Tech #14: The Cult of Progress
I know a lot of you will brush me off as being a Luddite; however, I think if you sit and ponder what I'm saying - give me the benefit of the doubt - you'll see I'm speaking the truth. The mantra "where's my effing jet pack?" has become almost cliche; but, I'm not just saying that the level of technology hasn't landed anywhere near my expectations. I'm saying that our conception of progress is really a big fat lie.
Ever since the start of the Industrial Age, civilization has been enamored by Scientific Progress. Somehow, it was supposed to make us all happier. Goodbye 'living to the ripe old age of 35 and dying of rickets', hello to the ridiculously clean and tidy life of the future. To a pro-technology person, the Super Wal-Mart produce section is a testament to how far we've come - no more scurvy for us!
Well, I'm not going to argue that things are no better now than in the 19th century. But, I will point out that Progress with a capital P should no longer be the holy and immaculate concept it has been, and maybe, just maybe, it hasn't come anywhere near living up to our collective expectations.
I could point out that the 20th century was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. I could point out that hunger has actually increased worldwide, populations have grown out of control, and the quality of life for billions is no better, perhaps worse, that it has ever been. Not to mention, the world's economy seems to be hanging by a very dubious thread. Ahhh, but we have iPads and Allegra, so it's okay.
I work in the field of DNA technology, and so I have a front row seat on cutting edge of science. Take for instance its use in crime (forensic science) - it works magic. We can tell whose blood, semen and sweat is on that piece of evidence. But if you take a few steps back, even this seems a bit disappointing..... the big picture is this - crime is worse. Crime has gotten a lot worse in fact. Americans are getting murdered, robbed, burglarized and raped more than they ever.
The Technology Worshipper will say, "But we would be getting even more murdered and raped without it!" Not exactly comforting. CSI looks cool on television, and it sells you that myth that technology will save us all, but the fact of the matter is this: you had better live in a gated community and lock your fucking door to protect yourself from things your grandparents simply never had to worry about.
But what about these wonderful smart phones and tablets? Doesn't that make it all worth it? I ask you to take a moment to insulate yourself from the billions of dollars of marketing and take a good look at what you actually do with these things. I'm sorry, but it's really not that impressive. Instead of a paper newspaper, you can read it on your phone (yawn). Instead of needing a telephone booth or something, you can call from anywhere (yawn). You can play Angry Birds to alleviate your boring repetitive lives, or maybe get on Reddit, Tumblr, or (dare I say it?) Retrospace. That's nice. Not impressive to me in the slightest. But nice.
Walt Disney and The Jetsons envisioned a World of Tomorrow where we would all be flying around in spaceships. Instead, we're still clunking around using the same gas guzzling internal combustion engines as they were in the 1920s. Except, now we can adjust the climate control of the passenger seat. Of course, our cars don't last as long as they used to, and 36 thousand Americans die in traffic accidents each year... but that's neither here nor there.
Science was supposed to make us healthier. Instead, we got fatter and started ingesting thousands of synthetic compounds that give us cancer. First World people don't die of dysentery and Scarlet Fever like we used to, so that's an inarguable scientific achievement. We're just not dying of disease like we used to. Of course, more Americans die from their prescription drugs than car wrecks, and one in four of us is going to have to deal with cancer. Not to mention the obesity epidemic and out-of-control use of psychotropic drugs. There's been improvements, there can be no argument; however, the overall health is so goddamn awful, that I just can't bring myself to click my heels with celebration just yet.
And what of the quality of life? It seems everyone, children included, is on either Zoloft, Prozac, Ritalin, Paxil, Stratera, Xanax, Adderoll, Celexa, Luvox, Lexapro, Effexor, or Wellbutrin. We purchase Self-Help books by the tens of millions while guzzling Starbucks and Red Bull. just to endure this fucked-up Modern Age we've created for ourselves.
I can't help but look around at the world and wonder if we all bought into the Holy Scripture of Scientific Progress as if it was purely above suspicion. But as I look at the nuclear warheads popping up everywhere from Pakistan to Syria, rampant child pornography via the Internet, and the debilitating isolation we've created for ourselves through our computers (we 'socially network' without ever actually seeing and touching another human being), I can't help but become a tad skeptical about this whole Progress thing.
And maybe that's just what's been missing. Progress in and of itself isn't bad. Progress without skepticism is no better than a cult. We all drank the Kool-Aid. The question is whether it's too late to have our stomach pumped. As I watch the news and feel the growing unrest with the Cult of Progress, I feel a whiff of optimism; however, I know that no cult is brought down without a fight. Too many have gotten rich off this lie, and too many have grown complacent enjoying its transient and vapid fruits. But eventually, big plasma TV screens and YouTube kitten videos won't be enough to stem the tide. We will turn off these silly gadgets we've bought, look our fellow man in the eye, take stock of the damage wrought, and.... well, reboot.