When we learn in school that history is driven by progress, it is the history of technological progress. As we all know, homo sapiens has evolved from our shared primate ancestors to become the most powerful species on the planet. Humans embarked on the Agricultural Revolution at around 10,000 BC to transform themselves from hunters and gatherers to farmers and city dwellers. In the course of that seismic shift, empires sprang up, and the bureaucratic elites at the time developed the written word to keep track of inventories and tax collections. The Bronze Age followed the Stone Age, and the wheel was invented. The Iron Age saw Romans perfecting the rule of law and military strategy, while their infrastructure such as roads, sewers, and aqueducts set new standards. After the Middle Ages the modern era has seen a cascade of scientific discoveries and technological inventions for the past 400 years, shaping the world we live in today. We’ve invented the steam engine and the aeroplane, we split atoms and sent a man to the moon, we’ve developed penicillin and can transplant hearts. And the 21st century has seen the arrival of the Internet and a whole array of ever more encompassing digital networks. Scientific discoveries enable inventions, thus creating, layer by layer, an ever greater accumulation of knowledge and a wider array for its technological applications. Our smart phones, after all, also become smarter and smarter each year.
This is, in a nutshell, the story of technological progress that we’ve absorbed in school and that a majority of us would instinctively agree with. Yet even though that history of technological progress may be largely accurate, we should pause for a moment and also acknowledge what has been lost. Because every innovation, every invention eclipses a trait or a skill that appears no longer necessary.
Sure, many of us know how to type with ten fingers on our computers these days — yet the handwriting of somebody a hundred years ago was surely more elaborate and beautiful. We’re very good at rapidly responding to e-mails — yet the quality of our prose and our spelling has been impoverished. We send out hundreds of text messages a day — yet have long lost the skill of dinner conversations. We can look up any fact and detail on the Internet within the blink of an eye — yet don’t bother to remember anything because that knowledge is so easily retrievable. We probably know more about sex than any generation before us — yet have forgotten the art of writing love letters. We have access to a near limitless supply of cheap Chinese consumer products — yet we’ve lost our appreciation for durable and well-designed quality items that last. Modern cars with all their electronic helpers make driving more effortless — yet who still knows how to drive stick or check the engine oil?
So if you start to look at technological inventions not only through the lense of “bigger, better, faster,” but in terms of what kind of effects these innovations have had on our minds, habits, and skill sets, the case for everlasting progress cannot be made so easily. We should question what consequences specific technological advances have on our health and well-being, as well as on the cohesion and functioning of our societies. Because that is how real progress should be defined. And in that context it is important to note that — down to the atomic bomb — every invention that proved technically feasible was eventually realized. Not once did humanity take a step back and thought about the possible effects of developing a new innovation once it was technically and financially realizable. Which of course opens the question whether we humans are actually the driving force of progress, or if it may not be the other way round: that technology drives us on a relentless path of progress until we reach a spiritual awakening and a collective state of maturity that would allow us to occasionally say: No, we don’t want that. This will not serve our needs as society. This will be potentially harmful to humanity.