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.


  1. Crime rates have been going down for years, yet perceptions haven't changed...


  2. You're not only a Luddite, you're a curmudgeon. And in this season, a Scrooge and a Grinch. In many ways I'm right with you. We don't have any pads or pods in our house, nor do we have Wii, X box, Playstation, or anything like it. I don't have a cell phone. Not even cable or satellite TV. We have a zip line, some ropes from the trees, a fort, a pool table, basketball goal, and a zillion books.

  3. Israel - Next time I warn against the perils of tech it'll be written in Sanskrit on papyrus.

    Irf - That crime rate stat is horrible. The fact is that with all the prisons packed to the gills and all the high tech DNA science, we still had 90,000 rapes reported last year. People lock their doors at night not out of paranoia, but out of genuine safety concerns. It simply wasn't like this not all that long ago.

  4. I think crime hasn't gone up. I think REPORTING crimes has gone up. With rape there used to be this whole "it's the victim's fault" attitude when it happened which made it harder for those who are raped to report it. Women didn't want to be seen as whores and men didn't want to be seen as homosexuals. And kids raped by adults thought they couldn't report it because they were adults and they had to respect their elders.

    I think crime was just as bad back then if not worse because it was reported less.

    I knew a girl who's grandfather raped her and the grandmother knew. When the girl reported it her grandmother asked her why she couldn't keep her mouth shut. Because the grandfather was arrested and the breadwinner of the family was now in jail. That was the grandmother's attitude. If grandpa wanted to rape their granddaughter just let him and don't complain. She also blamed the granddaughter for being a whore.

    Now adays we're told more and more that rape is not the victim's fault - though the legal system still tries to punish the victim. So the victim is now more likely to report it. Therefore it makes it SEEM like crime is going up, but in reality, it's just reported more. Plain and simple.

  5. Jet pack?
    I'm still waiting for my flying car!

  6. "Do you not arm yourselves when abroad, and lock your house at night, and lock your chests when at home? Do you not accuse mankind by your actions just as much as I do by my words?"

    -- Thomas Hobbes, 17th century political philsopher

  7. I'm with JamiSings. I don't think that crime is up so much as there is now more reporting of it. Now its all about sensationalism of the news to get higher ratings. Also, why the hell are we televising murder trials?

  8. Maybe its just how my mind works but your argument made me think of the expanding technology in the way of video games. Hell, it was just ten years ago but I'd never think while playing on my Sega Genesis "Wow, this looks so real!" and yet now, most recently I was watching my brother play "Assassin's Creed" and it was like watching a movie, all the detail they put into it. On the other hand, with the technology going further and further and now that we're here, is this really direction we should be going?

  9. I completely agree with this post Gilligan! The myth of Progress is based on the false notion that the world is one interconnected whole, thus, if one area improves then, as if by magic, other areas will improve in tandem. But as you point out, a couple of things improve, say, in sanitation or civil rights, yet so many other things get far worse or stay problems, as in overpopulation, a collapsed capitalist economy, newer infections and of course crime. In this sense perhaps theories of decline or progress are both missing the point. You can't quantify overall progress so easily.

  10. In the 1930s, I understand people viewed technology and science as enablers of a better life. While technology has made certain things incredibly better, it has also left us less the masters of our life, and more the slave. PCR DNA, IT, databases, analytics, video, electronic banking allows the tracing, tracking, trending analysis of all behavior, by everyone, all the time. To turn the tide, Progress must also be used to make our individuals lives better, not just used to manage or track humanity more efficient for Government, or more profitable for Business or Insurance companies. As promised, Progress should primarily allow us to have less need for work, and experience the miracle of life even more. Progress should strive to supply the basics (energy, medical, housing, food) so we can get on with the real, important parts of life. Progress should not be used to corral people into working more, spending more than necessary, or extract maximum profit at the expense of people. Humans are at a crossroad; Progress can soon bring us significant change to our human condition - I just hope it is complete and soon enough.
    PS These conversations have been going on for a long time; read "Looking Back", Bellamy, circa 1875 for a fun read. Or Gelernter, "1939: The Lost World of the Fair", 1996

  11. Dear G:

    I think it's up to us to pick and choose which technologies we want to use and not to get sucked into keeping fucked up with the Joneses.
    I love the two to three hours I spend on the computer every day trading and grooving on ebay and youtube.
    But I don't want to be like my friends who spend seven hours on the computer and then mess around constantly with ipads and iphones, etc.
    But the key is : are you happy.
    I'm pretty happy.
    But I will be happier when I can have my dream Seventies home office with the carpet up one wall, the lucite coffee table and the bar.
    It's all my mother's fault, I grew up watching the soaps with her and I'm an impressionable lad of 51.
    And I am greatful, like you for advances in medicine, dentistry , nutritional science, etc.
    Pick and Choose at the this Paradise Buffet.


  12. I read a fascinating and provocative report on another website that stated the rise in the U.S. crime rate in the 20th century resulted from people affected by lead in the brain, as inhaled in exhaust fumes of leaded gas. With its phase out and pollution controls on cars, it began to drop. Another theory is that crime spiked as the baby boom generation went through the "crime-prone years" and fell as the population of that age group where most criminal activity occurs shrank.

  13. For Dr Jim...........


    You're Welcome

    For Gilligan.......

    Great Blog!

  14. Yeah, I've known about Moller for many years.
    His flying car is always "Any Day Now!", but never gets any further.

  15. I was born in 1968 and have a pretty good memory of what growing up in the 70's was like. I was a teen in the 80's. I really do miss life as it was without computers, cell phones, and ipods. As a young girl, I remember sitting next to the radio, waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio with my tape recorder cued up. I remember friends calling in to the local radio station to make requests or dedications, and listening out for my name or others that I knew. I miss the simplicity of things for the most part. Going to a movie, and not having to tolerate someone texting or talking on their phone. Driving down a road and not seeing someone talking on their cell. I miss the fact that I used to have to wait to get home to take someone's call, and check messages. Now, if you don't have a cell phone attached to your hip and no one can reach you, friends and family freak out and think you're crazy.

    Now, we are in touch 24/7. Tv stations are on 24/7. Radio is dying a slow painful death as digital music downloads satiates the need for instant music in our hands. Everything is fast, instant, and there is no patience for much. Everyone is eating fast food chemicals every day and people are getting sicker from processed crap.

    We as a people are too isolated. No one has to meet up as often... or see each others faces.

    I remember in 1986, my school guidance counselor insisting I take a computer course. I hated that class and wanted nothing to do with it. The home computer now seems to be a necessary evil... because if I don't email, people go nuts.

    The one thing I do not have is a cell phone and do not want one. If someone needs to reach me, they can wait till I get home, the way normal people used to do. I guess I'm old school in many ways, hanging on to different times. I want my kids to experience some of the things that I did, but that's nearly impossible now.

    You have a great blog here! Thanks.