I feel like the people here have a pretty sure answer to that question figured out.

Everything feels shiny, new, and of the future. When we visited one of the malls I seriously felt like I was stepping into some kind of idealized, uber hip parallel universe of America. It seems like anything that’s older than twenty years old is getting knocked down and replaced with sleek glass and steel boxes or crazy weird shaped blobs straight out of Bladerunner; the skyline is literally a forest of cranes. 

We even encountered a public exhibition in a government building for the “Draft Master Plan 2008”, which described plans for each sector of the island over the next 10-20 years. It was like an urban planning student’s ultimate fantasy, with giant dioramas describing how everything is going to be more efficient, fun and beneficial through massive yet careful changes to the existing landscape. The city and the people just seem so sure about where things are going and that Singapore is forging ahead and making itself relevant on a massively global scale.

A change like this in such a short period of time seems impossible, but it is going to be a reality whether everyone is on the boat about it or not. However I do suppose that it’s slightly easier to do on an island of 4 million people under a benevolent dictatorship than a country of 300 million people spread across thousands of miles that can’t even agree on health care. At any rate, it’s fascinating to see how people define progress and how they act on it. Or not. We’re now on our way to northern Thailand (where the internet is not by any means ubiquitous) to participate in a sustainability study tour, and I think we’ll be getting a very different viewpoint on what “progress” is.

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