Progress October 26, 2004
When looking at the current state of innovation in almost any area, the general tone of discussion sounds a bit like this: “Isn’t it amazing the thing they’re doing these days in computers/medicine/genetics/engineering/weapons-creation? What wonderful progress we are making!” Newer is better, regardless of any other factors. This isn’t really a new phenomenon; Erich Fromm wrote this warning of such an ideology in 1968, “Once the principle is accepted that something ought to be done because it is technically possible to do it, all other values are dethroned and technological development becomes the foundation of ethics.”
I think the case can be made that “progress” has become the governing ideology of first world society, and the worship of technical progress is at the heart of many social ills. Societies’ willingness to allow corporations to dictate government policy and control citizens’ lives happens mainly because of all the wonderful things these corporations make for us. Often critics of anti-globalization activists ask sarcastically if such activists would be willing to give up consumer products such as cars, DVD players, computers and the like. The implied assertion here is that corporations require a level of freedom from criticism and regulation in order to continue to provide society with the technological progress it craves.
One definition of progress is “steady improvement, as of a society or civilization.” The key word here is improvement. Often when the word progress is used, particularly in reference to new technologies, it is merely synonymous with change, or referring to improvement in a technical rather than utilitarian way. When we evaluate a new gizmo, we tend to assume that it is desirable simply because it is new, and we rarely question why it is desirable. Other than assessing whether or not they would be affordable to their intended markets, we rarely assess the cost of new technologies on the environment, our current lifestyles, or sociopolitical realities.
It is really an improvement on our lives to have more things that go faster and do more stuff? Maybe it is, maybe not and maybe it depends on the things. But we should be asking that question when we invent and innovate and perhaps more importantly, when we buy.