Wednesday, January 29, 2014


For a few centuries now there has been an accelerating pace of technological change, which has also led to an accelerating pace of social change.  Some people call this change progress, and I would certainly not totally disagree with that assessment.  But I would caution that the perception of progress is greatly distorted by a certain bias, a bias I am not sure has yet been clearly articulated.

In every change there is something gained and something lost.  The perception of technological change is distorted because what is gained is gained rapidly and is relatively easy to quantify, while what is lost is lost slowly and is often of a more qualitative nature.  The quick, quantitative improvement makes a far greater impression on us than the slower, qualitative loss.

As an example, in the late 19th century in America, houses often had large porches and during the hot summer hours people spent time on these porches.  From the porches people could communicate with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk or with other neighbors sitting on their porches.  These interactions enhanced a neighborhood’s social culture. When air conditioning came along, the early adopters could stay inside on the hottest days to escape the heat.  But they probably also expected that the porch culture, and its enjoyments, would still be there if they wanted to go out and participate.

Air conditioning provided an immediate and quantitative relief from the unpleasantness of the heat.  But over a period of many years, as more and more people installed air conditioning, the porch culture diminished greatly – and the enjoyments that had come with it also diminished.  It may well be the case that the early adopters of air conditioning years later complained about the loss of the porch culture without even suspecting the role that air conditioning had played in it.  The loss was slow and its causes not immediately clear. 

One could refer to many such examples, but I will explore just one more – photos.  In the early years of the 20th Century, when my parents were born, photos were relatively rare. I thus only have a few photos of them when they were young.  But I value those photos and have examined them closely trying to derive every piece of information I can from the few available. 

Photos are now ubiquitous.  Many children will have thousands of photos taken and saved by the time they are adults.  Again we have a rapid and quantitative gain – but the question is, will any of these photos be treasured?  Indeed, will anyone even bother with them as they are so common?  The rare is valued, but not the common.  It is very possible that what seems now a great a treasure of photos, will end up largely ignored.

I speak to many young people today who are keenly aware of the wonderful new things their digital tools and toys provide.  As a person who grew up in a world where we made our own entertainment from the outdoors, our friends, and a lot of imagination, I am keenly aware of how much young people have lost. The entertainment we made for ourselves was a wonderful old thing, and the new digital entertainments seem shallow and shoddy to me in comparison.

Okay, I've turned into a sentimental older person who is slowly becoming a Luddite.  But the point here is to say “when evaluating progress, recognize that it generally takes a good deal more effort to account for what has been lost than what has been gained.”  If you fail to make that effort, you very well may be blinded by progress.

The greatest qualitative loss, IMHO, from the great rise of modern technology, is the loss of inner resources.  Around 2,500 years ago, Aristotle argued that contemplation the greatest form of human happiness. This notion was well understood and respected in Western society for the next 2,000 years, and was even more well understood and respected in the East.  How many people today have a clue what Aristotle was talking about. How many people have access to this amazing inner resource, this dependable source of inner joy?  Technology has greatly increased the quantity of information at our disposal, and this is arguably a gain.  Contemplation allows us to penetrate to the deepest qualitative core of the information we are given.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the gain does not equal the loss.

Afterword Two; Sept. 3, 2015:
I dawns on me that one of the reasons we have so much trouble keeping our resolutions, particularly the kind many people make on New Years Day, is similar to the reason we can get fooled by so-called progress.  Let's say we are trying to eat more healthfully.  We desire this because we think that it will improve the quality of our lives overall, and it probably will.  But this improvement is subtle, qualitative, and spread out through time.  Eating a big bowl of ice cream gives us a definite, quantitative, even if very short blast of yum.  Our minds register these quantitative blasts of yum much more strongly than such subtle improvements as eating healthily, and so by Valentine's Day, most of us have forgotten our New Year's resolutions.

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