Thursday, January 22, 2009

Progress - For Good or ill?

“Progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.”
-Robert A. Heinlein

If you're not moving forward, you're moving backward. Isn't that what we're told? Yes, progress is good, or so the American mentality tells us - always pursuing our "manifest destiny," right? Progressive thinking is a mentality that is thrust upon us from an early age. And, I daresay, progressive thinking is many times what separates the intelligent from the obtuse, the achiever from the accomplishmentless (I just made that word up). While this mindset can and should be perceived as a good thing, I think we're reaching a watershed in human history where progress may NOT be such a good thing...allow me to elaborate.

Since the early- to mid-1940s, the world has seen constant improvement in the overall global economy, technological advances and democratic ideals. The people of the world now are richer than we have ever been in our short history (this is stated as a generality, obviously). Broader portions of the population are living more comfortably than ever before and are wealthier than our ancestors in centuries past. Technology has advanced to the point where we barely have to exert any effort to work our 9-5's - I heard a statistic once that the average white-collar worker doesn't walk farther than the length of a football field in a day. Not hard to believe if you really think about it. We have quick-service restaurants that can serve us up our meals in less than three minutes while we wait. We have cars and planes that can transport us hundreds of miles in a matter of hours. We can communicate with people across the globe with the click of a button. And a democratic ideal, brought to modern light by forward thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and culminating in the formation of the United States (a mere stepping stone), has launched into a full-scale world-view, accepted by the lion's share of present-day nations. The average person now has a say in the governments that represent them, even people who know absolutely nothing of politics or what goes on outside their state's borders (coughSarahPalincough).

So now I ask you: Is this all a good thing? I think as a general whole, the people of the world are far better off than they have been in the past. But certain things disturb me...let's call them "The Byproducts of Progress."

NOTE: I polled 15 people on what they thought the negative byproducts of progress were, and the top five listed here came up in 14 out of 15 responses...there was no margin of error....this was a non-scientific - and non-random - poll.

Byproduct #1: Pollution
This was the first one that came to mind. As was stated before, we have cars and planes that can transport us almost anywhere in the world in mere hours. If I wanted to, I could be rock-climbing in the Urals or swimming in the Mediterranean by tomorrow afternoon. But at what cost? How much toxic fume would my car emit as I drove to the airport? How much thinner would the ozone layer be because of the trans-oceanic airplane I would ride in? We're told not to go running in urban areas in hot weather because the smog is too heavy. Sport utility vehicles blanket the roadways, emitting almost twice the toxic fumes than the average four-person car. Global warming has become more than a political hot-button in the past twenty years - it's became a life-threatening that will have to be dealt with soon. And what happens when the natural resources we exploit to give us such advanced transportation run dry? What happens when the oil reserves are the ones filling our tanks? Anybody ever seen Mad Max?

Byproduct #2: Weapons of Warfare
The nuclear bomb...I want someone to tell me that is a positive byproduct of progress. Please, muster the balls and the arrogance to say weapons of mass destruction are good things.

Byproduct #3: Social Ineptitude
With the introduction of cell phones, texting, social networks like Facebook and MySpace (and user-generated content like blogging!), and various forms of instant messaging, we have come to rely on technology to do our communication for us. As much as I love social media and the opportunities it represents from a communications standpoint (that is my chosen profession, after all), I feel that in a way it does diminish the effectiveness of our daily interactions. Granted, we can now stay in touch with hundreds and thousands of people who we would have forgotten about years down the road or never met in the first place - no one can deny that as an advantage. But when, instead of talking with someone face-to-face, you have a conversation via text message or AIM, the value of interpersonal communication is greatly diminished. I can't tell you how many times I had arguments over instant message in high school (and maybe once or twice in college...). I think I even once told a girl I wasn't interested in her anymore over instant message - try seeing that person every day in the unforgiving corridors of high school!

But seriously, how effective are typed words on a computer screen? How much more effective would this blog be if I could talk one-on-one with you about these issues? Facial expressions, variations in pitch and tone, hand gestures, the look in the person's eyes when they say something or react to something you say - all of these are lost via text message, instant message, Facebook, etc. How can you really grasp what someone is trying to say just by looking at words on a screen?

There's so many pitfalls with electronic communication that I can't even try to enumerate them. I think Donald Keough, the former president of the Coca-Cola company, says it best in his new book, The Ten Commandments for Business Failure:

"As we continue, however, to transform the nature of human interaction, we come very close to electronic sensory overload coupled with human sensory deprivation. The simple interaction of one human being with another is being lost."

Byproduct #4: Over-reliance
What would happen if every single computer on this earth stopped working tomorrow? What would happen if you went to sleep in the Information Age and woke up in the Dark Ages? Ponder that scenario and tell me technological progress is a good thing. Granted, it’s a “what-if” scenario – but then again, why were we so scared of Y2K?

Byproduct #5: Sloth (voted #1 byproduct of progress by viewers like you)
Who needs to do work anymore these days? Nowadays we have machines to do our work for us. We have computers to think in our stead. We have calculators to do our long division. We have social networking sites that allow us to send someone a message instead of give them a call or see them in person. Taking the time to think is no longer required for daily communication. We have become slaves to immediate gratification. The faster the better. Few things are really worth waiting for anymore.

Byproduct #6: Overpopulation
Ever hear of Malthusian Doom? I just think it's an interesting theory. The overpopulation byproduct is not immediately prevalent except in China where families are limited to one child per couple, but at some point in the far future, if the increasing population continues to grow at its current pace, we may have to think about sending more than Spirit and Opportunity to Mars.

-End list of byproducts-

Despite the recent economic downturn, human history is reaching a crescendo in the new millennium. I strongly feel that at some point in the next 50 years, progress is going to experience a conceptual reversal at every level of society. Because there's something to keep in mind about progress…if two people who are walking come upon a fork in the road and head the same direction, only to discover that to be the wrong direction, isn’t the one who turns around first more progressive?


Matt Barnes said...

Alright, first of all, good post. But at the same time, I hated it because it brought back memories of SPAN 343. Yeah, that's right, Spanish 343: Advanced Conversation and Composition.

The professsor had us talk about progreso (progress in Spanish obviously) in class everyday. And all in Spanish, which made it even more frsutrating. And he brought up many of the reasons you touched on. I mean, we talked about this for a good 5-6 weeks and even had to write a 2-3 page paper on it. And while I agreed with many of his arguments and your arguments, I am still torn really on whether or not progress is bad.

This may or may not surprise you but I think I may do a rebuttal post of sorts on my blog in the coming days. You know, play Devil's advocate. Like I said, I agree with a lot of what you said but at the same time, I disagree.

A Freebird said...

You want to play Devil's advocate? That's exactly what I'm doing. :) But yes, please do a rebuttal post. I'll link others to it. This was meant to be controversial, so hurry up and...controverse...