Worshiping at the Altar of Progress

I study nuclear science
I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
I’m doing all right, getting good grades
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades,
I gotta wear shades – Timbuk 3 (1989)

The idea that tomorrow will be better than today is nothing new. In fact, an unfailing faith in the infallibility of the future is practically encoded in modern man’s DNA. In Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford he talked about not being held back by dogma. He of course was simply rewording the too often used refrain to “think outside the box.” However, his statement is ironic as he in fact is a key proponent of another dogma.

We tend to believe, consciously or not, that history has been a steady march of progress, leading inevitably towards… well… us. Next year will bring newer, better and faster into our lives, and we will all be the better for it. Or will we?

As much as we like to think that all of our technological prowess makes us the pinnacle of human achievement, how much of modern convenience actually improves our collective lives? The recent death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs places all of this in a unique light. We have the opportunity to look objectively at one aspect of our progress-obsessed culture to determine whether it is really all that, progressive. By this I mean are we progressing towards anything? And if so, is it a desirable end?

So, how has Apple changed the world? Or at least how has Apple changed the way we live and work in the world?

If we imagine a world in which we never had iPhones, iPods or even the iMac, what have we lost? Clearly there is a high degree of entertainment value to these devices. We will have lost high quality portable music. Communication will be different. Cell phones as we know them -mini computers- will be gone. Much of the ease of personal computing may be quite different without Apple’s inspiration. I enjoy these aspect of Steve Jobs’ legacy as much as the next person, but I hardly think these qualify as world-changing items.

Now, if Steve Jobs’ didn’t in fact change the world, he was certainly one of the modern prophets of the future. Mark Vernon, college professor, former Anglican priest and philosopher, had this to say about our deification of all things Apple.

I wonder whether the high adulation, even sanctification, is at least in part because we live in an age that worships the future, and he was instrumental in achieving what has actually become a relatively rare feat: delivering a vision of the future into our hands.

I think there is something to this. It is not so much that Apple, or any tech company for that matter, does anything that we can point to as truly paradigm shifting, it is that they help us keep the faith in Progress. But again, what is the end game? What exactly are we striving for?

Do we want technology to create for us more leisure time? If so, technology has utterly failed us. Then modern family works longer and harder than it did 60 years ago. In fact, I remember reading a study that claimed a hunter-gatherer only really “worked” about 20 hours per week. So if all this progress isn’t making life easier then it must at least be making us smarter, right?

Not necessarily. In Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he recounts the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates and how common men and women – farmers, millers, tradesmen – sat for literally hours listening to rhetorically-styled speeches and rebuttals on detailed political matters. Here is just a sampling of what these everymen listened to with interest:

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Lincoln’s comments on slavery include a single sentence with 77 words, multiple clauses and various stresses. Nowadays, we are treated to presidential debates with 30 second responses that are filled with overplayed talking points. And yet the populace pays little attention to them. This is but one example of our culture’s literary deficiencies.   

So if technology doesn’t give us more free time and it doesn’t make us smarter, what is the point? Here is where the virtue of Prudence comes into the picture. Technological progress in and of itself is neither positive or negative, neither good or evil. However, each so-called advance requires a trade off. Whether we deem the trade off prudent or not decides whether or not the progress will be adopted.

The problem is that prudence no longer plays its vital role. We accept all progress dogmatically – for progress’ sake. The cost for this blind faith however is real, and we lose by ignoring this fact. Some examples:

Music, historically, has been a communal experience, one that brings people together to experience some collective cathartic moment. Psalms, hymns, chants, chamber music all share this aspect. Now more often than not music, in the form of headphones, is exclusionary. True, we can now take the joys and escapism offered by music wherever we go, but by and large the communal aspect is lost. It is a trade off.

Learning about a new topic used to require a certain amount of work. A trip to the library, deciding on a few books, reading, note taking, synthesizing this into some kind of understandable personal paradigm. Now we Google it, or stop by Wikipedia. Yes, we have vastly more information at our finger tips than anyone in all of human history. But we are losing the skills of synthesis in the process. There is that trade off again.

Personally, I do not use a cell phone. (OK, mea culpa.  I own a TracFone that gets turned on twice a year when my wife and I are in separate locations, or for emergency purposes.) I see the benefit of texting, instant phone communication and having the Internet at your fingertips. But I also see the cost in terms of interpersonal relationships, communication and observation. For me the trade off isn’t worth it.

The point in all of this isn’t whether or not any particular technology is good or bad. It isn’t whether Steve Jobs should be looked at as a hero or villain. I certainly am not advocating that we all go back and become hunter-gatherers living off the land. What I am saying is that a dogmatic faith in Progress, in the idea that the future will always be better, is a fallacy based not on logic or reason, but misplaced hope.

If you are going to place your faith anywhere, might I suggest something a bit more timeless and eternal than your smart phone.