Posted by: bwoof | January 3, 2010

Progress and its perils

Today several themes converged and caused me to wonder about progress and what it means in an era of digital almost everything.

Prompt #1 came from an article in today’s Toronto Star which compares two books, one a 100 years old and one just hot off the press.

The article starts like this:

“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee.”

That’s the opening line of The Machine Stops, a short science fiction story set somewhere in the future. As we read on, we discover that the problem with the cell is that the character who lives there almost never gets to leave.

Instead, characters of this fictional world communicate almost entirely via video chats, video conferencing and virtual lectures. Peoples’ virtual social lives are rich – they have thousands of friends and communicate with them on an almost daily basis – but they live in almost total isolation. Bodies have atrophied and civilization is utterly dependent on technology.

E.M. Forster wrote this. In 1909

Wow, I’ve read Forster before but never that little piece. How futuristic!

The second book, seen above, is all about me it seems. Over the last two days, for example, I finally had a chance to clean out my inbox. It was way way over the edge and with 2000+ emails in there waiting to be filed, answered,ditched, or forwarded, it felt like a tyrranical situation for sure. That was Prompt #2.

Thankfully, it’s under control again (only 158 messages in the queue) and I’m more and more intrigued John Freeman’s closing chapter which calls for a Manifesto for a Slow Communications Movement.

As the article notes, Freeman suggests that we send less, think more.

Prompt #3 came via The Economist and J’s new-found interest in big ideas. The Dec 17th issue asks “Why the modern view of progress is so impoverished?” Page 37 (print version) has an article which muses:

And, although wealth has been soaring over the past half a century, happiness, measured by national surveys, has hardly budged.

That is probably largely because of status-consciousness. It is good to go up in the world, but much less so if everyone around you is going up in it too. Once they have filled their bellies and put a roof over their heads, people want more of what Fred Hirsch, an economist who worked on this newspaper in the 1950s and 1960s, called “positional goods”. Only one person can be the richest tycoon. Not everyone can own a Matisse or a flat in Mayfair. As wealth grows, the competition for such status symbols only becomes more intense.

And it is not just that material progress does not seem to be delivering the emotional goods. People also fear that mankind is failing to manage it properly—with the result that, in important ways, their children may not be better off than they are. The forests are disappearing; the ice is melting; social bonds are crumbling; privacy is eroding; life is becoming a dismal slog in an ugly world.

What did I learn today? Not sure, but it looks like I’ll need/want to learn more about what real progress is.

Grateful for:

Curious about:

  • school starting tomorrow
  • will we wake up in time to get to the airport and West Jet…again!


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