#7 - Progress

In my search for interesting insights into the history of engineering and technology, I came across a website called “The Roots of Progress”. The premise is interesting but I disagree completely with the author’s top post. It’s supposed to be about why it’s important to study the history of technology, but instead my attention was drawn to how different our definitions of progress are.

He says, “We have come a very long way.” Or have we just come a different way? “We live in buildings, not caves.” But have we gone too far? Urbanization apparently has a negative effect on mental health. “We are surrounded by mass-manufactured products made of steel, glass and plastic.” We also have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, with about 87,000 metric tons of plastic floating in the ocean. “We extract vast sums of energy buried in the ground and we make it do our bidding.” Which has caused global warming, the full consequences of which we don’t know yet. “We have all the food we could want—so abundant and delicious that we have to restrain ourselves from eating too much.” And obesity rates have roughly tripled in the last fifty years.

I’m not claiming that we’re going backwards, just that progress isn’t as simple and linear as it’s made out to be. I’m a firm believer in the old saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. From a standpoint of progress, we have not gotten abundance without forsaking quality or convenience without sacrificing aesthetics. The author, without explicitly defining progress, tips his hand by showing a graph of GDP over time.

No real context is provided but the reader is meant to take the rapid rise as a direct representation of our progress. (By the way, how is it possible to measure GDP of ancient civilizations? Seems like it would be difficult to convert Aztec cacao beans, ACB, to USD.) Progress = GDP is a gross oversimplification and, I think, a dangerous idea. It gives no value to “intangibles”, to use a hockey term, which seem to me to outweigh the measurable stats. So what is progress? I’m not entirely sure, but I have a pretty good idea what it’s not.